This Wednesday night, the iconic TV producer/writer/director Chris Haddock returns to the CBC with a brand new series, The Romeo Section, and I could not be more excited to have him back in the saddle on a weekly series. One of the shows that cemented by love for Canadian television was Haddock’s Da Vinci’s Inquest, which ran seven seasons on the CBC and then spun off to a single season of Da Vinci’s City Hall (which U.S. audiences wouldn’t know was a separate entity because it was syndicated under the Inquest banner). A year later, he brought another excellent drama, Intelligence, to the CBC and it ran two seasons, until 2007. Haddock took a Canadian break post-Intelligence, working on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.
Now he’s back with The Romeo Section, a decidedly adult drama about spycraft and human nature, set in Vancouver and headlined by Andrew Airlie (who you will recognize immediately from a massive collection of work), and an extended cast that includes Juan Riedinger (Narcos), UnReal‘s Stephanie Bennett, newcomer Jemmy Chen, Manny Jacinto (who’s done iZombie, Rush, and Backstrom), and Sophia Lauchlin Hirt (Olympus). I chatted exclusively with Haddock and Airlie last week about the new series. I’ll have Airlie’s interview for you on Wednesday. First up, here’s what Haddock had to say about his pedigree and the new show. And he kindly gave me an exclusive scoop on casting for The Romeo Section that will make fans of his previous series very happy.
Fans of his previous shows (myself included) enjoyed the familiar of Haddock’s in-house repertory company as actors moved easily between his shows. “As I was growing those shows, I’d keep the [actors] in the fold, he says. “They’d come on, and I’d want to write more for them.” For The Romeo Section, he decided to test the waters with some new faces. “With this, I couldn’t go back to the same players because the idea was different. I wanted to reach out and see who was in the Chinese community before I started writing a good, strong Asian story,” he says. “The anchor of the story points to the West and the Pacific. It spoke to me — we feel like we’re on the edge of the Pacific, across from Asia, and that influence is all the way up the West Coast. I felt like aI needed to go out there and introduce a new cast. They just jump. It’s very exciting.”
That’s not to say there will ne bo familiar faces in the cast. Airlie himself has appeared in Inquest and Intelligence, Eugene Lipinski, who an entirely different set of fans might know from Arrow, also appeared on all three of Haddock’s series, and Highlander’s Jim Byrnes was in City Hall. Another throughline actor on all three shows was the terrific Ian Tracey, and Haddock shared exclusively that he will appear in a handful of episodes of The Romeo Section.
“He does make an appearance later in the season. He’s got a beautiful little role and he’s so good. I just started working with him [again] and he came on set and he’s such a pro,” he says. “He and I go back. I haven’t worked with him in five or six years. We’re good friends and I see him [but] I’d forgotten how good he is and how charismatic he is on the screen. I thought ‘Oh my God, I’ve really been taking him for granted.’ He just pops. He makes everyone feels so good. Everybody was thrilled to see him. He’s in the last three or four.”
The idea for the series came from Haddock’s research for Intelligence, and his plans to expand that show’s plot internationally if it had continued. When it was cancelled (with a HUGE cliffhanger), he stepped away from showrunning and went to work on Boardwalk Empire. When he was ready to pick up the reins as a showrunner again, he says the networks were more interested in “noisy” shows.
“Everything in my instincts is counterintuitive [to that]. There’s enough of a niche audience out there that likes my stuff that I [knew I could] hit that sweet spot with a show that is more British-influenced … a little bit quieter, a little bit slower paced,” he says. “I was really interested in capturing that quieter little corner, which I think people hunger for. I think there’s an adult audience out there that is hungry for stuff that doesn’t blow up nine times in the first three minutes. I’m trying to sneak in the back door and hope that I can.”
Haddock says taking a break from showrunning gave him perspective on how to be more efficient when he returned. “I had time for reflection. Stepping down off the carousel of not just writing but showrunning [was beneficial]. As a showrunner. I just try to hire the best people I can and get out of the way and keep access open to me. Boardwalk was the first time I hadn’t been the shworunner in 15-20 years,” he explains. “I could step back and look at the job, and [see what I could differently].”
“I don’t like to manage a big writers room. I cracked that model with Da Vinci’s City Hall, [where I worked with Jesse McKeown, who is also co-writing The Romeo Section]. It really worked well. There was nobody else in my head. I did that this year. It was [also] different in how I applied my time and focus. Fortunately we found a space [in town] where we can have editing and post in the same building [so I’m not running all over town].”
“That was what I wanted to do — keep everything closer. Now, editors can pop down to set, directors can pop up to editing. All that kind of thing makes such a big difference. We can have casual conversations passing in the hall [vs. driving or waiting for e-mails]. That’s a huge difference for me. Everybody has access to me. I spend most of my time on set.”
While the network has to build a narrative around what the show is, Haddock believes less is more. “Obviously we love teasing people and getting them excited about what they’ll see. In terms of giving away plot, I think that’s just wrong,” he says. “I also really didn’t want to sell or advertise a show that we weren’t making, luring people in with explosions. It’s a little bit of a slow burn, but it pays off. It’s a character drama. It’s not about quick draw, It has a lot of sexy elements and intrigue and suspense. It’s made perfect for binge watching.”
One of the things you’ll notice as you watch the show is that it’s not screaming at you that it’s 2015 — cell phone and computer use is minimal, people smoke actual cigarettes and meet in person, and Airlie’s character even uses a typewriter. Haddock says all of that was intentional. “I didn’t feel compelled to get caught up in the mainstream media entertainment banter [with] everything roaring along at a clip,” he explains.
“The theme of the show is really anxiety and how to deal with these anxieties and how do we deal with reasonable communication with other competing nations or resolve issues or avoid conflict away from these high pressure or nervous high stakes things? The anxiety that people have now is enormous and a lot of our media communications are escalating it. The amount of frantic hype about how anxious we should all be is out of control.”
“I wanted to step back and say, ‘No there’s a sanctuary of the mind. If you just step back from it, this is where we can present reasonable entertainment without it being about video screens and cool blue, streamlined glass architecture info rooms. I wasn’t interested in delving into hackers. That’s not what we’re about. Life is elsewhere. I think viewers are interested in characters. [They can say], ‘I don’t like that guy and I’m not sure what he’s doing, but I can’t deny that’s he’s alive and full of life. I think that’s what attracts viewers. They like to see characters that are alive and full of life. They might be struggling, but they’re not giving up.”
“I really think that’s the key to having a successful show that will keep people satisfied and wanting to know what’s going on with the characters. It’s not the plotline. The plotlines should be good, they should be sharp, and they should relate somehow to people’s lives, and they should [be able to fit the puzzle pieces into] into a world view, but not be anxious about it. Step outside of the mayhem and things maybe will get a little bit saner.”
Check back for my exclusive interview with Airlie, and more from the interview with Haddock.
The Romeo Section premieres at 9 e/p Wednesday night on the CBC.
Photo courtesy of the CBC