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CBC's Trickster stars newcomer Joel Oulette as Jared, an Indigenous teen struggling to keep his dysfunctional family above water.

CBC

It always seems surprising when really good, entertaining and smart Canadian TV comes along. This shouldn’t be the case. The industry here is vast and filled with talented people. The CBC is mandated to present scripted content and commercial channels are obliged to create Canadian content. There is financial support available from taxpayers and your cable fees, and we don’t lack stories to tell.

Yet when a middling-good Canadian drama arrives it is inevitably overpraised. The impulse to overstate the quality of undistinguished content is understandable but wrongheaded.

TIFF 2020: With one-two punch of Inconvenient Indian and Trickster, Michelle Latimer is the festival’s breakout talent

Trickster (starts Wednesday, CBC, 9 p.m.) actually deserves all the advance, gushing praise it garnered since episodes were screened at TIFF. Hugely entertaining, clever and fizzing with energy, the six-episode series is a vivid blend of familiar TV storytelling conventions with a startling dose of spooky Indigenous Gothic.

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Adapted from the bestselling of novels by Eden Robinson, Trickster is about Jared (Joel Oulette), an Indigenous teen who, when we meet him, has it all sorted out. He goes to school, has a job at a local fast-food joint, and makes and sells drugs on the side. Clever guy, this one. Then things fall apart and a few strange encounters make him wonder about his origins and place in the world.

The six-episode series is a vivid blend of familiar TV storytelling conventions with a startling dose of spooky Indigenous Gothic.

CBC

Those origins are connected to Wade (Kalani Queypo), a guy who, we speculate from the opening credits, might be supernatural, dead or just dead-cool. In any case, Jared has his own problems to deal with. His drug business has gone bust, there’s this teenage girl Sarah (Anna Lambe), who’s just moved into the 'hood (in the Kitimat, B.C., neck of the woods) and he’s, you know, seriously intrigued by her. Plus there’s the fact that his mom, Maggie (Crystle Lightning, brilliant here), a hard-partying force of energy, has hooked up with local drug boss Richie (Joel Thomas Hynes doing his best thug-act) who hates him.

At times, Trickster is like a gothic Dawson’s Creek dipped in (Canadian) acid. It’s a loaded coming-of-age-story, but often as punchily funny as it is chillingly spooky. Best of all, the plot is engrossing and has good bones; it’s confident storytelling that doesn’t waste time.

Joel Oulette and Kalani Queypo in Trickster.

CBC

What co-creators Michelle Latimer and Tony Elliott have done (with Latimer directing) isn’t easily achieved. The distinctive story – often just wonderfully charming – is shot-through with recognizably touchy contemporary issues. For instance, there’s a pipeline planned for the area and Jared’s crush Sarah is campaigning against it. Yet there is nothing clumsy or ponderous about the inclusion of these issues in the tale. It is a seamless portrait of life in this place that might be any place where matters of environmental importance or cultural heritage exist.

Best of all, there is the wit in the texture of it all. Just for keeping Robinson’s sense of humour mightily alive in the adaptation, Latimer should get an award. “You worry too much,” Maggie tells son Jared as she’s prepping to get high.

“You don’t worry enough,” is his reply. (The teenagers being wiser than adults is part of the convention of shows such as Dawson’s Creek.) And no scene is allowed to become strained with effort to underline a point about the lives being lived here. Even when Jared begins encountering talking animals and birds, he’s more concerned about living his complicated teenage life than contemplating dark meanings.

Joel Oulette and Anna Lambe in Trickster.

CBC

It’s Episode 2 before the engine of Trickster really roars into action. But the first episode, along with the others, is must-see TV, a highly entertaining place to lose yourself while learning something about what might seem an undecipherable part of Canada, but isn’t that byzantine if you’re a teenager trying to get by, make some money and fall in love. There’s great oomph to Trickster and this is one instance where the praise is absolutely justified. Highly recommended.

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Also on Wednesday – The U.S. vice-presidential debate (9 p.m., all U.S networks and CBC NN) takes on larger meaning than usual, with the current U.S. President being, well, ill, and the remaining two presidential debates being less than certain. The moderator is Susan Page, USA Today’s Washington bureau chief, and like the presidential debates, this one is scheduled for 90 minutes with no commercial breaks. It’s worth remembering that Senator Kamala Harris, although a seasoned court-room performer, struggled in TV debates when battling for the Democratic nomination. Also that Mike Pence is not the dull figure portrayed in late-night chat-show monologues. He spent years as a successful conservative radio talk-show host, and he has bite.

Stand-ins rehearse on the debate stage during technical run-throughs a day ahead of the U.S. vice-presidential debate in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Oct. 6, 2020.

JIM BOURG/Reuters

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Tony Elliott's last name

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