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Opinion

IT figures that the hero in a Canadian-TV spy thriller would be rumpled, reserved, less than thrilling and perhaps even not all that Canadian.

Wolfgang McKee is no James Bond, that's for sure. And that's what makes the new CBC series The Romeo Section, for better and worse, something other than a standard-issue espionage drama.

The new series, one of the public broadcaster's most heavily hyped arrivals of the 2015-16 TV season, arrives in prime time with a rock-solid pedigree -- it's the latest domestic-drama effort from Chris Haddock (Da Vinci's Inquest, Intelligence), one of this country's most skilled and successful television producers -- and great expectations that it will become the kind of hit homegrown product that the cast-strapped CBC desperately needs as it continues to try to justify its existence in the ever-more-crowded TV landscape.

While it's highly doubtful that The Romeo Section (which premières tonight at 9 p.m.) will be the CBC's singular saviour series, it deserves credit for being a show whose distinct perspective and intriguingly complex storyline make it worthy of being sampled alongside the usual flood of formulaic U.S.-network imports.

Like Haddock's earlier CBC projects, The Romeo Section is identifiably and unapologetically Canadian in every way. It's set in Vancouver -- a city that is home to dozens of TV shows that almost never admit onscreen that they're shot there -- and is filled with references to CSIS and the RCMP and the prime minister and such.

The story is centred around Wolfgang McGee (played by Andrew Airlie), a Scots-accented university professor who lectures on international relations -- specializing in Chinese culture and politics, and the international narcotics trade -- while secretly acting as the supervisor to a small roster of West Coast-based Canadian espionage assets.

In tonight's première, McGee meets regularly with a drug-ring operative named Rufus (Juan Riedinger) who is involved in a toxic relationship with a drug-ring-connected woman named Dee (Stephanie Bennett), whose abusive boyfriend is a key connection to major players in the cocaine business.

At the same time, McGee is keeping tabs on recent movements in the Asian drug trade, following rumours that a highly placed kingpin, long thought to be in hiding somewhere in Vancouver, is in failing health and might soon be replaced by a younger and potentially more dangerous leader.

McGee is a charming, occasionally boozy sort, whose rough-around-the-edges persona seems to make him quite popular with the ladies. As the series begins, he catches the eye of a newly arrived fellow professor, Lily Song (Jemmy Chen), whose keen interest in McGee's academic writings may or may not signal that her intentions are more than merely social.

McGee's overseer in the spy game, an intimidating smooth-headed fellow named Al (Eugene Lipinski), clearly shares a long espionage history with the professor; they engage in late-night drinking sessions filled with shared tales from past covert operations, but Al's daytime behaviour suggests he might not actually have McGee's best interests at heart.

There are a lot of moving storyline parts in The Romeo Section's first couple of episodes, and it's not clear early on where they're all headed or which of them will pay off in terms of their contributions to the overall drama. But Airlie succeeds in establishing McGee as a central character capable of carrying the action while the various narrative threads gain momentum, and by the end of the second instalment, those who've stuck with it will likely find The Romeo Section worth at least a few more appointment-viewing stops to see how it all plays out.

Understated, smart and decidedly un-flashy, The Romeo Section is a distinctly Canadian kind of spy yarn. To some viewers, at least, it will feel like exactly the sort of thing CBC should be offering.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Brad Oswald

Brad Oswald
Perspectives Editor

After three decades spent writing stories, columns and opinion pieces about television, comedy and other pop-culture topics in the paper’s entertainment section, Brad Oswald shifted his focus to the deep-thoughts portion of the Free Press’s daily operation.

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