The setup for Sundance Channel's 10-part Canadian import Terminal City is meant to be an irreverent juxtaposition of bad news and badly delivered news. The ringing telephone going deliberately unanswered at the upper-middle-class Sampson household bears what housewife Katie (Maria del Mar) instinctively knows — word that her mammogram shows a lump. Meanwhile, at the hospital, a reality-TV camera crew prowls the halls in search of patients to interview for a crappy, faux-inspirational live show "about winning and healing" called Post Op! The Reeses moment comes when Katie unwittingly walks out from her latest appointment into the show's cameras: She uncorks a telegenically wry smile, shocks the tedious doctor/host by casually and frankly talking about her chances — "Best case, I beat it; worst case, I die" — then, as if the program were called Patients Gone Wild, coquettishly flashes a freshly biopsied tit. The doctors may say cancer, but the show producer's diagnosis? A star is born.
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Terminal City's housewife Katie: The doctors may say cancer; the producers say a star is born.
While I agree that Katie, as played by del Mar, is a vivacious sort whose reservoirs of emotion and cheekiness make her eminently discoverable as a television personality, the rest of Terminal City is something of a slick, dark-chic bore. Creator/writer Angus Fraser has a germ of an idea in hybridizing show biz's manufacturing of "authentic" celebrity with an ailing woman's struggle to reassess her fears, hopes and desires — substitute D-list status for cancer and this was essentially what Lisa Kudrow's tartly observed HBO show The Comeback was about too — but Terminal City isn't nearly as Chayefskyesque, with its tonal mix of humor and seriousness, as it thinks it is.
Katie's family is supposed to be a dream of affluent, ordinary cohesiveness: the sensitive architect husband (Gil Bellows), a teenage son (Adam Butcher) and daughter (Katie Boland) who insult each other, a precocious 7-year-old (Nico McEown) and a cantankerous Jewish grandfather (Paul Soles) whose favorite pastime is turning every conversation back around to World War II or Israel. The problem is these scenes are shot like dreams as well. The visual look of Terminal City is a kind of glib, removed sleekness, where the psychological truth of a situation never gets in the way of a music-video angle, or a pose of magazine-ad beauty. This means that moments of interfamily duress or subversive humor or normalcy feel no different from each other, and they mostly leave you unsure of what the emotional temperature of this admittedly momentous period in the Sampsons' lives is supposed to be. When the kids start acting out — the adolescents exploring their lust, the little one studying Christianity — it's impossible to tell if this is intended to reflect who they already are, or a reaction to mommy's condition. Not helping matters is Bellows' flat, dead-eyed performance, so stilted and respectable you want to shake him by the shoulders.
When Sundance Channel brought the sparkling Canadian series Slings and Arrows to American TV audiences, the backstage tale's gentler, farcical tempo often acted as a charming corrective to the usually brasher approach to comedy/drama that gluts the airwaves here. I can't say there's a similar freshness, however, bringing us Terminal City, which aims for a bracing, HBO-style rarefied adultness but mostly comes off like a chilly, off-putting visitor from the north.
As for the television-show bits, they're almost willfully cartoonish and unrealistic about everything from the professionalism that goes into actual reality-TV schlock — somebody hit that childishly dumb PA, please, who acts like a reject from a stoner comedy — to the cliched shallowness of the network president, who's lit like Dr. Evil. (He actually says things like, "I want to put this show on the map.") It's tempting sometimes to think there's not a believable nugget to any aspect of the Katie-becomes-a-superstar storyline.
Except Katie herself, to whom del Mar gives fine shading. And that's where Terminal City — which bizarrely won oodles of praise and awards in its home country — feels most like a lost opportunity. With depictions of cancer finally freeing themselves from the shackles of past generations' pat expressions of pity and suffering — witness the nicely turned emphasis on marriage-related humor on Desperate Housewives this year with Felicity Huffman's character, and the outlaw intensity of AMC's Breaking Bad — I was ready for Terminal City to turn the doctor's chart upside down. Unfortunately, only the bewitching, frivolous and sexually charged performance of del Mar gets close to suggesting the strange depths of a life hit sideways. Too bad the show around her isn't a better support system.
My expectations for Fox's new one-hour series Canterbury's Law, on the other hand, were low — kill all the lawyer shows, Shakespeare would surely say today — so I was pleasantly surprised by my enjoyment of its rough-around-the-edges sense of purpose. Julianna Margulies plays a steely Rhode Island defense attorney named Elizabeth Canterbury — you were expecting Jones or Smith? — whose single-minded, rule-breaking pursuit of justice for her clients often doesn't even win her the backing of her own associates, who suggest plea deals and capitulation with her at their own peril. And since the show comes from the Rescue Me creative team of Denis Leary and Jim Serpico, Elizabeth's sarcastic impatience and withering putdowns have more bite than usual. (Dave Erickson actually created the series.) She's also bold enough to follow her ex-prosecutor partner Russell (Ben Shenkman) all the way up to a urinal to argue points.
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"I can't do this," he says. "The case?" she responds. "No, pee." But she's not heartless, turning on the sink, looking up and muttering, "Oceans, rivers, streams, oceans, rivers, streams ... "
Of course, she wouldn't be a prime-time protagonist in this day and age without an unresolved element in her past that will rear its ugly head conveniently for sweeps. In this case, it's the unexplained disappearance of her young son years ago, which has put a strain on things at home with her husband, played by a bearded, almost totally domesticated Aidan Quinn. (He can't hide those flinty Irish baby blues, though.) But the indignant heart of Canterbury's Law is that of a case-of-the-week procedural — a suitably suspenseful one at that — and within those institutional boundaries it's nice to see Margulies shake off the martyrish mien of Nurse Carol Hathaway on ER for somebody whose self-destructiveness gives her a nasty, intelligent severity at work.
TERMINAL CITY | Sundance Channel | Thursdays, 9 p.m., with repeats Fridays, 2 a.m. and Sundays, 10 a.m., premieres March 6
CANTERBURY'S LAW | Fox | Mondays, 8 p.m., premieres March 10