It certainly helps that “For Heaven’s Sake” is led by a pair of people rather than a single amateur detective. Mike Mildon and Jackson Rowe share the duty as the guides of an extended look into a longstanding family mystery, and they help to deflate some of the trickier tendencies that sometimes overtake true crime series like this Paramount+ entry in the genre.
Almost from the outset, the two make it clear that their background is in comedy more than forensics. But that doesn’t stop “For Heaven’s Sake” from being as thorough as it can in looking for the truth behind the 1934 disappearance of Howard Heaven, Mike’s great-great-uncle. Over a period of at least a year, the two amateur sleuths make base camp in Mike’s hometown of Minden, Ontario, combing through anything they find and soliciting as much help from the residents of Haliburton County.
As much as there’s an occasional irreverent tone here, “For Heaven’s Sake” is very much using the hallmarks of the genre in order to provide a framework for their search. There’s still an evidence wall, even though Jackson scribbles “Mike is dumb” in chalk next to a piece on the case’s organizational chart. Microfiche may be something of an alien technology to Mike and Jackson, but they’re still able to use the fruits of their discoveries in the usual “primary documents highlighted on screen” ways. The two stars and director Tim Johnson try to take an approach that somehow combines their sincerity in solving the case, their self-deprecating attitude, and their self-aware goals to construct their journey in a way that makes for decent TV.
Sometimes a series like this is only as good as its lucky breaks. In this case, the Heaven descendants and Minden lifers bring a distinct energy to the show, peppering each historical overview and family legend with plenty of good-natured jabs and hearty recollections. Some approach their on-camera time with a more stone-faced demeanor. Most of the rest of the participants are able to meet “For Heaven’s Sake” on its terms, with a sincere hope for answers and a capability of winking a few times along the way. In a slightly paradoxical way, Mike’s family is the major resource the series has that keeps it from being just a glorified family reunion project.
It’s fortunate for the show that these on-camera conversations carry as much weight as they do, given that the available archival material that Mike and Jackson do manage to put forth isn’t always inherently engaging on the seventh and eighth passes. There’s a consistency to having the same photos and police reports and maps as reference points, but after a while, it sets in how much these various theories are variations on a theme. (This is particularly noticeable as the middle episodes propose and pull back on a few different possible threads that don’t do much to advance the investigation or anyone’s understanding of how it’s unfolding.) “For Heaven’s Sake” always acknowledges what they have no way of confirming, but that uncertainty creates a vacuum that’s sometimes filled with just empty conjecture.
Still, there’s also a built-in appeal to the nature of their search. Dealing with a case that’s been sitting cold for the better part of a century, what’s shown of Mike and Jackson’s on-screen adventures is a largely analog approach (aside from a few pieces of advanced digital equipment). So one of the hooks of “For Heaven’s Sake” is seeing Mike and Jackson use means that wouldn’t be too far out of place in Harold’s day: scale models, updates at community gatherings, informational check-ins over the radio.
Given the subject matter and the tantalizing storytelling potentials for the series, “For Heaven’s Sake” embraces the inherent self-correcting nature of what Mike and Jackson are doing. Whenever their theories take them three steps too far, Minden residents are there to point out faulty assumptions. The major breakthroughs here are often paired with a sobering dose of reality about how difficult it is to reconstruct the past with a dearth of hard evidence. Their self-proclaimed designation as amateurs at least comes with an eventual acknowledgment of where their naïveté and hubris have some consequences.
That “For Heaven’s Sake” becomes something close to a traditional cold-case study is both a strength and a curse. Where a similar true crime series looking at a murder investigation would have local TV news reports from the time peppered throughout, “For Heaven’s Sake” features a running set of interviews with the local radio station, a kind of ongoing podcast within the show itself. One of the series’ more memorable participants is a retired OPP constable who gives the show the traditional stately ex-law enforcement perspective and helps guide Mike and Jackson through standard procedure. He syncs up on the show’s dry humor wavelength pretty well, too. For every bit of helpful advice he offers, though, it only reinforces how much the show’s more unconventional methodologies don’t end up adding as much by comparison.
True crime seems formulaic at times because there’s a reason that default framework usually works. In melding those familiar ideas with a family photo album brought to life, “For Heaven’s Sake” becomes a valuable addition to local history and a valiant effort to follow through on generations of almost-mythic curiosity. Whether that project merits eight episodes of a twisting narrative with the conclusion it finds is ultimately up for the viewer to decide. Either way, it’s certainly a better option than an empty, personality-free alternative.
“For Heaven’s Sake” is now available to stream on Paramount+.