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January 2011

The Listener

cast: Craig Olejnik, Ennis Emmer, Mylene Dinh-Robic, Lisa Marcos, and Colm Feore

creator: Michael Amo

540 minutes (15) 2009
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Universal DVD Region 2

RATING: 8/10
review by James A. Stewart

The Listener - season one

There is arguably nothing fresh and new left in the world of TV drama making. Every genre has been well represented and every plot device used in one way or another. Even seemingly groundbreaking shows like Lost and 24 have quite obvious predecessors, but this doesn't detract from the fare on show, and it's not so much what has come before in the case of such offerings, but more how they take it to the next level.

In the first series of the Canadian produced The Listener we are treated to a 13-episode series that has serious shades of programs like The Dead Zone, Ghost Whisperer, The Mentalist, and Medium. Whilst the parallels and influences are pretty obvious in Michael Amo's creation, this is a series that is not without some merit and thanks to some good casting and plotting it is able to stand on its own two feet.

Toby Logan (Craig Olejnik) is 'the listener', a telepathic paramedic who can zone in and out of the minds of those around him. Aside from Ray (Colm Feore), his sometime mentor, no one knows about Toby's gift: at least at the start. Well, the plot would have been dull if people didn't find out. Oz (Ennis Emmer) is Toby's buddy and ambulance-driving partner. Whilst Toby is a reasonable guy, one who is meek and modest, Oz is a full-on type of fellow who gives the partnership some much-needed personality. The more comedic parts of the scripts and plots lie with Oz to land. That is not to say Toby's character is boring, rather he is more troubled and withdrawn. In the end you get to like Oz but have empathy for Toby.

Joining these two are Toby's love-interest Olivia (Mylene Dinh-Robic), a feisty doctor who has trouble dealing with Toby's more distant moments, and Charlie Marks (Lisa Marcos), the Toronto city cop who appears to be a bit dim on the uptake but seems to pop up everywhere Toby does. She does show some nous to prise Toby's secret from him after one too many. Aside from these four, the cast is pretty pliable with only George Ryder, chief paramedic and erstwhile enemy of Oz, who can be regarded as a regular player in the series. There is a bit of the Louis Gosset Jr about Ryder's character.

Toby and his gifts are introduced pretty much immediately in the opening episode when he gets a 'hit' from a woman in a burning car. We are quickly informed that he is a reluctant telepath and has battled with controlling the power all his life; and that he is an orphan whose mother, also a telepath, may have had to sacrifice herself to save him.

After this, the episodes come at a fairly good pace, lacing backstory with plot and character development, but it is only really after the fifth episode that Toby truly begins to harness his powers, and he does so for good after forming an uneasy bond with detective Marks. Thereafter, the pace and interest in The Listener ratchets up as we wait to see what Toby will do next and to find out how he became a crime-fighting telepath who kicks about in an ambulance for a living.

Whilst the series is enjoyable it isn't without its flaws. Detective Marks appears to be a bit of a troublesome character in that she hates to rely on Toby, and is as scared of as she is dependent on his powers. One minute she is telling him to stop 'violating' (her words) people by reading their minds and the next she is asking for his help to solve crimes and catch bad guys.

In addition, Toby has guarded his secret for over 20 years, but within a few episodes two more people become aware of his ability and use him to their own end. Perhaps it is an understated way of pointing out that even friends and confidants will seek to get personal gain from someone if the temptation or need is marked enough. The final major criticism is that Toby's backstory stutters throughout the script and is shoehorned in at inopportune times, as if it was written into the plotline as an afterthought.

These foibles aside, The Listener is a pretty good TV programme, which whilst not appearing to have the type of budget some of the big US TV offerings, it does very well by keeping the lead character the focus of the viewer's attention and ensures that this is a character piece as much as it is about the escapism of having such a power. It is described as a supernatural drama but in many ways it is as much about a personal voyage of discovery. And indeed, there is the argument throughout that such a power can be as much of a burden as a benefit; although not as overtly called out as the famous Ben Parker line about great power bringing great responsibility, mind you.

The Listener is based Toronto and makes excellent use of the city's landmarks in order to hammer home the point that this is not an American production. Unlike programs like Stargate SG-1 which were filmed mainly in Canada but with an all-American feel, The Listener is produced with great pride in its city, and rightly so. Many of the obvious landmarks such as the CN Tower, Skydome and Rogers Centre will be familiar to those who have been in downtown Toronto, but there is also excellent use made of the suburbs and less well-known sights to make this an aesthetically pleasing spectacle.

Season one of The Listener was shown in over 20 countries (FX in the UK, 2009) but season two was cancelled midway through by NBC who made the remaining episodes available for viewing online. I am surprised at this, but after the way season one ends I do wonder if there were always going to be limitations in taking this forward as a viable multi-season drama.

All in all, I enjoyed this; it isn't absolutely original but has enough sound characterisation to make it fresh and the Novak Djokovic look-a-like leading man holds attention well enough to make it through the slower opening episodes. The setting, the production and stories are all generally of a good standard and I was pleasantly surprised by how watchable this was in the end. I will look out for season two in due course.

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