TV reviews: EndGame and Jo

UNITED STATES - Every crime-buster on television at least goes out the front door to do some investigating.

But not highly temperamental and pompous Arkady Balagan (Canadian actor Shawn Doyle from Big Love), in the light, highly improbable Canadian crime series, Endgame.

He does not go anywhere because after his fiancee was killed in a carpark (a recurring mystery here), he suffers from agoraphobia (fear of open spaces) so dramatically acute that in one episode which requires him to venture out, he is fitted with a bag over his head like the Elephant Man.

Actually, he is not even a cop.

Instead, Balagan is a Russian former world chess champion, a prima donna so brilliant and brilliantly eccentric he walks around barefoot in a bathrobe anywhere he pleases in a swanky hotel, the Huxley, which he calls home.

Everyone, including the stressed-out hotel manager who chases him for unpaid bills and the bone-headed resident security officer (Glee's Patrick Gallagher) he mocks freely, is a mere pawn in his cerebral kingdom.

Oh, here we go again, another escapee from the Weirdo Detective Asylum which also churns out oddballs from Monk, The Mentalist, Psych, Numbers, Perception, et cetera. This time, it is a chess master as a crime master.

The deal here is that Balagan is such an amazing brainiac he solves cases by re-imagining and re-enacting them from various angles - suspects pop up as little pieces on a chessboard to talk to him - and letting his adoring minions (a hot-babe bartender, an eager student) do the legwork for him.

"People say you're a genius," somebody says.

"Yes, I know," he replies nonchalantly. You know, I could not stop laughing at the absurdity of this show and, boy, there is plenty to laugh at here.

That barefoot Greta Garbo gag is insane. The way the super genius knows exactly how every crime happened just by thinking it through is ridiculous.

The Russian stereotyping is predictable.

"You look sadder than before; you must have Russian blood," he assesses one person.

And, dig this, he uses a hotel cleaning woman to help him solve puzzles in between her breaks. It is the loopiest chambermaid deal since former IMF head, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, misinterpreted the idea of room service.

So, basically you have an arrogant chess genius, a Hispanic cleaning woman, a hot bartender and a geek kid as the crack team here.

Plus there is no challenging mind feat since there really is no clever writing to boggle the mind.

Any allusion to the intellectualism of chess is spent on glib, lazy referencing: "Sometimes a pawn becomes a queen," the master expounds majestically about a suspect hidden in disguise.

The maths people in Numbers strain more muscle between their ears than this series.

But here is the thing. This 2011 series grows on you like a minor pimple, especially if you are some kind of nerd.

It bears the bad-but-fun-enoughto- be-claimed-by-freaks virtues of a cult series.

In America, its one season was so throwaway it was apparently screened only on the streaming website, Hulu. But its fans, eager for a big-brain champ the way plumbers look to the toilet expert as their hero, campaigned for its return.

Yes, geek-dom has its privileges.

My primary thrill here was playing "where the heck have I seen Shawn Doyle before".

Oh wait, he was the creepy bad guy in Jim Caviezel's 2000 sci-fi thriller, Frequency, a good movie I must have seen about 10 times.

It means Doyle must be doing a great job here playing a flamboyant Russian behaving more like an insufferable Frenchman to throw me off recognising him.

Either that or his 1970s porn actor look here, with wavy locks and silky shirts, is too great a distraction.

Now, Endgame is about a Canadian pretending to be a Russian, but Jo is about a Frenchman pretending to be an American.

No, make that an entire one-season French crime series pretending to be American.

You know this because its famous lead, Jean Reno (Godzilla, 1998, and The Da Vinci Code, 2006) is French; every street, every monument, every place barged into is very French; the air, I am sure, is overwhelmingly French, and yet everybody is not dubbed in English but, as far as I can tell, actually speaks English.

I see a lot of Anglo names on the cast list and apparently, a vocal coach was brought in to ensure that everyone spoke with an American accent.

My goodness, who has such ultimate gall to do something so unspeakable to Gallic pride? Eeez impossible, non?

This serious series is co-created by Rene Balcer, Canadian scriptwriter of the American cop series, Law & Order.

Maybe he figured that the best way for Americans to travel to foreign lands is not with an interpreter but with an American- style tour guide.

That would explain why Reno exudes the perfect unmade-bed mien of a weary New York detective because he really is France's premier exponent of the guy who just woke up from an unmade bed.

And how Jill Hennessy (Law & Order, Crossing Jordan) pops up as an unorthodox nun-confidant who often shows up on grimy occasions.

As Jo Saint-Clair, a veteran of Paris' homicide bureau, Reno is laden with depressing urban problems. He is a recovering addict-alcoholic burdened by underworld associations and needs to reconnect with his estranged daughter whom he had treated badly before.

"I was an a**hole. I'm trying not to be that guy anymore," he assures her.

The first pleasure here is watching this marvellous, beguilingly languid actor plod through the overly convoluted murder plots with the cosy ease of a hangdog sniffing hidden corners.

The second is to view the splendid monuments and grand Parisian sights which dot the background the cops go past.

The third are the little glimpses of social tension and class warfare which in, say, a really gritty French flick, would be the engine which drives the pulsating plot. The way Geraldine Chaplin livens up one episode with a Liliane Bettencourt- style billionaire's arrogance.

Jo is definitely worth watching due to Reno and its scenic locales. If only it were totally French.

View It


FOXCrime (StarHub Channel 503/SingTel mioTV Channel 313), Fridays, 10.50pm

Rating: 2.5/5


FOXCrime (StarHub Channel 503/SingTel mioTV Channel 313), Thursdays, 10.50pm

Rating: 3/5

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