Canadian drama Blood & Water is proof that if you want to think globally, start by looking at home. DQ speaks to the channel exec and the writer behind this trilingual crime series.
As television drama becomes increasingly global both in front of and behind the camera, one show has set its focus closer to home.
Featuring an Asian-Canadian cast and a storyline that blends Chinese culture with a traditional crime procedural, Blood & Water is the first ever scripted series produced for an Asian-Canadian audience.
In particular, it stands out for reflecting multicultural, multi-generational and multilingual communities across Canada.
And that was exactly what broadcaster Omni TV was looking for when it was pitched the show, which is produced in three different languages.
“We do have a very large Asian population in Canada,” says Nataline Rodrigues, director of original programming at Omni parent Rogers. “There’s quite a large Asian audience in British Colombia and Ontario where we have two major footholds and we wanted to cater to this audience. We have a lot of acquired international features and dramas for the Asian community but we have so much talent here in the country, we wanted to break new ground with a new multilingual drama.
“In this case, it’s quite organic in that we’ve got this multi-generational cast and it reflects how new generations speak at home with their parents – at times they’re speaking in English, they turn to Cantonese and if they’re speaking to their parents, they’re speaking in Mandarin.”
Season one, which launched in 2015, introduced viewers to Jo Bradley (Steph Song), an ambitious young detective who overcomes her personal challenges in order to find the killer of Vancouver billionaire Li-Rong ‘Ron’ Xie (Oscar Hsu)’s troubled son.
The gritty crime drama returned for a second season earlier this month, with Detective Bradley now paired with Detective Evan Ong (Byron Mann) to investigate a new murder case – one entrenched in a mysterious web of lies leading back to the Xie family as Ron faces a power struggle to maintain control of his company.
Meanwhile, Detective Bradley finds herself on a quest to discover her biological family, setting her on a dangerous and unpredictable journey of self-discovery.
Returning cast members also include Elfina Luk, Fiona Fu and Loretta Yu, alongside newcomer Aidan Devine.
Produced and distributed by Breakthrough Entertainment, Blood & Water is written by Diane Boehme, Al Kratina, Dan Trotta and Simu Liu. The directors are Gail Harvey and Carl Bessai, while exec producing are Ira Levy, Boehme, Michael McGuigan, Malcolm Levy, Nat Abraham, Peter Williamson, Kratina and Trotta. Ben Lu and Paula J Smith produce.
“When I saw how this was capturing a family drama in such a new way, yet was so relatable, I knew we had a real gem,” Rodrigues says of the show. “It’s more than just a Chinese drama: it’s multicultural, it’s multilingual, it’s multi-generational and it reaches a wider audience. We loved the juicy entanglements and dynamics of the family and all these secrets.
“The drama was going to places that seemed dark but it had a lot of heart. We needed more, so here with are with an additional eight episodes [in season two].”
Writer and exec producer Boehme says the show’s conception was driven by story rather than a direct ambition to produce a series for Asian-Canadian viewers.
“It started for me with a very personal story in the sense that I grew up with someone who was adopted,” she reveals, reflecting on Detective Bradley’s storyline that began in season one and continues in the new episodes. “She went on a hunt for her biological family when she was in her late teens/early 20s. She had a highly romanticised idea of what that was going to mean for her. Ultimately when she found her biological family, it was not at all what she thought it would be and was a very difficult thing – it was very complicated, very emotional and she ultimately came out of a very dark period when she found out who her biological family was.
“That stuck with me as something we don’t see very often – that personal journey, that search for family, how much that means for your own personal identity – and then I extrapolated that into what it would mean if your family was so far away. I thought about so many young girls who have been adopted from China and I wondered what that was like.”
The series is set in Vancouver, Boehme explains, due to the city’s large Chinese population, providing a natural setting for Detective Bradley’s journey before placing her at the centre of a crime story.
“I started with what her journey was and then we started thinking about how we could wrap that into something accessible and understandable,” Boehme continues. “We came up with a cop story because I love crime stories – I love crime novels – so we just melded the two. So in Jo’s search for family, the thing that made most sense [was to have her end up investigating] a crime that threw her into a family. And the deeper and deeper she got into this family, the more she realised that, no matter how screwed up they were, they were still a family and still there for each other. In [the second season] that search continues and reaches a peak. It’s still very much Jo’s journey and she’s still very much our guide in this world.”
It’s the search for identity and focus on family that Boehme believes make Blood & Water stand out from the plethora of other crime dramas on television, beyond its use of three different languages.
Rodrigues adds: “What makes it so compelling is how it pulls people together and apart because it’s so personal. How the case impacts people is on a very personal level, whether it’s how it impacts their familial relationships, their relationships at work or those with their lovers. It really hits close to home and that’s what distinguishes it and will make it resonate with our audience.”
Behind the scenes, the series also stands apart from other dramas for the way it was brought to life, with the actors using their own experience and knowledge of Chinese culture to give the scripts more authenticity wherever possible.
Once the scripts had been written, they were translated and handed out to the cast in English, Chinese and Pinyin – the system of writing mandarin using the Latin alphabet.
“There were varying degrees of comprehension of language for our actors,” Boehme explains, “so the scripts were in English, Chinese characters and Pinyin – they were pretty bulky. We had rehearsals and table reads. I kept in touch with the actors through the process and we talked about characters.
“It was very much a collaboration all the way along. And when it came to shooting, we’re not a big-budget show so we were very informal. We had a very street, gritty, independent approach to filming. It became a collaboration with the director, the director of photography and all of us. The writers were on set every day changing the dialogue, adjusting it and translating it if necessary. We were very collaborative in that way. And sometimes our producer, Ben Lu, was like, ‘Chinese people wouldn’t do that; they wouldn’t order potatoes. We’re going to order congee.’ It was those sorts of things that gave it nuance.”
Rodrigues notes: “Some non-Chinese audiences may not get those Chinese nuances but the extra layers are what make the show accessible and a draw for wider audiences. You get all these layers baked in that serve different audiences. As a programmer, it’s an authentic way to do diversity when you have cultural specificity.”
Blood & Water is also notable for its 30-minute episodes, shorter the running time of most dramas, with each season comprising eight instalments. Boehme describes the format as a “shock to the system” but credits Omni with the foresight to recognise that the way viewers consume television is changing.
Rodrigues continues: “Among the programmes we acquire for Omni and our audiences, there are a lot of half-hours, so you get your fix, spend some time with these characters and it’s not this massive time commitment. So at the heart of this story with such rich characters, the half-hour format lends itself well to this type of storytelling and it’s a format our viewers are used to.”
With a second season bringing the show’s total running time to eight hours, Blood & Water is also attracting interest from foreign broadcasters keen to acquire the series from distributor Breakthrough.
“We’ve been getting a fair amount of attention internationally for Blood & Water,” reveals Boehme. “One of the reasons is that nobody’s done this before. Nobody’s originated a show like this out of North America. We did the first eight half-hours and now that we’ve got more, they’re really interested because they can see the progression and can get invested in the show.”
The clamour to acquire the series is only likely to grow if Boehme’s hope for further seasons is realised, “We have so much story and so many places to take these characters,” she says. “Since we wrapped production [on season two], I’m constantly making notes about what we can do. Now it’s up to the viewers to tell us if they want more.”