Fine Tuning: Psychological thriller moves at brisk pace

Played seethes with anxiety and coiled tension. Set inside the glass towers and seedy back alleys of Toronto and featuring an assured, confident ensemble — Vincent Walsh as the cop-with-attitude assigned to a rogue undercover unit; Chandra West as the calculating chameleon with a mind for playing for the long game; Lisa Marcos as the empath with a gift for getting inside the heads of her quarry, and losing a bit of herself in the process — Played moves along at a brisk clip, without resorting to mayhem and noisy action sequences. It’s more of a psychological thriller than an action adventure, but that doesn’t mean it has to be slow or tedious.

Writer-creator Greg Nelson has said he wanted to make a new-style police drama that focuses on character, not story gimmicks, and that’s exactly what he’s done: Played is professional without being slick or overly polished. If you can look past the relentless background music — the worst kind of “You’re-too-dumb-to-get-it-on-your-own” music score — and the occasional jarring note, it shows real promise.

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Nelson has said he wanted Played to be about “the force of character,” “about cops using character in strategic ways to make connections with bad guys,” by playing a constant, self-aware confidence game.

Walsh plays leading man John Moreland with an edge; it’s easy to buy him in the role of an undercover operative constantly struggling with bottled-up emotions. The female characters — West as Rebecca, the squad boss, Marcos as Maria, the talented ingénue haunted by memories of a case that went wrong — are fully rounded characters in their own right, and not just part of the scenery.

Canadian TV veteran Adrienne Mitchell directed the opener, and if Played feels more genuine and real than the usual police procedural, that’s because Mitchell has an eye and ear for the way adults interact and talk. Mitchell was one of the creators and lead directors of the disturbing, adult Durham County, and the parallels show.

Mitchell has said in interviews that it’s the small life details that appeal to her most about an undercover drama set in the criminal world: Where do they hang out? Where do they pick up their morning coffee? Watching is the beginning of knowing, Mitchell has said, so Played has created a visual language to convey the world of surveillance, of seeing and being seen.

Parent network CTV wants Played to fill the void left by the departed Flashpoint — it airs on the same day at the same time, Thursdays at 10 — but Played is its own show. Based on the evidence of its tightly wound opening hour, it’s more in the vein of cerebral, adult cable dramas such as AMC’s Low Winter Sun and FX’s The Bridge than another CSI-style police procedural.

In the same way Low Winter Sun buries itself inside Detroit’s seedy underbelly and The Bridge tunnels under the Texas-Mexico borderlands, Played reflects a side of Toronto that feels real, but is rarely shown in homegrown TV dramas — that grey area where big money and the desperation of the streets intersect.

Played is good, not great, but it might be one day. At the very least, it’s worth an hour of your time — provided you can tear yourself away from Thursday-night crowd pleasers Scandal and Elementary, that is. 10 p.m., CTV

 

Three to See

• Scandal is back. The White House and PR firm Pope & Associates go into spin mode when Olivia (Kerry Washington) is revealed to be the president’s mistress. Truth and consequences rule the day in the series’ third-season première — or is that truthiness? Fans are about to find out. 10 p.m., City, ABC

 

• The game is afoot in Elementary when Sherlock (Jonny Lee Miller) and Watson (Lucy Liu) investigate the untimely death of a mathematician, the presumed victim of murder most foul. A mathematician, you ask? What is the world coming to? It turns out he was trying to decipher a closely guarded equation — the secret to balancing the books in a down economy, perhaps. 10 p.m., Global, CBS

 

• Viewers are finally growing tired of The Big Bang Theory, right? Wrong! Big Bang drew more than 20 million viewers in the U.S. last week, an all-time high for the series. In this week’s episode, Raj (Kunal Nayyar) challenges the gang to a scavenger hunt, bringing out the best — and worst — in each of them. “Worst” is funnier, but you probably knew that already. 8 p.m., CTV, CBS

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