CBC steps into the cold with Balcer

Andy Fry
By Andy Fry
March 23, 2016

The Writers Room
René Balcer
René Balcer

Canadian public broadcaster the CBC has greenlit an ambitious 10-part drama called The Council.

Based in a remote Canadian Arctic town, the series is “set against the unfolding drama of our changing planet and draws inspiration from the true-to-life fight over the vast resources of the Arctic,” according to the pubcaster. “It traces the journey of two cops who uncover a small-town murder that is at the heart of a global conspiracy.”

Production kicks off this summer, shooting in Resolute, Iqaluit, London, Copenhagen and Manitoba. The series has been created by Canadian writer/producer René Balcer and will be distributed by NBCUniversal International TV Production.

The Council is a Canada/UK copro involving Lark Productions, Keston International Productions and Giant Films.

On the face of it, the hard-hitting, politicised subject matter of the series seems like a change of direction for Emmy winner Balcer, who is best known for writing and showrunning US procedural Law & Order and creating its spin-off Law & Order: Criminal Intent. He also wrote for the Star Trek: The Next Generation series plus three TV movies.

However, closer inspection reveals Balcer is not shy of tackling tough or controversial topics. He started his career as a cameraman covering subjects such as the Yom Kippur War and then transitioned to become a documentary maker.

He carried his current affairs sensibility into Law & Order, most notably in an episode entitled Memos From the Dark Side that criticised the Bush administration in the US over the so-called torture memos (US government documents that purported to legitimise torture as a response to the ‘War On Terror’).

Belcer is best known for Law & Order
Balcer is best known for Law & Order

The episode resulted in colourful accusations from some quarters that Balcer was a Marxist agent provocateur. However, he has proved resilient against such barbed attacks, saying: “What many of these critics fail to realise is that Law & Order has always been an equal-opportunity offender, and if a Democratic administration had implemented this despicable (torture) policy, our show would have taken them to task for it.”

Explaining the appeal of The Council, Balcer said: “The Arctic has engaged my imagination since I was a kid reading stories about the Inuit, and then as a college student working construction at the mouth of the Mackenzie River. The Council is a story where the stakes are as high as they come, about a land and a people who are the bellwether of our survival. It’s an exciting mystery and a political intrigue set against a wide canvas – climate change, indigenous extinction, competition for resources. As a storyteller, I couldn’t ask for more.”

The story of The Council begins on the edge of the Arctic frontier during the endless days of the polar summer when a young woman, a renowned environmentalist, is found ritualistically murdered near the Canadian hamlet of Resolute.

An investigation is mounted by local police inspector Mickey Behrens and her partner, officer Jo Ullulaq. However, the pair “quickly discover that the mystery extends far beyond the borders of the town and to the backrooms of Canadian parliament in Ottawa, the dark corridors of US intelligence in Washington DC, the halls of European parliament in Brussels, the airbases of world powers and the migrant conflicts at the border of Norway and Russia. Yet it all traces back to the Arctic, as they expose a complex international conspiracy to control the vast natural resources at the top of the world.”

Aside from Balcer’s background as a journalist and documentarian, it also worth noting that the Quebec-born writer created another police series, called Jo, in 2012. This one is interesting because, while produced in English, it was targeted at the European market. Starring Jean Reno as a Paris-based cop (his first TV role), it was coproduced by Atlantique Productions and Stromboli Pictures in association with TF1, RTBF, Sat1, ORF and RTS (also airing in Italy on Fox Crime).

Belcer's Jo starred Jean Reno (left)
Balcer’s Jo starred Jean Reno (left)

So, far from being limited to US procedurals, Balcer’s work puts him at the heart of a growing trend for screenwriters to work outside the comfort zone of their home markets (US/Canada in the case of Balcer).

Other recent examples of this include Gideon Raff, the Israeli writer of Prisoners of War who was involved in the adaptation of the show as Homeland for Showtime US; Hans Rosenfeldt, The Bridge writer who was commissioned to write Marcella for ITV in the UK; Paula Milne, the English writer who has written German-language drama The Same Sky; Anna Winger, the US writer who co-created Deutschland 83 with her husband Joerg; Jack Thorne, who created multilingual thriller The Last Panthers; Lars Lundstrom, the Swedish creator of Real Humans who is working with Gaumont TV Europe on an English-language drama 1001; Paolo Sorrentino, the Italian writer/director who is working on English-language series The Young Pope; and Rodrigo Garcia, the US-based Colombian whose recent writing credits include the online series Blue and indie movie Last Days in the Desert.

The ambition of Balcer’s new show puts it in a league with some of the other espionage dramas that have done the rounds in recent years, such as The Honourable Woman and Occupied. And executive producer Louise Clark is convinced it will resonate internationally: “René has created an intriguing mystery and dynamic characters stemming from his personal connection to the north and the Inuit culture. This story, emanating from a little-known but much-discussed part of our world, will resonate with Canadians and have worldwide appeal.”

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