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The feuds of John and George, political gangsters

It's that time. We're up and running with the new TV season. No matter what your taste, there's something for you. Oh yes there is. Don't be such a crank.

Tonight, two TV events matter. Curiosity and sheer perversity will draw millions to gawk at Ashton Kutcher as he replaces Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men (CBS, CTV, 9 p.m.). He will play Walden Schmidt, a "broken-hearted billionaire," we are told.

There are reports that Sheen's character, Charlie Harper, will get a funeral in the first episode. Might happen, might not. "Mystery is part of marketing," CBS's president told TV critics this past August. This was true until Kutcher recently began appearing on all the chat shows and entertainment "news" shows and generated 250 news articles a day. Mystery, my bum.

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Enjoy it if that's your poison. But there is an alternative. Perhaps instead of a "broken-hearted billionaire" you'd be interested in seeing a very powerful man, addled by his own kind of poison, the demon drink, exhausted and calling for another bottle. What he says before he passes out is this: "We must seize nationhood. It cannot birth itself. This is the moment, or we'll let it all slip away. And we'll all be Americans soon."

John A: The Birth of a Country (CBC, 8 p.m.) has that scene and the man is John A. Macdonald (Shawn Doyle). The two-hour TV movie is a terrific dramatization of the battles between Macdonald and George Brown (Peter Outerbridge), the founder of this great newspaper. It's promoted by CBC as "a two-hour political thriller," and there's some truth to that. There's an air of feuding gang leaders to the story. The assassinations are political and done with spat-out insults in public and shady deals in private. These are two mafia dons duelling for control, and the stakes are high – this is, after all, about the creation of Canada and establishment of its political culture.

Things start in 1864 in the Quebec Assembly. The first words spoken are in an urgent whisper: "Have you heard from George Brown?" There is tension without the viewer knowing exactly what's going on. Then the story spins back to eight years earlier. We meet a John A. Macdonald who is loud, drunk and ready to brawl. We meet a George Brown who looks on Macdonald with livid contempt.

"Has hypocrisy ever had such a face?" says Brown of Macdonald in the assembly. Macdonald then launches into a vicious attack on Brown and his newspaper, The Globe. Insults fly back and forth as groups of powerful men try to measure the depth of hatred in the opposition. Some hate the French. Others hate Catholics. Still others are seething with ambition to get rich from the railways, or the lumber trade, and will make any deal necessary to gain advantage.

Macdonald takes over as leader of the Conservative Party. "A snake instead of a pig is no improvement," says Brown. As the two men berate each other, their English masters grow impatient. Where in the name of heaven should the capital of Canada be situated? These feuding colonials can't even agree on that. Another battle of words ensues. Must the French be pacified? Must the English always feel the need to control everything?

Meanwhile, the Americans also lose patience. Their Civil War is unfolding, bloodily. The U.S. envoy arrives to meet Macdonald. "You are with us or against us," he snaps. A bewildered Macdonald blurts, "Can you honestly expect us to get involved in your civil war?" The American turns from testy to threatening: "By the way, the Secretary of State has spoken in favour of annexing Canada outright. By force if necessary." He doesn't even bother to take off his coat and sit for the meeting. That's when we see Macdonald, drunk and forlorn, morbidly predicting the death of Canada before it is even born.

John A: The Birth of a Country, written by Bruce M. Smith based on Richard Gwyn's book John A, The Man Who Made Us, engages deeply and in a very lively manner with the fabric and resonances of the brutal intellectual and political war between Macdonald and Brown.

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Director Jerry Ciccoritti brings an effervescent beat to the rhythm of the story, and there is a startling visual pop to many scenes. The central image is of Macdonald as a swaggering, colourfully dressed, clean-shaven visionary surrounded by dull, stuffy men in drab suits and mutton-chop sideburns.

Shawn Doyle is excellent as John A., a man fascinated by George Brown's intransigence and venom. Outerbridge, too, is very fine as Brown, a man utterly unused to compromise until he falls in love and begins to see that perhaps his entire being should not be engaged by political feuds.

Dramatizing Canadian history in an entertaining and incisive manner is a tall order. And it is rarely done well on TV. In the theatre, Michael Hollingsworth's astonishing 21-play series The History of the Village of the Small Huts, which chronicles the history of Canada, is brilliantly outlandish and feels true. But it is exceptionally difficult to do on TV. With John A: The Birth of a Country we have a sense of our history as a thrilling battle of ideas and strange, driven men.

Walden Schmidt, who are ya?

Check local listings.

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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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