In the town of Bellevue, Annie Ryder (Anna Paquin) is a detective with boundary issues. Specifically, she doesn’t have any: In the first scene, she smashes a stranger’s car window and makes amends by pressing herself against him until he stops shouting and starts kissing her. A few minutes later he is snorting cocaine off of her cleavage in his motel room, and she’s reaching for a bottle while he pulls off her pants. And only then — way past what seems like the point of no return — does the door slam open to make way for two police officers brandishing guns.
In some ways, it’s a clichéd scene: The romance of the undercover cop getting too close to the other side of crime is a frequent subject for film and television. “Bellevue” is less about the romance, though, than it is about Annie herself — and what it means to keep blurring the lines that demarcate your life, whether that is between the present and the past or between the victims and the perpetrators. “Bellevue” is a drama about the intense intimacy of a rural community, in a way that is gripping even when the action is either too convoluted or too over-the-top. When a high school hockey star goes missing, Annie’s investigation into what happened to Jesse turns into an attempt to make sense of what happened to this town — and, because she is so firmly ensconced in it, what happened to her, too. The journey goes, of course, to the places she least expects; it satisfyingly takes her to the beating heart of what’s wrong in Bellevue.
It’s really the atmosphere that sells “Bellevue,” and even that might not be enough of a selling point. There’s a menacing claustrophobia to the town that manifests itself in not-very-clandestine drug problems and long-simmering familial tensions. In this sense, it’s like a splashier “Rectify,” or a less precise “Happy Valley” — not as searing as either show, but in the same neighborhood of rural dystopia, as adults come to terms with the communities they have yoked their fates to. In “Bellevue,” a Canadian production filmed in Ontario, the town is caught in a negotiation between the nearby Indian reservation, the town’s rabid hockey fans, the mostly Catholic population, and gentrification: In a magnificent touch, the mayor is busy settling a deal for a new brewery. The show is sweetly earnest in a way that is distinctly Canadian; at times, the high school scenes feel like “Degrassi” with more dramatic lighting (and better special effects).
Where “Bellevue” stumbles is in trying to force suspense or fear on the viewer, instead of letting it arise from the environment. Part of the mystery involves unpacking a set of creepy riddles that are surprisingly inert, like some scrap of a serial killer story was grafted onto the rest of the drama. Seemingly to compensate for that, “Bellevue” works very hard to frame the religious imagery of the crimes and the wordplay in the clues as extremely spooky stuff, but the effort is embarrassingly obvious. There are too many scenes where Annie is foolishly alone in the dark as suspenseful music swells around her; the audience is practically waiting for the jump scare that is sure to follow, and “Bellevue” can’t help but deliver. The convoluted mystery is much more satisfying, if only because a small-town mystery comes with its own built-in charms. Fans of this type of potboiler will have their usual suspects nailed right from the first episode, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a fun ride. And to “Bellevue’s” credit, the mystery pushes to a resolution that feels thematically complete, without the frustrating ellipsis of a series setting up a Season 2.
Paquin, whose onscreen presence guarantees an otherworldly, alienating grace, is doing more work than is first apparent. Paquin also executive produces the show, and part of her job playing the protagonist is to bring home the atmosphere of the town to the viewer. It comes through in her domestic life — a messy but affectionate setup between her, her ex-boyfriend Eddie (Allen Leech), and her 12-year-old daughter Daisy (Madison Ferguson). In a small town, everyone can see everybody else’s dirty laundry, but that’s part of the appeal, too: Annie doesn’t get to pretend to be figured out, but she doesn’t have to pretend, either. Both Annie and Eddie were teenagers when they had Daisy, and their juvenile, teenage selves emerge when they’re with each other, in ways that are both romantic and destructive. It’s a recognizable portrait, partially because it is so apparently ad hoc: Eddie and Annie are kind of together and kind of not, and that’s as resolved as it gets. Paquin and Leech have great chemistry, even if his accent wanders all over the place (and usually ends up back in his native Ireland). Similarly, Paquin has a fantastic dynamic with her police chief, Peter (Shawn Doyle, always reliable), who was her father’s partner when she was a kid. Their relationship is fraught with misplaced affection and long-buried betrayal, which is the exact right timbre of conflict for small-town cops chasing the clues of a cold case.
“Bellevue” isn’t trying to break the mold of a closed-ended mystery, but it does offer a riff on it that manages to be both cozily predictable and refreshingly contemporary. The show, created by director Adrienne Mitchell and writer Jane Maggs, is a fairly standard mystery that distinguishes itself by being conscious of the complications of gender presentation, whether that is the “dangerous” male, the “vulnerable” female, or the transitioning teen who tries and fails to be accepted by their peers. It presents its characters with texture and range; meaning that even when it missteps, it still finds a way to make you care.