Many episodic television dramas struggle with the requirement, at least in their incarnations produced in the United States, that each week, for twenty plus episodes a year, they present a conflict and satisfactorily resolve it. Each episode must be a self contained story, even if greater overall plot lines and themes are explored over the course of the season. This can lead to a number of the episodes, even in high quality shows, ending up as mediocre at best. The Canadian drama Durham County dispenses with this requirement, and spends its six episode first season taking a leisurely, if not always comfortable, stroll through the lives of its main characters, and observing how the one central conflict impacts them all.
The story revolves around two old friends, now something more like enemies, Mike Sweeney (Hugh Dillon) and Ray Prager (Justin Louis). Mike is a homicide detective who has just been transferred from the big city of Toronto to the quiet suburb of Durham County. Unknowingly, Mike moves into a house with his family that is directly across the street from his old friend Ray. Mike and Ray have been on the outs since high school, when Mike hit Ray with a car and broke his legs, ending Ray's promising professional hockey career.
Things get even more complicated when Mike begins investigating the murder of two young girls. Ray witnessed the murder, and subsequently begins a series of copycat murders himself. One of Ray's victims is Nathalie Lacroix (Kathleen Munroe). Nathalie is a teacher of both Ray and Mike's children, and Mike has been having a longstanding though non-sexual affair with her, despite his own wife's near death from breast cancer. Mike's affair with Nathalie, his desire to keep that a secret even as he investigates her death, and his past with Ray (whom he claims he hit with the car accidentally, though hardly anyone believes this) muddy his motivations considerably. These two families are thrust together, and their secrets, conflicts, rivalries and romances draw them together and tear them apart by turns.
Durham County is a contemplative and reflective show. On the surface, it seems to be a police procedural and soap opera mixed together in a genre defying froth. But it's deeper than either of these. Great pains are taken to flesh out the characters here, to peer into what motivates and distinguishes them. Ray and Mike are particularly contrasted, and the viewer is invited to see how similar they are, despite one being a killer and the other a cop. The show is at times surreal (as when the youngest daughter is shown at the beginning of the series wearing an anime inspired mask which appears to be her actual head for a few minutes) and quite often disturbing. One reason for this discomfiture is that there is not a single character who can claim to be free of a major moral flaw. Every one of them is either violent, manipulative, vindictive, weak or prone to anger. While this is undoubtedly reflective of real life, in a dramatic series it can be a bit depressing. When there is no one free from moral compromise, when the characters are only good or bad by degrees, who is there to psychologically identify with?
But this is a minor quibble. Durham County presents an engrossing depiction of a raft of characters, firmly planted in an adeptly realized, if somewhat dreary, world. The performances are all top flight, scarcely a false note to be detected anywhere. The direction is confident and subtle. The story is agonizingly compelling. While it lacks whiz-bang action and standard police procedural fare, it more than makes up for it with deep characterization and insight. While probably not the right material for action addicts, more thoughtful folks will find this to be exceedingly watchable television.