By Bill Chaisson
I have been fitfully watching “The Pinkertons” on Netflix. Fitfully because it isn’t really that good, but it ought to be. Martha MacIsaac is fine as Kate Warne, the first female Pinkerton agent, and Jacob Blair is likeable as Will Pinkerton, the slightly wayward son of the founder of the agency, Allan Pinkerton. But the rest of the cast tends to be straight out of the melodrama school of acting. This works in another Canadian show, “Murdoch Mysteries,” because the timing of the actors is sharp, the scripts are better, and the tone never varies.
“The Pinkertons” was shot in the middle of nowhere in Manitoba and employed a lot of local actors and the quality of their performances is uneven at best (the worst of them sound like they are in a parody of a school play). The scripts for the one and only season were written by 10 different people in various combinations, which is perhaps why the main characters do not develop rapidly enough to make either them or the relationship between them interesting.
Of course the main rule of romantic comedy is deployed, Kate and Will dislike each other from the start and then this gets chipped away at episode by episode with the usual two-steps-forward-one-step-back pattern. Kate is a widow and doesn’t like to talk about her past, but the information that Will digs out of her over time does not really intrigue. While less effort seems to be made to make Will interesting, he ends up being the more complicated character. On the surface he is lazy, not very disciplined, and a bit of a cad, but as the narrative arcs he shown to have reasonably good instincts about people, to be willing to learn from Kate, and to have principles when they are required.
When Kate and Will are alone the show assumes a naturalist tone, mostly due to Blair, whose acting style is relaxed, personable, and without pretense. MacIsaac remains stiffer, as her character demands, but she too shows a wide range of facial expressions, emotional range in her voice, and generally comes across as a human being. As soon as either of them is in a scene with the rest of the cast everything stiffens up into this we-are-portraying-19th century-people school of acting. Even bushwackers (those who rode with Quantrill) and barmaids speak with oddly formal syntax.
There are also characters in this show that are crying out to be further developed and simply aren’t. First and foremost is John Bell (played by Ray Strachan), the African-American who is the caretaker of the farm where Kate lives. I for one kept expecting him to be more drawn into the crime-solving component of the program and get he never really is. Annalee Webb (played by Jennifer Pudavick), the proprietor of the Dubois Hotel, has an ongoing flirtation with Will and is occasionally asked to procure information from a prostitute who works in the hotel, but beyond that seem there mostly to show off décolletage. This is a shame, as Strachan and Pudavick are capable actors.
The show is set in Kansas City in the years just following the Civil War. “Bleeding Kansas” was the site of a series of skirmishes in the 10 years leading up to the Civil War over whether the territory would enter as a slave or free state. After it entered as a free state in 1861 there was conflict along the Missouri border throughout the war. Aside from noting that Quantrill’s men are still troublemakers, all goes unmentioned in “The Pinkertons.”
The show has been criticized because the Pinkertons became notorious as strikebreakers beginning in 1871 when they infiltrated the Molly Maguires, a union of mostly Irish Pennsylvania coal miners. Of course, there is no hint of this future direction in a show set in the late 1860s in Kansas. Instead Allan Pinkerton’s abolitionist leanings and Kate Warne’s relationship with Lincoln are mentioned frequently, giving the viewing audience the impression that the Pinkertons are unalloyed “good guys” and always would be. History very much proved otherwise.
Somewhat ironically, the production takes consistent pains to use authentic props. Most people will notice that the hand guns in “The Pinkertons” do not resemble the Colt .45s holstered by lawmen and outlaws alike in most Westerns, because it wasn’t invented until 1872. While the clothing is convincingly bulky and uncomfortable looking, many of the costumes are distractingly un-lived-in. Most of the actors look like they just walked out of a clothing-store window. Only Will, for some reason, seems to have a broken-in looking wardrobe and John Bell’s is a bit absurdly shabby, especially when we eventually find out that he is not a former slave and actually owns the farm.
For all these complaints, “The Pinkertons” remains watchable in small doses. It is not bingeworthy, as they say, which is just as well, as only 22 episodes exist.