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Jason Priestley as Richard Fitzpatrick in the new HBO series Call Me Fitz (HBO Canada)
Jason Priestley as Richard Fitzpatrick in the new HBO series Call Me Fitz (HBO Canada)

Andrew Ryan: Television

Jason Priestley: No more Mr. Nice Guy Add to ...

Take a bow, Canada. Maybe it's TIFF bravado talking, but feel proud that our TV industry has finally pulled even with our neighbours to the south.

Canadian-made series like Flashpoint and Rookie Blue are every bit the equal of anything airing on American network television - and, in fact, both shows simulcast on U.S. networks.

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Time and again, Canadian TV has proven itself to be world-class in news, sports and children's programming. We've even got the dizzy reality-TV racket down cold, if Battle of the Blades is any indication. And for those who believe we may be currently lacking in the TV comedy department, try watching CPAC.

Our only notable shortfall likely speaks to our damnably genial nature: Canadian television has yet to produce a viable anti-hero - a charming rogue in the vein of cuddly mob capo Tony Soprano or, say, that precocious serial killer Dexter. Where is our lovable bad guy?

The dastard drought ends with Call Me Fitz (Sunday, HBO Canada at 9 p.m.). The original series casts former Beverly Hills, 90210 mainstay Jason Priestley as one Richard Fitzpatrick, a wretched womanizer besotted by booze, addled by drugs and seemingly without a single redeeming quality. Even more unforgivably, he's a used-car salesman.

"Fitz is a pretty despicable guy," said a beaming Priestley following a Toronto International Film Festival function earlier this week. "He's an arrested adolescent, going through life without any moral compass. He cares only about himself. But he's a lot of fun at parties."

And at long last, Canadian viewers have an original character to ponder. Created by TV veteran Sheri Elwood, Call Me Fitz was filmed in the Annapolis Valley village of New Minas, N.S., earlier this year. Darkly comic in tone, the show is already considered a hit by the usual TV standards: Filming for the second season began before the first season even debuted.

The early vote of confidence connects directly to Priestley's portrayal of the head heel. The Vancouver-born actor removes any lingering vestiges of his clean-cut 90210 persona Brandon Walsh in the dark-comedy series, right from the very first scene, wherein Fitz is in a car up on the hoist with the car dealership's receptionist, getting his oil changed, so to speak.

"He never gives any thought to the ramifications of his behaviour," said Priestley. "Fitz is a live-for-the-moment type and most people watching have probably known someone like him at some point in their life."

At 41, Priestley has far outdistanced his former 90210 costars. He's lost none of his boyish good looks and he still snags regular high-profile TV roles. Most recently he was a recurring player as a lecherous news anchor on the ABC midseason series Scoundrels.

But Call Me Fitz is Priestley's show all the way. Forever taking belts from his hip flask, or scoring weed from the dealership's mechanics, Fitz is plowing through life at top gear and doesn't care who he offends.

When the Muslim owners of the car-dealer competition across the street taunt him, he responds, "Sit on these twin towers!" You can probably guess which two fingers he brandishes.

In Fitz's defence, the character has little incentive to curb his ways. Fitz has won salesman-of-the-year honours nine years running, but mostly because his father, Ken (Peter MacNeill), owns the dealership.

The series tone is set in the first episode when Fitz takes a woman for a test drive - unwisely, he's driving - which ends in a horrific crash. When a gaggle of girls happen upon the accident scene, Fitz is found trying to stuff the unconscious customer behind the wheel. When he visits her later in the hospital, she's in a coma and he tries to revive her via a sex act.

"Obviously this isn't a typical comedy," said Priestley with a chuckle. "It's pretty dark. We play all the characters for the realism of it, but it's the ridiculous situations that are funny."

And at the same time, you have to like the guy. Even at Fitz's lowest moments, and they are many, he's still a charmer, in his own way.

"That's been the big challenge of playing Fitz," reflected Priestley. "Certainly he's reprehensible, but you also have to make him likable and redeemable in order to make the audience like him and go along with the story."

And yes, there does seem to be redemption for the wretched Fitz. When he returns to work, he finds competition in the form of a cheery new salesman named Larry, who claims to be Fitz's long-dormant conscience. Larry (Ernie Grunwald) is there, he says, to help Fitz get his life back on track. "You can imagine how well that sits with Fitz," Priestley said.

Outside of Fitz, Priestley still works steadily as a TV director and has directed episodes of 7th Heaven, The Secret Life of the American Teenager and The CW's 90210 remake. He also helmed two episodes of Fitz and intends to direct at least that many shows in the upcoming season.

"I would direct more of them if I could, but it's tough squeezing in the time. I'm wall-to-wall on this show every day," he said.

Even then, there are distinct advantages to shooting a 13-episode series. "It's a wonderfully short season," said Priestley. "And it's a half-hour, single-camera show, so instead of an eight-day schedule for each episode, it's a four-day schedule. I got into Nova Scotia last Saturday night, and I'll be wrapped by Dec. 1."

And as miserable as Fitz's existence may be, the man playing him is the picture of blissful contentment. Priestley is now a devoted family man and the proud father of two young children, a girl and a boy, with wife Naomi. Every day is a holiday for this former 90210er.

"It's fantastic," he said with a wide smile. "It's absolutely perfect. My family comes with me on location. My kids love it in the Maritimes and so do I. Life really couldn't be any better."

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