A hard-drinking, fearless detective. Her on-again, off-again ex. Her by-the-books boss. A missing teenager. A small town charged with secrets, past and present. The outline of Bellevue, created by Jane Maggs and Adrienne Mitchell, is a familiar one, from Twin Peaks to Broadchurch. Dig deeper, though, and the Canadian crime drama, which debuts tonight on WGN America, is full of novelties. Indeed, the investigation into the disappearance of high school hockey star Jesse Sweetland (Sadie O’Neil), led by Det. Annie Ryder (Anna Paquin) and Chief Peter Welland (Shawn Doyle), soon unearths a host of subjects that other entries in the genre rarely tackle: gender identity, conversion therapy, the rights of indigenous peoples, religion and the opposition to it. It is, as Paquin says, a series designed to “challenge expectations, challenges clichés, challenge storytelling norms.”
“The reality is, so many of us do grow up in small towns, and I think there is probably always going to be a fascination for when large events happen in small communities, and how that permanently shapes and effects the relationships,” Paquin tells Paste during the series’ Los Angeles press day. “There’s a sort of claustrophobia of these communities, at times, where everyone does know literally everybody else’s business.” But, she adds, Bellevue balances its more conventional genre elements with unexpected details, such as making Jesse, the genderqueer figure at the center of the mystery, a star athlete—not “weak or meek or on the sidelines.”
For O’Neil, a trans actress in her screen debut, Jesse’s questioning—and the willingness of Bellevue to introduce us to a character in this “liminal space”—is a significant part of what differentiates it from other crime dramas. In fact, her hope is that the eight-episode series becomes “the starting point of a conversation,” and not just about gender identity.
“Bellevue has a lot to say about what it means to explore your gender, what it means to be complicit, what it means to be persecuted in a small town,” O’Neil says. “I would hope that it can work, I guess, as an introduction to these issues for people, and especially that it can open up for people to do more work on their own… to start thinking about topics that Bellevue doesn’t necessarily address directly. They can talk about the decriminalization of sex work. They can think about how racism and transmisogyny can intermingle. They can think about what in their community they’re able to do to be able to help the people who need it, whether that’s their local community or an online community.”
The series does owe plenty to its forebears, of course—Paquin’s prickly, rebellious Annie Ryder is reminiscent of Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison, of Prime Suspect, and TV programs from The Killing to True Detective have inured viewers to the multiple timelines and snarled relationships that are Bellevue’s stock-in-trade. As the investigation proceeds, for instance, links emerge between Jesse’s disappearance and the murder of a young girl in the town 20 years prior. But part of the appeal of combining representation of marginalized groups with the more standard features of the small-town mystery is the opportunity to draw in viewers who may not be well versed in trans issues. Doyle counts himself among them.
“One of the intentions of the show, in terms of the writing, was to illuminate not only the people who accept and the people who show love [in the face of] challenges like this, but also how incredibly insidious the intolerance is, and the rage,” he says. “And part of that intolerance and rage comes from ignorance. I’ll admit that it’s not a subject I was keenly aware of, or certainly was educated about, before I started, and I’m really grateful for the opportunity to have learned.”
“This is a universal theme wherever you are in the world,” adds Downton Abbey veteran Allen Leech, who plays Annie’s ex, Eddie. “The small-town mentality is often, the more secrets you [know], the more power you have… and the thing about Bellevue is, when this event occurs, suddenly, the more that Annie Ryder begins to unravel, the more secrets she realizes this town holds.”
Mitchell prefers to see Bellevue’s departure from other TV series as one that began long before principal shooting, with her and Maggs’ desire to “vanquish the notion of ‘auteur,’” which she describes as “patriarchal” and “capitalistic,” and embrace the “spirit of collaboration” instead.
“Step one, because we’re dealing with the disappearance of a teen that’s struggling with gender identity, was to cast someone like Sadie, who is transgender,” Mitchell says, adding that O’Neil did much to shape her character, as well as to educate the co-creators, cast, and crew. “The model that we’re working in is a real model of a collective… We’re steering it, absolutely, but we’re opening that up to a dialogue, and we hope that resonates in the authenticity of the show.”
As Paquin points out, the result of this dialogue is not something wholly new—its the translation of events and experiences that already exist in the world, in one form or another, onto the screen, from which they have too often been absent.
“These are just human stories,” she says. “It’s not new. It’s just that we don’t necessarily see these things on TV or in film as much as I feel like we should.”
Bellevue premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on WGN America.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.