Did you know that the first Allied spy training facility in WWII was in… Canada?
No, you didn’t. C’mon.
X Company, a CBC original headed to Ovation this week, is a period drama, but it will feel very contemporary. It’s fiction, but it’s based on real events, many of which you probably had no idea were real events. It plays with a pretty familiar trope—are “unusual abilities” and the hypersensitivity that comes with them an asset or a liability?—but it doesn’t tend to handle that idea the way you’d expect: This crew of spies working with the French Resistance would not have bothered having one single meeting about whether an autistic savant could be a surgeon, and if they had, their commanding officer would’ve told them to suck it up in short order.
The multinational team, based out of a camp on Lake Ontario (the real life “Camp X” was only declassified in the 1980s), is trained and commanded by Duncan Sinclair (Hugh Dillon), who shakes things up in the first episode by bringing in his most controversial recruit yet: Alfred Graves (Jack Laskey), who’s been sidelined from serving in the military because he didn’t pass his psych evaluation. Alfred has extreme synesthesia and a photographic memory. This makes him an asset for obvious reasons, but also a little scary, as his hypersensitive nervous system is easily overwhelmed, making him freeze when there are, for example, loud noises. (“You understand,” Sinclair says quietly of Alfred’s ability to memorize codes, plans, and vast amounts of visual information as they go off on a mission, “he cannot be taken alive.”) Luckily for everyone, this isn’t a privilege-saturated Silicon Valley hospital, it’s the military, so Alfred’s part of the team along with rough-hewn ex-cop Neil Mackay (Warren Brown), multilingual ace infiltrator Aurora Luft (Evylene Brochu), ad man turned propagandist and disinformation specialist Tom Cummings (Dustin Milligan), and a young Canadian engineer with a flair for demolitions Harry James (Connor Price). It takes the team a little while to get over an initial skepticism of Alfred (Alfred himself probably takes longest to get over it), but they quickly understand there is much more to this guy than is suggested by his sensitive, easily rattled exterior.
The international team checks in at Camp X occasionally, but most of the season has them in the field, working with the French Resistance. After team captain Rene Villiers is shot during the detonation of a bomb under a bridge and presumed dead, Aurora, who had been involved with Rene for some time, is promoted to Sergeant, put in charge of Alfred and sent back into the field, where the trials by fire start fast and don’t stop. The group has to work together to steal codes, infiltrate Nazi organizations, get a British airman out of France with the help of a jazz chanteuse, rout out double agents, deliver babies in collapsing buildings, save civilians, save each other, and get an early concentration camp survivor safely out of Europe so his story (which most people don’t yet know or believe) can be told—on what turns out to be the very day of the infamous roundup of Parisian Jews.
I have no idea if this is a bit of Canadian history that’s well-known to Canadians—it was certainly news to me that co-creators Stephanie Morgenstern and Mark Ellis based the series on a real place, or that the first North American intelligence workers in the Second World War came from outside Toronto. The period detail is great, the suspense is high, the interpersonal drama sometimes funny and often wrenching. It takes an episode of so for things to hit their stride, but once you get there, you pretty much stay there. The show has a great, likable, well-chosen ensemble cast. It’s a generally rock-solid spy thriller and it takes us into a corner of the war most of us probably never learned much about.
If you think “resistance” is a hashtag, you probably ought to watch this. If you just love period thrillers or spy capers or watching people defeat Nazis (with mixed results, including some devastating collateral losses), you’ll probably kind of love this show. I was new to it (CBC premiered Season One in 2015) and am already sad to hear the run ends with Season Three. These are really solid performers in a tense, fraught, one-wrong-move-and-you’re-toast situation. It’s pretty great.
X Company premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on Ovation TV.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.