Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Eyes on the "Endgame"

I'm usually wary of watching television shows that have already been cancelled, because I know any cliffhangers or larger story arcs will end up going unresolved. However, the Canadian detective show "Endgame" was episodic enough that I got plenty out of each individual episode, and it has one of those wacky, only-on-television premises that I'm such a sucker for.

"Endgame" follows the hijinks of Arkady Balagan (Shawn Doyle), a Russian chess grandmaster who has been unable to step outside the walls of the fictional Huxley Hotel in Vancouver since his fiancee was killed by assassins targeting Arkady. He runs up a tab at the hotel that requires him to regularly scrounge up large amounts of cash to avoid eviction, mostly by using his prodigious puzzler to solve mysteries for people in and around the hotel. His allies include his fiance's younger sister Pippa (Melanie Papalia), an eager young chess devotee, Sam (Torrance Coombs), the maid Alcina (Carmen Aguirre), and the bartender Danni (Katharine Isabelle). Think "Eloise," if "Eloise" was a vodka-swilling Russian chess master, who solved murders, and had the egotistical attitude and moody temperament of Dr. House or Patrick Jane from "The Mentalist." Oh, and replace Nanny with the hotel's hostile head of security, Hugo (Patrick Gallagher).

Shawn Doyle's performance is a lot of fun to watch. I have no idea if his Russian accent is even remotely correct, but he seems to be having a ball playing Arkady as a brilliant, conceited European who knows he's brilliant and has no compunctions about flaunting it for his own gain. At first he fits the mold of the foreign eccentric a little too well, but soon comes into his own. Arkady walks around the hotel barefoot in a bathrobe, drinks at all hours, and gets away with extremely rude behavior while still being terribly charming and impressive. It's no wonder the other regulars are eventually won over by him, and get caught up in helping with his investigations. Full of zippy one-liners and modest innuendos, "Endgame" is very much in the same vein as the lighthearted USA crime shows like "Burn Notice," "Psych" and "White Collar," where everything wraps up far too nicely at the end of each episode.

The biggest difference is that the production values for "Endgame" are more expensive, with fancier interiors and a few neat little special effects sequences. Arkady will occasionally imagine various scenarios for how a crime could have played out, and add himself to the scene. He'll also see suspects as literal pieces on a chessboard at least once an episode. Do they have a real giant chess set sitting around somewhere for these shots, or is the effect entirely digital, I wonder? Anyway, the transitions to and from these fantasy sequences are clever and the chess metaphors are restrained enough that they have yet to become belabored. Arkady may see his cases in terms of chess games, but thankfully the series doesn't hit us over the head with that notion.

What is getting dull very quickly is the the story arc where Arkady and Pippa investigate the death of Arkady's fiancee Rosemary (Lisa Ray), with the help of police detective Jason Lawrence (Colin Lawrence). There have been endless flashbacks to the moments where Rosemary's car was blown up, and very little progress is made on the case from week to week. You always get one of these deeply traumatic, deeply personal mysteries at the heart of any of these unorthodox detective series, but "Endgame" really lays it on thick very quickly. Since the entire premise of the show hinges on keeping Arkady in the hotel, and we assume he'll be able to leave once he solves Rosemary's murder, why are the creators so keen on bringing up new developments every single week?

On the other hand, considering that "Endgame" has already been cancelled after a single season of thirteen episodes, maybe they were better off getting as much material out of that storyline while they could. I'm sad to see it go. This is a series of small but consistent pleasures, that easily could have gone on for several seasons longer. If you trimmed the budget and lost one or two of the less interesting cast members, "Endgame" could probably transition to USA or TNT or even one of the networks to run for ages. Sure, it's covering a lot of familiar ground and borrows heavily from similar shows like "Monk" and "House," but it's one of the better variations on the detective theme, or at least the most wildly implausible in an entertaining way.

Oh well. The game was fun while it lasted.

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