The Triumph and Tragedy of Law & Order Toronto: Criminal Intent

Jeff Pearce
11 min readMar 15, 2024

As I draft this, I just finished a whole evening of Law & Order’s latest episodes, from its flagship show’s revival with the new DA making a less than spectacular entrance (hey, who could ever follow Jack McCoy?) to SVU’s heartstrings callback to a Season 7 episode to Organized Crime’s latest plot thread renewing my faith in the show because Keith Carradine is so damn good at being evil, we don’t deserve him.

And the nicest surprise was Law & Order Toronto’s crackpipe-smoking mayor episode, which was so clever and so well done in its execution you almost want to shout down to New York, “Jeezus, you guys, check this out! It’s kicking the flagship’s ass right now!” Because even for die-hard fans, the flagship Law & Order seems to have lost its way. Instead of the ruthlessness of Michael Cutter as prosecutor in the original run, we have Nolan Price do his tedious handwringing thing, and everyone should feel bad that Connie Shi’s character (who remembers her name?) always, always supplies the crucial piece of the puzzle that breaks the case… yet she’s not in the opening credits, is she?

But ahhh, we have the new Toronto addition. And if any Ethiopian diaspora folks are reading this, the show even has an Ethio connection, as thanks to smart, tactful casting, respected actor Arya Mengesha plays an Ethiopian character, Mark Yohannes.

Not that the show is perfect. There’s room to grow. So far, Karen Robinson’s Inspector and K.C. Collins’s Crown Attorney are completely wasted, especially Collins who has so little to do yet looks in every episode as if he could perfectly supply the scathing wit of Courtney B. Vance’s Ron Carver in the original Criminal Intent. Are we ever going to see the prosecutor actually prosecute?

But that unfortunately is not the biggest problem connected to L & O TO. I want to be clear about that. What I’m about to describe isn’t really the show’s problem at all — I deliberately tried to choose my words carefully and wrote “connected to.” So, don’t get me wrong, I wish the show well, I hope it lasts several years. And I will even give it my highest compliment, which is to say this is the first time I’ve ever wanted to write a script for a Canadian show, not that any producer for it knows I even exist, let alone knocked on my door.

The problem is that Canadian TV drama sucks. Big time. Huge. It is unbelievably bad, and that is the dirty little secret that no one seems to ever want to talk about.

No wonder L & O TO is water to those parched in the desert.

I would go so far as to claim 95 percent of Canadian comedy and drama sucks, but I know that there are those mutants out there who sincerely believe Schitt’s Creek was funny (I can’t even comprehend how they do, but I’m willing to concede comedy’s even more subjective, so I’ll limit my condemnation to drama).

And very quickly, I will declare what some may consider bias or bitterness. Me, I call it inside perspective. Years ago, I got far enough in the process that the CBC network and its development executives considered a detective show of mine. They loved the detective heroine, a brainy Iranian-Canadian sleuth, but not the gimmick that would have propelled the show each episode. That’s fair. And I loved and will be forever grateful that the main executive literally emailed me, “Can we try again?”

I sent them a new pilot script, this one shamelessly built around providing a vehicle for a good friend, one that featured a Jamaican-Canadian detective. Again, nope. Okay, I can handle rejection. Any professional writer has to be used to hearing no. What struck me as unbelievably stupid was that it got a pass not over its inherent strengths or weaknesses, but because “we already have a detective show with Republic of Doyle” –a knock-off Newfoundland version of The Rockford Files when you could have had the first Black-Canadian detective with a culture that deserved more representation.

Really? You can’t consider having two detective dramas run in prime time? Good gawd.

By now you might be asking, where am I going with this? Getting there, I promise.

We were talking about Canadian TV sucking. It would be easy to dump so much blame on the CBC, a network so bankrupt of ideas that it naturally tried to resuscitate the corpse of Street Legal, a clone of the old American law team dramas from the 1980s and which no one under fifty in Canada has probably ever seen (count yourself lucky). Its reincarnation thankfully died without a second season.

But to pick on just the MotherCorp would be unfair, as all our networks are guilty of the same sin, trying to imitate American product… except they’re doing it twenty, thirty years behind the times!

