Tin Star: a Constellation of Conflict

This series is a real melting pot, a British production of an American Wild West story set in Canada. And they actually admit it’s Canada, something only Canadian shows (and sometimes not even those) admit to. Still, from a Canadian perspective, it’s nice to see someone outside our borders admit we exist, even if we are painted as money-grubbing beer monkeys in need of British heroes to save our collective asses from big Yankee oil.

And speaking of oil, this series manages to turn that into a four-letter word, not that there’s anything new here, but it’s just a jumping off point for a show bulging with conflict tropes: Indigenous people vs. Europeans, hired killers vs. police, alcoholic vs. bottle, and everybody split on the issues of profit and big oil. And just to prove he knows a thing or two about Canada, show runner Rowan Joffe drags in a little English vs. French action with an ex-FLQ (one assumes) terrorist working security for Tin Star’s North Stream Oil. This character must have been dipped in a bucket of pure evil. It’s the only explanation for just how much he hates law and order, the English, his co-workers, and probably kittens, too.

Of all the things that disturb me about this show, one stands out above the rest. I can understand renaming the town of High River; that’s pretty common in TV and film. It protects the innocent and keeps these little towns from being overrun by gawking fans. And using a fake oil company as the bad guys, well that’s just good sense. No production manager wants yet another below-the-line entry for lawsuits. But what I don’t get is recasting our beloved red-coats as the Royal Canadian Federal Police. It’s permissible to say FBI on TV. They say ‘CIA,’ ‘MI-6,’ and even the NSA gets a mention from time to time. So what’s wrong with ‘RCMP?’ I can only assume the producers think non-Canadian audiences won’t know these are the Canadian version of the FBI if the word ‘federal’ isn’t part of their moniker.

But putting this outsider’s view of our country aside, as a Canadian, it’s refreshing to see Canada play itself for a change, even if the heroes and villains are mostly Brits. To be fair, eight out of the top fifteen actors in the cast are Canadian, a huge leap in the right direction, in my humble opinion. But, as tempted as you may be to watch, be warned. This show is not just intense; it’s gets squirm-in-your-seat violent at times.

As for redeeming qualities, the casting is pretty much spot on. Had I been in charge of rounding up actors, Tim Roth would have been my first choice for the bandy hen Brit come to save us all while losing everything dear to him. I can’t imagine anyone other than Christopher Heyerdahl as the francophone head of security with an intense hard-on for destroying everything standing in the way of ‘green’ oil production. (How’s that for irony?) Ryan Kennedy and Sarah Podemski (Canadians, both) fit their roles well as Roth’s cop underlings. In fact, I didn’t see any actor who didn’t seem to fit his or her assigned role.

Production values are right up there with the best Hollywood- or London-based series. Drone shots—the most overused technique in modern cinematography—were well-placed, unobtrusive and nowhere near overdone. That in itself is refreshing. And using mirrors as a recurring story device to show Roth’s inner turmoil is downright brilliant.

But, despite all its good points, I’m still sitting on the fence with this series. Although I love the setting (Alberta was my stomping ground for eight years of my youth) and I have no major complaints about the writing, casting, directing or production, this show isn’t just a car accident one can’t turn away from, it’s a 40-car, high-speed pile-up hidden by a bend in the freeway. The cars keep coming, braking too late, and I keep feeling for the metaphorical brake pedal in hopes of stopping the next squirmy moment. Sure, they play the extreme stuff off screen, but they make it so painfully obvious it’s going on, my imagination takes over and paints a picture far worse than any CG or practical effects artist could muster.

All I can say in conclusion is: watch at your own risk. The mind cannot distinguish between real experiences and those we see on TV, so you may end up as traumatized as the poor bastards who struggle through life in Tin Star’s imaginary town of Little Big Bear.

You’ve been warned.

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