Before CSI and Quincy, there was Wojeck

I’m going to introduce you to a very gritty 1960’s procedural drama series.  It tells the story of a medical examiner who works with the police in solving murders.

And if you’re a fan of CSI or Quincy, or even more regional shows like Da Vinci’s Inquest or the like, you’ll find many of the hallmarks of those shows in this one.

The show is called Wojeck.  It ran for two seasons, from 1966 to 1968, for a total of eighteen episodes.  It was one of the first popular Canadian-made drama series, and it still has a decent following today.

Wojeck stars John Vernon – you know, Dean Wormer from Animal House – as Steve Wojeck, an Ontario-based coroner and medical examiner, who tries to find the truth about a person’s death – whether he was murdered or died of natural causes, all of that.  But the way this show is filmed – with plenty of grainy, gritty close-ups and thick, heavy-handed moralizing – it’s pretty addictive.

Take, for example, the series’ first episode, “The Last Man in the World.”  The episode focuses on the suicide of an Ojibwe First Nations man in a jail cell.  Wojeck tries to figure out who slipped a belt into the man’s cell, as well as tries to piece together the man’s final days.  Normally this would be a standard procedural, but the show also goes deep into the racial divide between white Canadians and First Nations people.

The next episode, “Tell Them the Streets are Dancing,” has another run with prejudice and racial overtones, as an unscrupulous tunnel foreman is killing Italian miners by introducing too much air pressure into their pressurized tunnel excavations. This episode actually aired in the United States as part of the Bob Hope Chrysler Theater anthology series.

As you can see, Wojeck is a calm, quiet man, but he can be rousted into action at the slightest sign of social injustice.  Like in this episode, “Listen! An Old Man is Speaking.”

The first season’s ten episodes were filmed in black and white, and the show’s second season went to color.  Although there aren’t any color episodes up on YouTube at the moment, someone did upload the opening credits for the second season shows.

But the show was cancelled after its second season – despite decent viewership at the time.

The program could be the most popular one in Canada, but the producers were unsuccessful in bringing the series to America.  Outside of the one broadcast on the Bob Hope Chrysler Playhouse, Wojeck never aired in the States.  And after two seasons, John Vernon left the show to seek his fortune in Hollywood, where he did quite well for himself.

In 1992, Vernon returned to the character in a Canadian TV movie, Wojeck: Out of the Fire, in which the coroner returns to Ontario to solve the mystery of a murdered baby.  Nearly 25 years after the series’ run, at least the show had a final episode to wrap up the characters and their stories.

As you can see, Wojeck is very gritty.  There’s a ton of cinema verite in the filming – almost as if someone tried to film a Law and Order episode with an old 16mm B&W camera.  That grittiness adds to the texture of the series, it makes the show more grounded in its presentation.

Maybe at some point in time, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation will put out a full DVD set of the entire series, or have it streamed somewhere.

But for now, I’ll take what I can get from this run.

And it’s interesting to watch this and see John Vernon in a serious role, without thinking of him as the stressed out college dean who had to put up with the Delta Tau Chi fraternity.