The heart weeps when you consider that The Listener, a show with one of the most unimaginative blood-drained-from-the-brainpan premises — ooooh, a paramedic who’s…gasp! A telepath! — managed to limp its way to five seasons. Its American production partner, Fox International, wisely chose to dump this turkey early on. Shaftsbury Films is also the same production firm that’s brought us Hudson & Rex, a show that isn’t even original but is a cut and paste job of an Austrian procedural about no, kidding, a police detective partnered with a dog.

I had to stop slapping my forehead in disbelief as the camera kept switching for “reaction shots” to the German Shepherd.

It is so breathtakingly stupid, and yet not only is it the FX network’s “we’ve given up” wallpaper show, hour after hour on weekday mornings and afternoons, but it’s now into its sixth season. A guy paired with a dog. We are also expected to believe that in this universe, somehow St. John’s, Newfoundland has surpassed Winnipeg overnight as Canada’s murder capital.

Please stop living in denial. Yes, Canadian television sucks. Sadly, it always has.

Nothing really dies anymore thanks to YouTube, so you can go check out the horror of The Beachcombers or the soulless sitcom rip-off of The King of Kensington or that laughably terrible foray into science fiction, The Starlost, for which diminutive troublemaker and legend Harlan Ellison wrote an excoriating essay on how bad it was to work on and how his initial pitch for the show got mangled beyond recognition.

Against this depressing heritage, more shows have come and gone, but with few exceptions, I believe they all share one thing in common.

They are ultimately gutless. No wonder so much of our writing talent gets fed up and goes south. No wonder the actors want to flee to LA and New York. No originality. No standing up for originality.

Tell me why Orange is the New Black couldn’t have been dreamed up here? We have prisons.

Show me an innovative adult Canadian science fiction show. Not another drama that’s constantly reminding you that you’re in Canada — no, a proper sci fi show where we might be aware we’re in Vancouver or Montreal, but that’s incidental — the idea is what we care about.

It’s almost embarrassing that we don’t have one, as Canada has so many famous and phenomenal science fiction and fantasy writers, from Guy Gavriel Kay to Robert J. Sawyer (who we know for a fact that Americans, at least, respect and will try to develop his work). Why isn’t the CBC or CTV pounding on their doors?

I could pitch you off the top of my head at least five premises for a sci-fi show that could be made within a reasonable budget — but I know they’ll never get produced here unless an American production company wants a tax break.

The closest I’ve ever seen to a Canadian show having something astonishingly fresh and a bolt from the blue was Pure, about a Mennonite crime ring smuggling cocaine. It was amazing to see folks on social media writing, “I’d watch that!” Exactly. But it lasted only two seasons.

I’m busy watching Shogun lately. It was shot in British Columbia. I know and love James Clavell’s novel, I own the original mini-series with Richard Chamberlain on DVD, and this new version is fantastic. My question:

Why can’t Canadian writers pitch a historical drama that can be shot up here but that has nothing to do with the War of 1812 or Vimy Ridge or the Winnipeg General Strike or any of a number of eye-rolling “prestigious” yet sure to be safe and dull (zzzzzzzz) Canadian subjects? Why can’t we write about the rest of the world and film it here? Really? Do we have to hear the same old songs about money needed or the tax credits involved or the latest Canadian content rules?

For the love of gawd, make the damn thing good enough that Netflix or Prime or DisneyPlus wants you!

Because until we do, Americans and Europeans will gladly keep flying up here and give a welcome boost to our production workers and some of our actors, and that’s great, but it doesn’t mean we have a mature Canadian television and film industry.

I was called a while back by the top guy at an LA production company for a star I know that you will have heard of. You can probably even guess who it is from this anecdote, but I hasten to add he wasn’t on the call… because I’m an idiot and wanted to have a separate call first with the executive — just to know what I was in for. So, the exec gave me the lowdown, which was this: The star and his production company were keenly interested in Bindy Johal, the infamous Punjabi-Canadian gang leader who’s written about in my book, Gangs in Canada. They were interested in making some kind of biopic or mini-series about him.

It boggles my mind to this day that they found me. Gangs in Canada was published way, way back in 2009. The exec hadn’t even read the book, they didn’t have it yet, but their mouths were clearly watering over getting source material.

Now I had a problem with what they hoped to do. It was very clear that they had tunnel vision and hoped Bindy Johal would be a great part for their star, and I’m sure it would. Look what Sofia Vergera did with her series on Griselda Blanco. Indian Scarface, you get the picture. But you see I’ve met and spoken with real folks from gangs, and many of them are sociopaths, and while I never met Bindy Johal, yeah, I got a problem with making a violent sociopath into another television hero.

