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A still from GTA's Most Wanted
A still from GTA's Most Wanted

mark schatzker

True crime, Canadian style Add to ...

First, the bad news. One of the best Canadian television shows ever to grace cable is going out of production. It's called GTA's Most Wanted, it airs on cable 10 (cable 63 in certain suburbs), and until a few days ago - when I received a recommendation so enthusiastic as to verge on manic - I'd never heard of it either.

GTA's Most Wanted is partly about a side of Toronto you don't know - brazen Canadian Tire heists, armoured-car hold-ups, home invasions, baseball bat assaults. But mainly it's about murder - the tragic, grisly, and bizarre homicides that have remained unsolved, in some cases, for decades.

While watching, your facial expression will run the range from gripped fascination to ashen-faced despair to tear-stained grief. There is no sadder show on all of television.

I am at pains to explain why this is a good thing. The subject matter is not what anyone would consider "good," and the feelings the show engenders aren't "good," either. And yet, I can't tear myself away.

There is precedent for this sort of thing. CSI, Law and Order, America's Most Wanted and American Justice are just a few of the ratings juggernauts that have mined the same subject matter. Murder may be the number one social taboo, but boy is it spellbinding.

Our neighbours to the south have a long tradition of telling stories about humans who kill their fellow humans. Canadians, not so much. Our government has mandated us to tell stories about ourselves - it's even paying good money to make it happen. But the subject matter is almost always "safe." ("Lame" might be a better word.)

Our literary tradition isn't much better. There is no Canadian equivalent to In Cold Blood or The Executioner's Song, which are considered two of the best books of the last century. One of the most striking differences between Canadian and American newspapers is the lack of crime coverage.

Life would neater and prettier if terrible things never happened. But they do. And the only thing more unhealthy than talking about them is not talking about them.

During one episode of GTA's Most Wanted I had to press pause so that I could weep. The show recounted the 1983 rape and murder of a young woman in her Yorkville apartment. She was a strikingly attractive University of Western Ontario grad. Except for her age, she could have been any number of blond-haired girls I grew up with. I was just shy of 10 years old the day she died, and grainy footage of a yellow Toronto Police vehicle - they were yellow up until 1986 - transported me back through the decades. I felt a sting of loss for a woman from bygone era I never knew.

(The man who murdered her, it was later discovered, also murdered a divorced mother of three on Grace Street, mere blocks from where I live. According to police, he probably lived in the neighbourhood. He might be there still.)

GTA's Most Wanted achieves what a lifetime of CBC comedies and dramas have failed to do: It makes Toronto seem, oddly, more real. It breathes stories into the friendly but bland metropolis we call home. Street signs become suddenly imbued with tragedy. Neighbourhoods contain the hopes, loves, and screams of people long since gone.

And now the good news. Rogers may be putting GTA's Most Wanted on hiatus, but they're continuing production of their second best show, On Patrol with Toronto Police.

Nothing beats a good cop story. Whenever I meet a police officer - there's one from 42 Division I keep bumping into at toddler birthday parties - I hit them up for juicy tales. A mounted cop I once met in Trinity Bellwoods park told me that his horse, a towering giant named Lincoln, has, in the past, run down drug dealers. I found this exhilarating.

The last episode of On Patrol with Toronto Police I watched featured a guy in a polo shirt being escorted in handcuffs from his apartment, wailing like a four-year-old. There was also a shaven-headed tattooed dude with a bleeding lip who was in a bar fight, and a screaming mother in a red tank top being arrested for issuing death threats. Her parting words to her young son were, "You never ever call your daddy. You know how loser he is [sic]"

These are actual people we share our city with. We like to pretend they don't exist, but they do, and ignoring them or pretending they're not there, however polite, isn't helping anyone. An honest portrait may not be easy to look at, but that doesn't mean you should turn away.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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