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John Doyle: Finally, the Canadian classic Intelligence has come to Netflix

Your search for a good drama to binge on Netflix is ongoing? Understood. But here's vital information – a drama, not new but exemplary, just landed on the streaming service. It's an absolute classic Canadian series, up there with the best from anywhere.

Intelligence (now streaming) is a joy to behold again. It ran on CBC from 2005 to 2007 and should never have been cancelled. That mistake happened during one of those periods when CBC was dallying with light and fluffy fare. Look where that got them. "Compulsively watchable" was The New York Times' review of Intelligence, connecting it to The Sopranos and The Wire for its "novelistic richness." All true.

Set in Vancouver, and created by Chris Haddock (Da Vinci's Inquest), it is a wonderfully layered, dryly funny and substantial series about organized crime and the career cops who watch and manipulate the criminals. It's about grey areas where the watchers connive and the watched are highly aware. It's about doing business – any kind of business, legal or criminal – and sometimes it's about "them and us." "Them" being the United States, of course.

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No series has made better use of the texture of Vancouver as a nerve centre for trade in everything between Canada, the United States and Asia. The sprawl of Vancouver is there, the grime and the beauty. There is small-time crime, major international crime and, mostly, the dangerous trade in information about who is vulnerable. Nobody trusts anyone else. Information is gold. Who's watching, who's scamming whom and where's the payoff? Nobody, neither cops nor under-pressure criminals, is safe.

Jimmy Reardon (Ian Tracey, in a lovely, poised performance) is at the centre of it all. A career criminal from a family of criminals, he has a company to run. He's the CEO and he has a drug-addicted ex-wife, a vulnerable kid, a dumb brother and a lot of vicious rivals. He's just trying to grow the business, mind you. Keep people employed, meet the payroll and look for new opportunities. Like you do. The business involves drugs, grow-ops and a strip club, but it's still just a business.

From the get-go, Jimmy feels somebody is watching and somebody is listening. It becomes clear to him at precisely the time he's having somebody secretly keep an eye on his ex-wife. Watching and listening. "We gotta step up security," he tells his right-hand guy, Ronnie (John Cassini). "If that means we have to pay more money for intelligence, then we pay more money."

These remarks bring a smile to the face of Ted (Matt Frewer), who is indeed listening, on behalf of Vancouver's Organized Crime Unit. In fact, there's a gaggle of guys listening to Jimmy almost non-stop. Ted gets his kicks from listening and plotting. He's that type of guy. But he's got his own frustrations, mostly with his boss, Mary Spalding (Klea Scott, who is incredible in the role), director of the crime unit. She's a woman, she is ruthless and clever, and Ted loathes her. Through a twist set out in the opening minutes of the very first episode, Mary is able to reach a deal with the devil – Jimmy, that is.

Some of Mary's underlings think her use of Jimmy is ammunition to undermine her. Ted is a seething mess of resentment, and watching Mary use Jimmy's information to trade her way up toward a powerful, prestigious job with CSIS is driving him insane. Jimmy, meanwhile, just wants his business to run smoothly. Everything, even this deal with the authorities, is an opportunity.

It is unnerving to watch the early episodes of Intelligence now. The smooth cleverness of it, the deadpan wit and the way it draws you in, instantly. The way characters are quickly drawn and made substantial. Everything that would emerge in the show's two seasons is slyly suggested in the first two hours, but you don't know that when you start – it is later that the intricate richness emerges.

At its centre is a duality – Jimmy and Mary are both canny and ambitious, and know they are mirror images. Around them is ceaseless corruption and resentment. Both are adept at handling contradictions, too, and there is a fraught intimacy between the criminal and the coolly savvy intelligence officer. At the same time, nothing is overwrought or melodramatic in this drama of people who are all too human, using each other with cold-blooded ease.

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In later episodes, Intelligence takes its theme of casual corruption into the higher reaches of power, and there are suggestions that Canada itself is being subtly debased by those who should be protecting it. As Jimmy knows, you deal with the Americans at your peril. At the time Intelligence was cancelled by CBC, there was a widespread belief that the theme of political corruption was what got the show killed. In those Harper-era days, the series was in dangerous territory for a beleaguered CBC. The fact that it was superb TV, widely praised, was less important than fear of government criticism.

Watched now, and with the ease of watching multiple episodes together, some of the performances in Intelligence are strikingly fine. Camille Sullivan is superb as Jimmy's unglued ex-wife Francine, and Cassini is quietly majestic as Jimmy's right-hand man, the one who really has to hold everything together in this dangerously real world.

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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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