By the way, whatever you think of the Law & Order franchise, it’s usually had a solid moral compass. Go back to its first seven seasons. Criminals aren’t glamorized.

So, I counter-pitched with the notion that they should really develop a series that cast a wider net, that didn’t just look at this one creep who ruined lives or even at just the gangsters themselves, but how Punjabi gangs hurt an entire community.

I know the exec stopped listening after I had to disclose that my publisher owns the book rights and I don’t. “We’ll get back to you,” he said. I put down my cell and said out loud, “Yeah, I’m never gonna hear from that guy again.” And I haven’t.

And I still wonder, Where is that Canadian drama series? A show that really gets into the ugliness of gangs and what they do to the people around them. Because you see, Canadian gangs are not at all like American gangs. We’re so wonderfully weird and unique up here, we even have a multicultural organized crime unit in British Columbia that called itself — no kidding — the UN Gang. You can’t do Bindy Johal, let alone any treatment of the Punjabi-Canadian gang problem, without exploring the Canadian context of gangs. You’ll end up with a half-assed imitative product again.

I know that gangs, specifically Punjabi gangs, are still a hot topic because only months after the call from the production company’s exec, I got another call from a literary agent all the way in India trying to package a new book, wanting me to write it. Nothing came of that phone call either, but it tells me the topic is viable.

And sadly, I’m sure the biopic on Johal, that sneering, murderous piece of shit, will eventually get produced. It’s inevitable.

But what a missed opportunity — that an original drama could depict crime and its fallout in Canada without imitating American cop shows, without even needing to.

Which brings us full circle back to Law & Order Toronto: Criminal Intent. It is so damn good, with a great pilot written by Tassie Cameron, with its fourth episode just aired one of its strongest offerings, that it’s easy to just bask as a viewer. And then it hits you… this is “borrowed power,” as the witches used to say on Buffy.

You came to watch because the Law & Order brand ensured you’d park your ass on your couch. Sheer curiosity probably made you wonder how Toronto would be treated. And like so many Canadians before who squealed with pride when American newscasters mentioned the space shuttle Canadarm, it’s a treat to see those black location cards with the duh-duh over “The Esplanade.”

And yes, I know, the Americans borrow, too, sometimes outright steal. They’ve taken promising concepts from around the world and always have, from the UK originals for Sanford & Son and Three’s Company to The Good Doctor from South Korea and so many more. But the Americans still take these concepts and reinvent them to be their own, and they certainly come up with enough of their homegrown fare that you never doubt you’re watching American television. There’s a reason everyone’s watching their stuff, and not ours. And that’s the thing:

The writing for Toronto is so strong, so sharp, that you feel bad that its creators simply couldn’t have built a drama with its episode plotlines and a truly original framework, one that didn’t have to depend on the Dick Wolf brand. And there’s the other rub. We don’t even have our own home brand that could ever bring us the same goodwill.

I’m not knocking the show and wishing it were something else. In fact, I’m rooting for Law & Order Toronto: Criminal Intent. Long may it air. But how wonderful it would be if it existed in a Canadian TV landscape where other dramas brought that same level of wonderful scripting and performances.

Where you didn’t automatically switch away from the execrable fare on CBC or CityTV because you have to, knowing that you stand a better chance of being entertained (or at least properly anesthetized) by even the most pedestrian script on an NBC, ABC or CBS Grey’s-Reno-Anatomy-Fire-Whatever.

It’s got to change. Please, please for the love of gawd let Anne of Green Fucking Gables die. No more incarnations of that damn book series. Don’t do the “Hey, it’s an ensemble hospital drama… but it’s set in Winnipeg!” No more trying to make us believe that folks on the Prairies or in the Maritimes are loveably quirky.

We can be different but still compelling. It starts with a good original idea within a genre and a sparkling script. Then someone having the balls to decide it should be made.

I have no idea who would use Crave (yecch), the streaming service that might as well bill itself “Bell Media’s Sloppy Seconds,” but I do know it would be wonderful if Canada created a drama that Netflix or Prime or Disney or, okay, sure, even Apple would desperately want, not just take because it’s cheap.

Can we try again?



Jeff Pearce

Writer person. Books - Prevail, The Karma Booth, Gangs in Canada; in June 2021, Winged Bull, a bio of Henry Layard, the Victorian era’s Indiana Jones.