In the second-last episode of Northern Rescue, John West is placed in a medical coma after a search-and-rescue operation goes awry. He enters a sort of semi-afterlife, where he meets his recently departed wife Sarah, and they spend the time holding and whispering to each other. Before he wakes from his coma, Sarah hands him a small key.
“Take this,” she breathes.
“What is it?”
“It’s the key to my heart.”
Cut to bright lights and beeping machines.
If this kind of dialogue makes you cringe, then Northern Rescue, Netflix’s new family drama, is absolutely not for you. Starring William Baldwin, Kathleen Robertson (who still looks exactly as she did in her Beverly Hills 90210 days) and Amalia Williamson, a fresh-on-the-scene young Canadian actress in whose inner voice much of the series is narrated, it tells the tale of the West family whose lives are cruelly uprooted when the unthinkable happens.
John and Sarah (Michelle Nolden), and their three children Maddy (Williamson), Scout (Spencer Macpherson) and Taylor (Taylor Thorne) are living in Boston when tragedy strikes, and Sarah is diagnosed with cancer.
“It’s metastatic,” says the doctor. “We have no idea where it’s coming from.”
Sarah is dispatched to the afterlife about halfway through the first episode, and John and his three adolescent children move to Turtle Island Bay to be near to Charlie, Sarah’s sister.
Turtle Island Bay is a fictional town somewhere north of Boston. The family are meant to move in with Aunt Charlie but her house burns down, and they end up living in a disused aquarium instead (a vague reason for this is supplied). The aquarium is populated by one leftover penguin, who is christened Tux and kept as a pet. Tux is allowed in bed, and never seems to poop on the floor.
The title “Northern Rescue” has a double meaning, in that the family moves north and is trying to be rescued from their grief, and allow themselves to move on. But also it is about actual physical rescue, as John takes a job as the commander of the local search-and-rescue (SAR) team.
John is one of those guys who is the best at what he does but also an asshole. He yells at his SAR volunteers, his grieving children, and his sister-and-law and her suitors, but he weeps when he is alone. In every episode he performs a rescue, braving the wild in his bright yellow utility vehicle and some grappling gear, radioing in to his team of volunteers back at the base.
These rescues always end well, and put me in mind of another Canadian rescue show, set in another fictional town that ends in “Bay” (clue: starts with “Paw”, ends with “Patrol”).
While John is wrestling the hazards of Turtle Island Bay, his family wrestle with their own problems: bullies at school, tenacious ex-boyfriends, memories of the late Sarah.
Sarah’s character remains a constant feature in the show, and returns in each episode as a kind of angelic memory: braiding her younger daughter’s hair, helping her teenage son compose a love song on his guitar as she sips a beer, jamming to radio tunes with her eldest daughter, smooching her husband in a sun-dappled bedroom.
It is the nature of Sarah that drives the plot. Early on in the series, Maddy confesses that she knows her supposedly perfect mother was having an affair, and this is the question that, if anything, will keep you watching.
There are other questions: will the children overcome or even befriend their bullies? Will Charlie find love and complete her life? Will John stop being such a douche? But really, the central question to the series is: was the wonderful Sarah really a bad girl deep down, and if so, with whom, and for how long?
Northern Rescue is a good, clean, old-fashioned family drama. There’s much to dislike: Baldwin’s Rockhopper Penguin hairstyle, the extreme whiteness of the show despite a handful of characters of colour, the fact that Taylor wakes in the morning with fresh, slick French braids and glossy makeup, and dialogue that frequently seems to be have been written by a teenage girl.
There were some really bad CGI and green screen moments and the on-site first-response medical care in the rescue scenes would look ridiculous even to a lay-person.
There is some some serious over-acting, and some sloppy editing (I’m sure most people won’t notice this, but some cars have Ontario licence plates, even though the show is supposed to be set in the US). I think there’s some questionable messaging around appropriate behaviour around wildlife (specifically: penguins and bears).
But the show has its merits too. Shot in Parry Sound in Canada, the scenery is beautiful. The soundtrack is not bad. You could watch it comfortably with your kids, something I’m sure many families would do.
To quote an online audience reviewer, there are “hardly any bad words”. There are no sex scenes, and apart from some bloody SAR scenes and teenage boy fist-fights, almost no violence. The teenagers occasionally smoke a bit of weed, but now that I think about it, that’s practically legal in the US now. Okay, there is one naughty party at the end where high school kids can be seen knocking back hard liquor, but say things like, “Just chill the eff out, ok!”
I think there’s a lot there that parents of teenagers could relate to: you love them, you know they’re smart, but they just keep doing ridiculously stupid things and they never listen, or learn.
We can also all relate to the disappointments many of the characters face, as the people they care about let them down over and over again. The show does its best to tackle extreme and shared grief, and how families can seem to pull together and fall apart, almost in the same moment. It delves into the problems wrought when secrets are buried, and how things unravel when they come out.
Will there be a second season of Northern Rescue? The final episode certainly sets the stage for forthcoming drama, but the jury’s still out on whether or not we’ll be seeing more of the West family.