Coroner: Adriana Maggs and Adrienne Mitchell on “surreal, resilient” Season 4

Jenny Cooper (Serinda Swan) has been through a lot over the last three seasons of CBC’s Coroner. Her husband suddenly died; she discovered she killed her little sister in a freak childhood accident; her on-again, off-again boyfriend Liam (Éric Bruneau) also unexpectedly died; and her mother Peggy (Jennifer Dale), who abandoned the family decades ago, reappeared out of the blue. Oh, and there was also the pandemic. 

Given those events, it wasn’t surprising to find Jenny hiding in a camper van, having temporarily given up autopsies for the peace and quiet of gardening in last week’s Season 4 premiere. What was surprising, however, was that the episode managed to poignantly portray the impact of cumulative grief—Jenny’s voicemail to Liam felt heartbreakingly real—while still conveying a fragile sense of hope and strength. (Yes, I got misty at the end of the instalment when Jenny’s fledgling plants were knocked to the floor and she picked them up with a brave, “It’s fine; it’s OK.” )

The opportunity to explore resilience in the face of trauma was one of the main reasons new showrunner Adriana Maggs, who took over for creator and executive producer Morwyn Brebner, was excited to join the series. 

“Just because you’re going through a pandemic doesn’t mean that you’re going to stop being a coroner and people aren’t going to get killed and you’re not going to have to figure these mysteries out,” says Maggs. “It’s like the fridge magnet [that says], ‘It’s not about waiting for the rain to stop, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.’ As tacky as that is, there’s some wisdom in it.”

Executive producer and director Adrienne Mitchell says writer/director Maggs—whose other credits include films Grown Up Movie Star and Goalie and TV shows Pretty Hard Cases, The Hardy Boys and Rookie Blue—was able to pick up the threads of previous seasons and weave them into something new for the fourth season.

“Morwyn brought such a great sense of humour and kind of a sense of absurd to things, and I think that Adriana is such a great writer and artist to embrace that and bring her own individual stamp to it.”

To get us ready for this Thursday’s new episode, “Cutting Corners,” which sees Jenny returning to work and McAvoy (Roger Cross) and Malik (Andy McQween) drifting apart after the events at the pharmacy, we spoke with Maggs and Mitchell about seamlessly switching showrunners, Serinda Swan’s directorial debut, and what viewers can expect in Season 4.

Adriana, I’ve seen your writing credit pop up on my TV screen many times over the years, and, as a lifelong Detroit Red Wings fan, I really loved your film Goalie, so I was very excited to learn you were becoming the new showrunner for Coroner. How did you become involved with the series? 
Adriana Maggs: I really lucked into it, honestly. I hadn’t been on the show at all, and I guess Morwyn [Brebner] was needing to kind of step back and, and my very good friend Noelle Carbone had been on the show forever. She’s an EP on the show, but she has very small children, so she was like, ‘Bring Adriana on.’ And I [assume] Adrienne thought that was okay.

Adrienne Mitchell: Oh my god, yes, I’m so excited. I have had the pleasure of working with Adriana on development projects, and we’ve always really just hit it off. It’s always been so exciting to see how Adriana just seizes material and just dives into all sorts of realms that you’re not used to going but they still feel very familiar and relatable. She has such a fresh voice, and we’ve been so fortunate to have her on board for Season 4. When your name started circulating, we just seized it.

Maggs: We were kind of working on something in development when Coroner took off. So Coroner broke us apart and then reunited us.

What was it like taking over showrunning duties midstream? What’s involved in a handover like that?
Maggs: I worked very closely with Morwyn on the season arc. I wasn’t ready to let her go. I mean, there are horror stories of showrunners coming on and the show just kind of fundamentally letting audiences down and it just not ringing true and not being the same. I did still have Adrienne for the most part, and I inherited most of the writers’ room. So I was very, very fortunate, and, hopefully, it will seem seamless. 

A lot of big things happened during the finale of Season 3, including Liam’s death and Jenny’s mother Peggy coming back into her life. Adrienne, what were some of the reasons for those story decisions, and how were you hoping they would further Jenny’s story going into Season 4?
Mitchell: Noelle Carbone wrote Episode 9 and Morwyn wrote Episode 10, and I directed both of the episodes, so I got to work with both of them on this, and I think that their intention was that Jenny’s not really going to turn full circle around what happened to her unless she has a sort of emotional dance playing out with her mother. Because even though we could understand on one level that her mother left because she couldn’t handle the fact that her own daughter killed her other daughter, we don’t understand why she had left for so long. And I think that there is something about that long absence. We just thought, ‘What would it be like in Season 4 for Jenny to deal with this company, this presence in her life now that [her mother] is with her?’ [To have her issues with her mother be] something very lively, something that was not in the past but something that has come to confront her in the present. 

And we felt that the relationship with Liam sort of ran its course. We thought that it would be more interesting for her to not have this support system of a boyfriend to deal with her mother, that she was really going to have to navigate her mother herself without a support system, how it would make her more vulnerable, but it might make her have to reach further into herself to deal with it. Those were some of the reasons why we set it up the way we did.

