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Forgive Me: A fine, fraught new series about sinners

Sins. I've committed a few, but then again too few to mention in confession, which is why I stopped going.

Ah yes, the confessional. Bless me, Father. It's been about 40 years since my last confession. The sins, venial and mortal, have mounted up. We could be here a while. No, I don't remember the words to the Confiteor.

But I can tell you about Forgive Me (Super Channel, 8:30 p.m. ET).

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A new and richly textured drama series made in Halifax and written and directed by long-time Nova Scotia-based filmmaker Thom Fitzgerald (the movies The Hanging Garden and Cloudburst), it's a rare example of audacious Canadian TV.

Obviously inspired somewhat by the HBO series In Treatment, which featured Gabriel Byrne as a psychologist and comprised, in essence, the shrink's sessions with his patients, Forgive Me is about a priest and what he hears in the confessional. Thus it is a closed, intimate drama, reliant on words, phrases and the tight dynamic of speaker and listener searching for emotional clarity.

The main character is a young priest (Mike McLeod, who is superb) trying to establish himself with the congregation as the older priests he lives with (John Dunsworth, far from his Trailer Park Boys role, Jeremy Akerman and Rob Joseph Leonard) come to retirement. He's already troubled, we know, this young man. Each night's sleep is disturbed when a figure, clearly the homoerotic icon Saint Sebastian, appears to him and tries to make a connection.

For a series so spare, in that it is mostly set inside the confines of the confessional, Forgive Me has a visual sumptuousness that's startling. The opening credits, which linger on religious art and some brief scenes outside the church, are gorgeously framed and resplendent. But the authentic drama is in the box-like confessional.

In tonight's first episode the young priest hears the confession of a woman (Jane Alexander) who hasn't been to confession for half a century. She pours out her list of grievances, sins, half-sins and quiet rage. A bitter divorce. An abortion. Emotional wars with others. The young priest is enlivened by it all. And therein lies the crux of the drama – his impulse is to be therapist, social worker and friend, yet his job is to hear the confession only. Near the end of the episode, someone else arrives to speak with the priest. And what she confesses, about a shared past, reveals something that astonishes the young man and might ruin him.

This turn of events diminishes in some ways the dramatic power of the series, the heft that resides in the one-on-one confrontations in the confessional. "Confrontational" is what best describes the third episode. (The second was unavailable for review. Pity.) A man (Hugh Thompson, doing very fine work) who wants to be known only as "Smith" comes to confession and tells a tangled tale of lust, distrust and a search for forgiveness. He's hostile, cocky and deeply troubled. The priest senses he might be talking to a pedophile and is shaken by the conversation. Rage rises within him but must be checked – he's not a police officer and he's talking to man expecting absolution. It's a powerful 30 minutes of television (all the episodes are half an hour), intense and creepy.

The sense of hushed dysfunction permeates Forgive Me – this is very much adult drama – both within the confession box and outside it. The priest consults his grandmother (Olympia Dukakis) for advice and, eventually, the mother of "Smith" (Brenda Fricker) comes to him seeking answers. For all the young priest's noble aspirations, he's surrounded by doubt, conflict and pain, including his own.

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Forgive Me can be classified as a Canadian "premium cable" series and as such it stretches the boundaries of Canadian TV drama beyond conventional entertainment. It has power and at the same time, for all that it is steeped in melancholy, it is limited in scope. One wishes it expanded outward and reached for even more complexity. The limitations are far from sinful and it's far from disappointing, but one longs for the big, bleakly brilliant, not just the bleakly small.

Also airing tonight

Highway Thru Hell (Discovery, 10 p.m. ET/PT) returns for a new season. Discovery says, "Highway Thru Hell is what happens when tough guys meet tough conditions. Mangled metal and jangled nerves – and the elite team of men who can conquer both." Yes, it's macho and features accidents and fear on the Coquihalla Highway – "100 treacherous kilometres cutting through the heart of British Columbia's Cascade mountains" – but it's really about tough, caring guys coming to the rescue. Loads of people enjoy that.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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