A fast-moving, sexy, timely, action-packed thriller … set in a newsroom? It sounds a bit far-fetched, but Lucas Bryant, a star of the new CBC drama Shoot the Messenger, says that's just what the series delivers. "It's just good TV," he says, "Period."
Set to premiere Monday night, the buzzy show follows Daisy (Elyse Levesque), a young journalist who witnesses a murder and gets entangled in a story that crosses criminal, political and corporate borders. The show, which was written by husband-and-wife team Jennifer Holness and Sudz Sutherland, aims to effortlessly blend the disparate worlds of journalism, crime and politics – and, yes, even make journalists a bit more flashy and zeitgeist-catching.
"I loved the way Sudz and Jen addressed these themes because I feel like they did it in a non-judgmental way, which can be hard to do. There's a whole lot of stuff about race and sexuality and corruption in politics, which are all topics right now that are just trending on every social-media platform," Levesque says. "I think that the relevance of it will be interesting to people, and the brutalness of it. It's not overly showy in a lot of its violence but I feel like it tries to be as blunt as it can be, so I think that will be appealing."
According to Bryant, who plays a crusading journalist named Simon, the show is "something that people will recognize," since it is "based on things pulled from headlines in the past couple years."
Most notably, that includes the Rob Ford crack scandal, a story that broke while Holness and Sutherland were creating the series. Even though Holness didn't want to centre their show around the controversy involving Toronto's former mayor, they did end up pulling elements from the story.
"What I took away from the Rob Ford thing on the Rob Ford side was that powerful people get away with everything," she says. "It's not the guys who steal from Shoppers Drug Mart to survive or keep their drug habit going. When you go up the food chain you see where corruption really lies, so that's kind of thematically what happens with the show."
The Ford scandal also piqued Holness's interest in Toronto's Somali community, particularly the group of men who, according to her, had the guts "to try and blackmail a mayor." That curiosity ultimately led to the show's inclusion of that community, though Holness recognizes that such a plot point could be viewed through an exploitative lens.
"We just want to make sure we create characters that are believable and nuanced, not characters that are one-dimensional and that don't have agency, and all those horrible things that often happen when people portray diverse characters," she says.
While conducting research for Shoot the Messenger, Holness and Sutherland turned to numerous news outlets, consulting real-life journalists and police officers to draw from their experiences. Holness also noticed a trend in journalism-centred entertainment – although movies such as Spotlight and All the President's Men had found great success, newsroom-centric TV shows didn't fare nearly as well.
"In our minds, movies worked instead of TV because those movies worked like a crime drama," she says. "So we tried to marry the cop element and the journalism and make the show feel like you're watching a crime drama. And our journalists are functioning not just as crusaders but are working to unwrap a mystery."
Levesque and Bryant say that shooting the show was successful not just because of the material they were working with, but because of the open and unusually supportive work environment Sutherland and Holness fostered on set. (Bryant was caught off guard when the husband-and-wife duo pushed the start date of production back so that he could be home for his son's due date.)
"I've worked on some shows where there's notes on how they want you to say every line, whereas with Sudz it was like, 'Oh wait, you did something there that's way cooler than what we wrote. Let's do that instead,' " Levesque says. "I felt like there was a collaboration, which is thrilling and exciting as an actor."
Another aspect that sets Shoot the Messenger apart in today's landscape is its unapologetically Canadian feel. "It's interesting when you make a show that's set in Canada and you're trying to have U.S. sales – which is important to have a budget and make something that's really great – you're always battling this thing where it can't feel like it's too Canadian," Holness says. "But we are not hiding."
While Levesque agrees that highlighting Canada is an important step to highlighting homegrown culture, she also believes it presents an interesting opportunity to underline the country's imperfections, too. "We are a pretty fantastic country and we pride ourselves on a lot of our peacekeeping and free health care and we've got all these great things going on," she says. "But we too have our own sores and crime and problems and corruption. That's an interesting story to tell."
Shoot the Messenger premieres Oct. 10 at 9 p.m. on CBC-TV.