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‘Law & Order Toronto: Criminal Intent’ Offers Compelling Canadian Spin to Familiar Franchise: TV Review

“Law & Order Toronto: Criminal Intent” may be the biggest original TV series premiere Canada has ever had. That means, when that famous “dun-dun” opens the series on Feb. 22 via Citytv, the pressure is on.

It’s notoriously hard to get a show greenlit in Canada. Funding challenges, market size and competition from U.S. acquisitions mean few, if any, Canadian series debut on the Big 3 commercial networks (CTV, Global and Citytv) each season. Even public broadcaster CBC, which boasts the highest number of originals on a major network, still relies on acquisitions to fill out its primetime programming grid.

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Figuring out how to make noise with a new series in a crowded landscape isn’t a uniquely Canadian challenge, but there are more hurdles here. That’s why from the beginning, a Canadian adaptation of “Criminal Intent” felt like a win — at least from a viewership and marketing standpoint. It’s a recognizable franchise with a built-in fanbase and a solid formula. Rogers Sports & Media is also debuting the series on Citytv immediately following a new episode of NBC’s “Law & Order,” and right before new installments of that U.S. network’s “Law & Order: SVU” and “Law & Order: Organized Crime.”

In other words, it’s teed up for a massive showing.

The creative aspect of “Law & Order Toronto: Criminal Intent” is what the industry should really be excited about, though. When adapting an international franchise for a Canadian market, the biggest challenge is typically figuring out how to make it Canadian, and doing that on a fraction of the budget. That’s why, for example, “The Amazing Race Canada” spent its first season only traveling across Canada, or why “Big Brother Canada” has a smaller prize and bigger obstacles.

“Law & Order Toronto: Criminal Intent” is uniquely Canadian in that it takes place in Toronto, but that’s just the beginning. The goal of the show is to present original Canadian stories written, produced and starring Canadians, with plots that feel ripped from national headlines.

That’s evident in the premiere, “The Key to the Castle,” in which a crypto investor disappears off the side of a private yacht and into Lake Ontario. Following his death, $300 million is locked up and lost without a passcode. Although the series comes with the typical disclaimer that any similarities to real people are coincidental, the case calls to mind the Quadriga story and the December 2018 death of its CEO, Gerald Cotten.

More importantly, the premiere introduces audiences to the new crime-solving team tasked with selling these cases. Aden Young (“Rectify”) tackles the role of Det. Sgt. Henry Graff, while Kathleen Munroe plays Det. Sgt. Frankie Bateman. Together they have an easy chemistry, with the worldly-but-quirky Graff spouting infinite knowledge in his thick Canadian accent and the more relatable Bateman translating on his behalf.

At the station, they’re joined by Inspector Vivienne Holness, played by “Schitt’s Creek” star and prolific Canadian actor Karen Robinson. Her nonsense-free, blunt delivery adds a bit of fun against Graff’s genius and it’s apparent why the writers wrote the role with her in mind. Then there’s K.C. Collins (“Saving Hope,” “Lost Girl”) as Deputy Crown Attorney Theo Forrester. Although he has few scenes in the first episode, his easy charisma leaves you wanting more.

It’s a solid hour that sticks to franchise staples, investigating a case from death-to-confession while inspecting it from both the detectives and the suspects’ points of view. That doesn’t leave much room for serialized storylines, but there are hints of character development early on — such as the reveal that Bateman is a single mom and perhaps a romantic at heart.

The scenes are quick and there are plenty of outdoor shots that showcase Toronto and its nooks and crannies, adding to the overall Canadian feel. The hefty walk-and-talks are another signature franchise addition, though they feel more like a bouncy jog for poor Munroe, who is significantly shorter than her male co-stars.

It all adds up to a promising start with big opportunities for Canadian actors in the months to come. Much like how the New York series are able to draw from that city’s roster of emerging actors and its theatre crowd, “Law & Order Toronto: Criminal Intent” has a large pool of Canadian actors and a thriving local theatre community to cast from.

Finding the right talent and selecting the most engaging stories will be the key to this show’s success as it continues. Only the first episode was available to screen before debut, so it’s hard to predict how things will go from here. But at the very least, there were multiple twists and a quick pace that kept Episode 1 engaging.

Having showrunner Tassie Cameron at the helm is also promising. The creative has spent years crafting Canadian law enforcement stories on series like “Rookie Blue,” “Private Eyes,” “Flashpoint,” “Mary Kills People” and most recently, “Pretty Hard Cases.”

Here, she writes and executive produces with her sister, award-winning journalist Amy Cameron, under their banner Cameron Pictures Inc. (Lark Productions co-produces the series in association with Citytv.) It’s worth noting that the sisters’ mother, Stevie Cameron, is an acclaimed Canadian investigative journalist who has dug into notable crimes for years. Translation? Creating a show like “Criminal Intent,” even with the format restrictions, seems baked into the sisters’ DNA.

Although the series has yet to announce any international or American broadcast partners, the most unique concept behind the show could be its biggest selling point. Unlike other adaptations of the “Law & Order” franchise, these are original stories and scripts that don’t use anything from the mothership other than the format itself. That may make it an appealing purchase for the growing global TV market, where uniquely Canadian stories like “Letterkenny,” “Schitt’s Creek” and “Kim’s Convenience” have hit with viewers in big ways.

At the very least, “Law & Order Toronto: Criminal Intent” is a show that Canadians at home and in the business can get excited about. The elements are there, now it’s time to settle back and see if this team has managed to crack the Successful Canadian TV case.

“Law & Order Toronto: Criminal Intent” debuts Thursday, Feb. 22 on Citytv, Citytv.com and Citytv+.

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