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Doyle: Mary Kills People is a killer of a good, provocative drama

"It's a lonely business, dying," says Mary, who is the title character in Mary Kills People (Wednesday, Global, 9 p.m.). Asked why she kills people, Mary says, "I believe we should be in control of our life and death. That's liberty."

Now, Mary isn't a killer in the usual sense. The six-part drama – made as a co-production for Global and U.S. cable channel Lifetime – is about Mary Harris (Caroline Dhavernas), a single mom who is an ER doctor by day, but in her free time she and her partner, a former plastic surgeon, act as off-the-radar angels of death and help the terminally ill to die on their own terms. Business is booming.

But, as with all lucrative sidelines, things inevitably go awry. After all, Mary is actually killing people for a fee, which is frowned upon, and that sideline is about to get noticed and, maybe, fall apart.

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Mary Kills People is, yes, definitely, a black-comedy-drama about euthanasia. In advance notices about its arrival on Lifetime, later this year, it is inevitably called provocative.

It sure is that, on several levels. It is also remarkably assured, droll and adult. It's very smart and utterly intriguing. Watch episode one and you're sucked into anticipating the second hour with pleasure.

Perhaps the best thing about it is the crazy sparkle in Mary's eyes. There is something anarchic bubbling inside her. Mary Harris is one of the most compelling, original female characters in years and Caroline Dhavernas is exceptional in the role.

On the one hand, the series is, like many, about a single mother struggling to juggle a high-tension job, her kids and dealing with her ex-husband. There are loads of shows about that.

Also, on another level it has elements of the conventional medical drama – Mary is a great surgeon who can save lives in a blood-soaked operating room and must cope with the worried families of those she operates on. Simultaneously, though, the series is a sort of lyric farce that has a hallucinatory quality.

It opens with a scene of death being administered, but it's a scene that turns farcical. It is established that Mary and sidekick Des (Richard Short), the former plastic surgeon who provides the drugs, are in a world that's wacky, fraught and dangerous. Des jokingly asks aloud if Mary is a "compassionate doctor or serial killer?" They also josh about Mary having sex with a guy who wants to die because, you know, the guy deserves the pleasure of that.

At the same time, the series goes straight into serious matters. The person who wants to die must take a lethal drink, rather than have an injection administered. Because the actual act of taking the step to death is the choice of the dying, it is not conducted by the doctor. This ethical matter seems like little more than a quibble, given some of Mary's antics. The strangeness of the goofy charm mixed up with the serious matter of assisted death is intoxicating.

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The storyline also reaches into something else when it focuses on Mary's teenage daughter and the teen's best friend. Here, something is being set up, it seems – the chasm between the innocence and curiosity of the young and the weary but cool-eyed view of life that adults have. Then, a circumstance in which a teen accidentally dabbles in Mary's drugs turns into a wonderful concoction of dramatic tension and deep cynicism.

Created by Tara Armstrong, produced by Tassie Cameron and with all episodes directed by Holly Dale, Mary Kills People is a remarkable achievement, balancing so many hues and tones so deftly. It is also very, very entertaining. At times intense and thought-provoking, it is a fascinating excursion to a different realm of comedy/drama.

Wednesday is a notable night for Canadian television. CTV has the excellent Cardinal (at 10 p.m.) and Global has this torridly strange series. Watch both, since neither will disappoint.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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