And so taking over in Season 4, Adriana, what were your first thoughts on how to approach Jenny’s story going forward?
Maggs: I think when you have so much trauma going on, at a certain point you’re going to have to look at your primal wound, look at what went wrong in the first place. We talked about the inner child or the primal wound, and it’s this relationship that we’re trying to fix. [Jenny’s] mother is not there, and whatever sense of self-worth that she’s struggling with, she’s trying to fix it on everyone and everything, but it’s this core emptiness. And now it’s coming back, and she has a chance to kind of deal with that.

I was ready to explore the resilience of spirit. I think we have incredibly important things going on in society today, but also, there’s a tendency to lean a little bit into one’s own victimhood, and it wasn’t the way I was raised or brought up. What I love is when life is just kind of really humbling you and you are resilient and brave in the face of it. So it’s like, ‘Oh my god, how much trauma can this poor woman take?’ But I’m like, ‘No, it’s an opportunity to show strength.’ Every single day, Jenny faces people who have it worse. They really do, because even though Jenny loses a lot, she has love. She has so much love, and she has opportunities and second chances. And so I think I wanted to explore her toughness and her heart and how she can continue to bring hope to other people, even though she’s not necessarily in a super great place herself.

And how will that play out for Jenny over the course of the season?
Maggs: One of the things I loved so much over the last few seasons is the kind of internalized, I’m not gonna say supernatural, but the mysterious kind of figure that Jenny needs to get to the bottom of and explore. So I was like, ‘Well, we’re doing that because I love that so much.’ So her mother does trigger that. There’s a mystery that she needs to solve before things with her mother can get better. And her work very much has to do with navigating her relationship with the woman who abandoned her so many years ago and having to rebuild herself, so Jenny gets to go down really fun roads this year while she’s struggling with that … but it’s not a terribly dark, sad, maudlin season. Everyone’s dealing with a pandemic, everybody’s kind of emerging from this really strange situation and kind of dipping their big toe back into life, and then we’ve got to go back in, and then we come back out. We want Jenny’s journey, her experience with her mother to mirror that kind of shaky legs, ‘I don’t know how to do this, I forget how to do this, but I’m gonna do it’ [vibe]. So we kind of play around with that the whole season. Even some of the cases deal with things that have happened over the past year, some of the more political things like stress with the police, repealing abortion, anti-Asian hate, big corporations and pharmaceutical companies.

Mitchell: Yeah, and there’s a lot of wellness cults that are coming out of the pandemic, and we really sort of deep dive into that, which I’m so excited I was able to do the culminating episode on that, and it’s something that Adriana and team have planted from the beginning of the season. There is this whole presence of a cult that has its own arc throughout the season, and it’s very, very apropos to what’s going on right now, with conspiracy theories, and misinformation, and selling information that has no basis in fact but has a kind of sense of forward momentum that everybody wants to get out of this sort of Doomsday, yet it has all sorts of entrapment issues and a nefarious side. Those are some of the really interesting things that this season is dealing with. 

And just to hearken on one thing that Adriana is picking up on, which she has done, is when she refers to sort of those internal moments that what we’ve done in Seasons 1,2, and 3. We sort of externalized mysteries through Jenny’s visions of pieces from her past. In Season 1, it was the black dog, Season 2 it was visions of her deceased sister, and Season 3, those visions kind of took a concrete form with the appearance of her mother. And Adriana sort of pulled another element out of that and worked it through Season 4. She’s found a way to visualize a part of Jenny’s psyche that leads her to unraveling a mystery, but she’s done it in a really cool, unique way. 

Maggs: It’s weird. It gets really weird. 

Let’s talk about McAvoy a little bit. He went through a big cancer scare last season, and in last week’s premiere, he had a surprising–and dangerous–reaction to learning that he was in remission and his surgery was a success. What’s going on with him?
Maggs: One of our writers had gone through cancer, and one of the things she said is how you don’t trust [remission], but yet you want to distance yourself so much from [the disease], and I thought that was really interesting. It’s like McAvoy does not want anyone in his life that sees him as that person that had cancer, that person that was attacked, or suffered, or that was weak. And so that leads him to a person from his past who saw him as strong who didn’t know him through this kind of thing, and there’s a lot more to her than meets the eye and he gets in trouble. And it’s fun. 

Mitchell: Out of feeling like he’s cheated death, he now puts himself in a really, really dangerous situation, which creates a whole bunch of other reverberations for him. So he’s dealing with some of his wounds, the old trauma in a very new way as a result of how he’s moving through the world. So that really has consequences for the whole season.

What else can we look forward to?
Mitchell: Oh, how about River [Kiley May] and Dennis [Jon De Leon]? 

Oh, I love them. 
Maggs: They have some significant stories this year, particularly in Episode 10. I don’t know if I can say what they do, but it’s hilarious. There’s so much fun from these two, whose relationship is developed in the lab. It’s Season 4, and it’s time for us to go home with them and kind of see what they do and who they are, so 9 and 10 really kind of sink into that pair. 

