This finely wrought Canadian “transplant” deserves its surprise hit status. Debuting in the U.S. on NBC as a pinch hitter for American shows that ground to a halt in the Pandemic, Transplant is my idea of a perfect TV medical drama. It has pathos, drama, suspense, glimmers of humor, and tons of heart. The latter is owing mostly to its lead character, Dr. Bashir Hamed (Canadian Saudi Arabian Hamza Haq), a compassionate Syrian refugee who gets a chance to be an ER doctor in his new country after he saves the life of the hospital’s chief of staff. Sure, that’s a gimmicky premise. But Bash anchors the show with his strength of character and empathy, displayed toward his patients despite his PTSD from losing his parents and witnessing horrific violence in Syria. He’s not only a rare lead because he’s a Middle Eastern refugee and immigrant, but also because his character thinks outside the box as much of his medical experience was gained in war zones. It’s easy to root for him as he grapples with obstacles not faced by doctors born in Canada. At one point, he and his 12-year-old sister, for whom he is both mother and father, face eviction because his immigration status puts a pause on him being paid. The show has surprisingly mild content in terms of sexual situations (rated TV-14), although can be violent and graphic as befits a show set in a downtown Toronto ER. Believers will be pleasantly surprised by Theo (Jim Watson), Muslim Bash’s fellow doc, friend, and a Christian character who acts like a Christian. The two even have some good conversations about faith. I love this show and can’t wait to see how these fascinating characters evolve. (Hulu)
Burden of Truth
I found out about Burden of Truth from a Travel Manitoba email about movies and shows shot in my home province. Feeling homesick, I decided to check out this Canadian show, which, like Transplant, was brought over to primetime U.S. TV, this one via the CW. The show is mostly shot in Selkirk (called “Millwood”), a town just outside of Winnipeg on the picturesque banks of the Red River. Instead of the usual “Vancouver could be anywhere” vibe, this series owns its Canadian prairie roots, which gives it a distinctive local flair and gorgeous shots of golden waves of grain. Burden of Truth is serialized, unfolding an overarching mystery over the course of a season, rather than the common, mystery-per-week mold of a procedural. In Season 1, the mystery involves a group of teenage girls who begin to exhibit scary neurological symptoms such as facial tics and seizures. Is it because they have had the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine or because one of the blue collar industries in town has poisoned them through a toxic and illegal waste dump? At the center is Joanna Hanley (Smallville’s Kristin Kreuk), a hometown girl who returns from her father’s big city law firm to offer preemptive settlements on behalf of the makers of the vaccine. But soon she finds that all is not what it seems, either in the case or her past in Millwood. Joanna’s past is not as intriguing as the environmental mystery, but it does provide a reasonably compelling backstory.
Seasons 2 and 3 amp up the social commentary with a mystery about systemic racism toward Indigenous people. It’s the rare show that features major characters who are Indigenous (such as my favorite, Millwood’s police chief Owen Beckbie, played by Meegwun Fairbrother), or storylines that center Indigenous people. Bravo, Burden of Truth!
Rated TV-PG, this import is also mild, content-wise, though parents should be aware of a somewhat sensual relationship between a teenage same-sex couple. (Hulu)
Nine Perfect Strangers
It might be for the best if producer David E. Kelley stayed away from Liane Moriarty’s addictive, page-turning books. For sweeping family dramas with mysteries at their core, there is no one more skilled at hooking readers than Australia’s Moriarty. But though I was excited about watching Kelley’s adaptations, I was let down by both. Big Little Lies was needlessly smutty, and I dropped out after one episode, and Nine Perfect Strangers? I hung in there for the whole strange, loopy ride, but it paled in comparison to the book. The book, and the series, takes place at a seriously lush and verdant boutique wellness resort in Australia (the series’ retreat was supposed to be set in California, but no one is buying that). Nine strangers, none of them perfect, arrive for a 10-day retreat meant to rejuvenate their unwell selves. Presiding over them is retreat director Masha, a Russian expat played with ethereal spookiness by the shockingly pale and fairy-like Nicole Kidman. Everyone has secrets, failures, and losses, especially Masha. Kidman embodies Masha as mysterious, warm, compassionate, yet cruel and unpredictable. It is her nuanced acting and the performances of others (Melissa McArthy’s Francis, a washed up romance novelist, is captivating) that elevate this tale of a wellness retreat gone horribly wrong to something more humane and wise, something resembling but not ever truly approaching the book.
One scene will stay with me: A family of three, including a mom, a dad, and a 20-year-old daughter are able to “see” and “be with” their dead loved one through hallucinations facilitated by Masha’s microdoses of hallucinogenic drugs. The scene was so sad, and it made me wish these characters had the hope of Heaven rather than putting their trust into a woo woo wellness center and its unhinged director. Yet as someone who had just lost a loved one, I could well understand the appeal of getting that person back, just for a little while.
It’s hard to say how much someone who hasn’t read the book will get into this adaptation (which doesn’t stick to the book very well), but I enjoyed the acting and the creative flourishes (such as sequences of spa smoothies being violently mashed together inside a blender). The series also made me think about “wellness” and how far we are willing to go to attain it. What is the difference between wellness and the fullness of life we are promised by Jesus in Scripture? These philosophical questions challenged me as I watched. Rated TV-MA for nudity, mature content, and language. (Hulu)
Only Murders in the Building
If you Google Martin Short, one of the top questions to pop up is “What ever happened to Martin Short?” What happened is that Short, 71, is currently starring in the hottest show on television, along with his best friend, 76-year-old Steve Martin. So much for being washed up. As a huge Short fan, ever since his goofy turn as Ed Grimley on late 1980s-era Saturday Night Live, I am delighted to witness his hilarious portrayal of Oliver, an aging, sweet but narcissistic Broadway producer who really is washed up. That is until he and Martin’s character, Charles, gain an exhilarating second wind as amateur detectives who launch a true-crime podcast as they chase down clues to who murdered someone in their posh Upper West Side building.
If not for Selena Gomez’s Mabel, though, Only Murders in the Building might have been just the Steve and Marty show, an adorable comedic romp. Mabel is their straight woman, and boy, do they need her. Dour and seemingly flat, Mabel is the needed cup of black coffee to Oliver and Charles’ dessert of non-stop antics. She’s also simmering with secrets, which is true of her older amigos and nearly everyone in their co-op building. Stellar actors such as Tina Fey, Nathan Lane, and even Sting (he’s fantastic) make cameos, enriching an already bountiful cast. Amy Ryan is alluring and complicated as professional bassoonist, Jan. Her character’s profession allows musician Martin to bust out his concertina for some of the show’s most enchanting moments.
Part satire, part comedy, and part murder mystery, the show is more than the sum of its parts. It raises good questions about the true crime craze. Do we dehumanize victims (and even killers) by reducing human beings to characters in a story we follow? As content creators, to what lengths will we go for more followers, or in this case, podcast listeners?
Only Murders entertains, delights and entrances at a high artistic level. It also leaves the viewer wanting more, which is good because the show has been renewed for Season 2. Rated TV-MA for strong language and gory images.(Hulu)