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On Tuesday, January 12, The CW is premiering what, by rights, probably should be one of the most talked-about new shows of the season. And yet, from what I can tell, absolutely nobody is talking about Trickster.
And the odd thing is that The CW is probably OK with that — not the typical state of affairs for an import that arrives fresh off big ratings and very positive reviews from Canada.
AIR DATE Jan 12, 2021
The key problem, if you haven’t been paying attention, is that Trickster was co-created and directed by Michelle Latimer, who claimed Indigenous Canadian heritage for much of her life — in many ways building a career on that identity — only to have it revealed in late 2020 that large parts of those claims were, as the expression goes, “insufficient.”
Latimer’s subsequent resignation from the Trickster production team has raised questions about how appropriate it is to champion the rest of the show, which features an unprecedented number of Indigenous actors and crew members across the board. It’s a conversation that seems worth having. But for my own part, while it’s impossible to separate Trickster from Latimer, I think there’s value in recognizing much of what remains valid in the show — especially when it comes to the cast, most of whom will be complete unknowns to American audiences. Aspects of the show deserve the spotlight.
Trickster is adapted from the YA novel by Eden Robinson, a member of the Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations, and set in the North Coast region of British Columbia (though it was filmed in Ontario). High schooler Jared (Joel Oulette) has been struggling with his parents’ divorce and with the need to suddenly support both sides of his split family, including manic alcoholic mother Maggie (Crystle Lightning) and father Phil (Craig Lauzon), who has battled addiction himself. Jared works at a local fast-food restaurant, which doubles as a front for selling drugs that he cooks up at a cabin in the woods. It’s a lot of stress, and maybe that’s why Jared is struggling in school — he gets an ironic C+ in chemistry — and also why he’s experiencing very strange hallucinations including talking crows and a creepy doppelgänger of sorts.
Or maybe Jared’s unrest stems from the arrival in town of motorcycle-riding badass Wade (Kalani Queypo), who used to be close with Jared’s parents and has a very personal connection to the night of Jared’s birth — one that, like everything else in the series, is mighty creepy.
The CW has only sent the first two of six Trickster episodes to critics, and it’s almost impossible based on those two episodes to explain exactly what’s going on with Jared. That obliqueness varies between fascinating and really frustrating depending on the moment. Series adapters Latimer and Tony Elliott litter enough enticing clues tied to local Indigenous mythology to steadily amp up curiosity, but the pacing is much closer to an indie movie than your typical CW drama, which normally would condense the events of these first two episodes into the first two acts of the pilot.
The plus side of the pacing is the opportunity to establish the world of the show, a rural blue-collar community that looks like almost nothing you’ve ever seen before on American TV. Though I might not be able to tell you what the supernatural or mythological forces are surrounding Jared, I have a good sense of the context of the community — especially the economic forces at work, including the threat of an incoming oil pipeline. Jared’s new neighbor and potential love interest Sarah (Anna Lambe) is a window into an Indigenous activist community (and seems to be surrounded by glowing embers or fireflies), while his mother’s junkie boyfriend Richie (Joel Thomas Hynes) offers another glimpse into the drug epidemic hurting the community. None of these elements is impacted by a storytelling rhythm that I’d politely describe as “choppy,” a momentum-sapping lack of flow that left me unsure if the first two episodes were taking place over three days or three months.
All the while I was getting distracted because CBC, Trickster‘s Canadian home, thinks swearing is kosher and The CW disagrees — so you have the peculiar double standard by which The CW has no issue with teenage alcohol and drug use but needs to drop audio and pixelate mouths if somebody says “shit.”
The novelty of the show’s setting allows the show to maintain interest in a way the pacing doesn’t, and there’s a vein of dark humor that helps as well. The soundtrack, dominated by Canadian acts like Helix and Indigenous hip-hop artists including Drezus, Snotty Nose Rez Kids and JB the First Lady, has no resemblance to the standard needle drops familiar from The CW’s various DC Comics adaptations. If the recent controversy hadn’t intruded, you would swear the show felt authentic.
More than anything, the appeal of Trickster comes from its cast. Oulette, mostly stuck looking perplexed throughout, isn’t the ensemble’s most memorable member, but he’s a TV-friendly centerpiece around whom the quirkier pieces can orbit. Lightning has a strong nervous energy and she keeps you guessing as to how dangerously unprepared for motherhood Maggie is. Queypo is slick and mysterious and enhances the creepiness of every scene he’s in. There are likable supporting turns from Lambe and especially Nathan Alexis as Jared’s gamer buddy Crashpad.
Based on these early episodes, the show has the potential for a lot of genre fluidity. Is it inching toward horror? Soapy teen hijinks? Or could the mythological thing happening to Jared make him a very different kind of CW superhero? The first season is based only on the first of three Robinson novels in a trilogy, and the series was renewed before it premiered — a pick-up that is now in jeopardy after the Latimer revelations. There are so many enticing elements in the early Trickster episodes that I’d hope CBC would take the opportunity to move even more Indigenous voices front-and-center — in other words, to continue to amplify what is worthwhile here.
Cast: Joel Oulette, Crystle Lightning, Kalani Queypo, Craig Lauzon, Anna Lambe
Created by: Tony Elliott and Michelle Latimer from the book by Eden Robinson
Airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on The CW starting January 12.
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