Mitchell: What I really love, and what Adriana and team have done so well, is Dennis and River could be in the middle of like a really gruesome autopsy and they’re dealing with their relationship, like, ‘What’s the next step? Is the next step meeting your parents, or is the next step meeting my family? I don’t have my parents, I have a ‘fam’ family, but you have your biological family. And what area would we move into if we did move out? Well, my family lives in the suburbs, I live downtown, and I don’t want to leave my downtown.’ [They deal with] these really important life issues as they’re working, and it’s funny, and it’s beautiful, and you see something growing and evolving within.

Maggs: We’re exploring kind of how the queer community—and I don’t know how universal this is— but Toronto gets so expensive and living downtown gets more and more expensive, but moving to the suburbs is sometimes not that appealing to marginalized people because that’s not where their chosen family resides. So we play with that a lot, and it’s one of my favourite things that we get to explore. 

Mitchell: And I can’t wait for you to get through the season and land on Episode 11 and 12 because there’s a twist that you will not see coming and in a space where Jenny and Peggy land that is so surreal that it just about knocked me out, I just about fell on the ground, I was so blown away by it. And this is after three seasons. I just can’t wait for people to see it. 

Adrienne, I wanted to talk a little bit about your creative process as lead director for the series. What are some of the things you do to set a visual tone each season? 
Mitchell: I will say that this season, I worked quite differently. I only directed one episode this season because, like Morwyn, I sort of wanted to pass the baton and step away, and actually Ruba Nadda directed the first two episodes and Adriana did some really amazing, amazing additional directing. All that beautiful work that you see of Jenny inside her station wagon truck, dealing with all the emotional fallout, it’s all directed by this talented gal, Adriana.

But the first three seasons, it’s really all about feel. I like to get really inside of the intention of the writer and find a way to visualize it. So any things I’m offering up as I read material is like, ‘Is this what you’re trying to do? Could it be realized this way? Would this be on point to what you’re doing? This might be a better way to realize it, just because it may lend itself more from what you’re trying to work with on the page to the screen.’ So I kind of approach things that way, and I think very visually. With Morwyn, often I would read the scripts, and I would just pull images from the Internet, from anything that would come at me when I was reading, or even things that are not on the page, just images that would come in my sort of subconscious or in my sort of surreal realm of my psyche, and I would throw all those images on a board—even moving clips from films—and I would just show her I’d say, ‘OK, here’s where I’m thinking this is going,’ and she would say ‘Yes’ to this and ‘Maybe not so much’ to that and then it that would become the sort of visual palette of the episode, and we would construct it over the season.

So it’s like I would try to sort of map out what the visual image systems are. So for example—and Adriana you could talk about your screens because you added that [theme to the season]—today, we’re all so into virtual reality, we’re in it. We’re always watching things, we’re not feeling people, we’re watching things through screens. And so that was one of the image systems that we were working through in the season, and I was very much working through that in a kind of climactic way in Episode 8, which I directed. 

Maggs: Yeah, we were [all about] screens and gardens this whole season. I’ve never worked with a director who has felt as visual as Adrienne, and even though you did step back this year, something that you have always done on all your shows is, you treat a television show like you’re an auteur director. And you could step back this year because that pattern has been established now. And you also expect the directors that come on to do that as well, and it’s really inspiring and it’s beautiful. And it also means that sometimes you’ll be writing, and Adrienne will come into the office and go, ‘Skull on a stick!’ It’s just infectious, and it’s like you get so excited, and it’s such a wonderful way to work.

Serinda Swan directed Episode 6 this season. How did that come about?
Maggs: She has been around the industry so long, I would’ve been surprised if she couldn’t direct. She’s just so invested in her character, but also in the scripts and also in other people’s characters. And I just think she was obviously interested in doing it, and it was time. 

Mitchell: Yeah, working with her on the set, she was always very keen on how things were being shot and asked him lots of questions about our approach visually and what was exciting us, and I think she really did find the sort of visual approach to Coroner very exciting and unique and wanted to embrace that and was really interested in exploring that side of herself. I think she just really got it when we were doing blockings and would explain, ‘Well, you know, we’re not actually at that angle, we’re at this angle because we’re trying to create more suspense, we don’t want to show all the angles.’ So she really leaned into that and, even as an actor, she really leaned into that as we were working through the visual system. So I think she just reached a time where she started directing some of her own shorts, and she just really thought, ‘Hey, I’m really up for doing something like this.’

Maggs: We waited until we had an episode where—she’s not written down, she has a significant story in the episode she directs—but we kept it all in a courtroom setting so that her storyline is almost a bottle. [That meant that filming on one day] would be tough, but the other days would be better. But she knocked it out of the park. Honestly, I’ve never seen anyone work so hard. There were websites that she loved that would pull stills from movies, and she would surround herself in images, and her storyboards are still up in the office that she was in, and they’re beautiful. Her visual presentation was really amazing.

If you had to sum up Season 4 using just three words, what would they be?
Mitchell: I would say kinetic, surreal, and sometimes blindsiding.

Maggs: Surreal, human, brave and resilient, tough, strong.

Coroner airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on CBC and CBC Gem.

Images courtesy of CBC.

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