TV: New Cop Drama 'Flashpoint'
On the morning of Aug. 25, 2004, Sugston Brookes tried to kill his estranged wife and then took a passerby hostage in front of Toronto's busy Union Station. As hundreds of commuters and office workers watched at the scene, and hundreds of thousands more followed the drama on TV, a member of the Toronto Police Service's Emergency Task Force (ETF) shot and killed the agitated Brookes. Among the television viewers were Stephanie Morgenstern and her husband, fellow writer Mark Ellis. The couple couldn't stop thinking about the sniper, wondering what the rest of the day would be like for the officer. They began researching the ETF and its methods and came up with a cop-show TV pitch that focused not on detectives or glamorous forensic techies, but on a tactical squad trained to deal with emotional "flashpoints." And then they managed to sell the show not only to CTV, but to CBS as well, Toronto setting included.
Flashpoint debuts July 11 on both networks, becoming the first Canadian DRAMA on a U.S. network since Due South. Its maple-leaf approach extends beyond the actors, writers, producers and setting. The fictional Strategic Response Unit mimics the ETF's cautiously Canadian style. "They're not a team that goes in first and asks questions later, which is how a lot of SWAT teams have been criticized," says Ellis. "The ETF is trained to psychologically profile the subject, to figure out what's brought them to this place, to see if they can negotiate them out safely and, at the same time, come up with a tactical plan should that fail."
Last year, Susanne Boyce, CTV's programming guru, okayed 13 episodes with a budget of more than $20 million, making it the most expensive series ever commissioned by the network. The investment seems to have paid off. The first episode, based on the Union Station incident, has a polished look rarely seen in a domestic show. And the careful attention to detail extends to the script. By balancing dramatic tactical situations with realistic portrayals of the psychological pressures inherent in that type of police work, Flashpoint stands out from the formulaic police series that crowd the airways. Hugh Dillon (Durham Country), who plays sniper Ed Lane, knows when they've nailed a scene: "The barometer is when you see the real ETF advisers on set going 'Holy crap!' "
In another break with U.S. TV stereotypes, Flashpoint stars two follicly challenged 45-year-old Canadians. Dillon and Enrico Colantoni (Veronica Mars) prepared for their roles with the real ETF. Colantoni, whose brother was a Toronto police officer for 30 years, played a suicidal man wielding a knife during one training exercise: "It was haunting how efficient and disciplined the ETF were. To watch seven or eight men moving together as a single organism with one clear voice is so disarming. The voice is calm, the voice is reasonable, but every time you put your guard down a little bit, they are moving forward until ultimately they are disarming you before you realize it." That cool precise ethos permeates the show, lending it a striking originality.
Too bad then that Flashpoint has big obstacles to overcome. First is the July start in the Friday at 10 p.m. slot. CTV's Boyce answers skeptics by saying summer dramas get "out of the clutter" of the regular season and that Friday nights aren't a ratings wasteland. Then there's surviving on CBS, which tried and failed with Due South more than a decade ago. Though U.S. networks notoriously avoid anything foreign, CBS signed Flashpoint with lightning speed. Executive producer Anne Marie La Traverse got a thumbs-up voice mail while she was still flying back from the meeting with network brass. For Nancy Tellem, the CBS exec responsible for all TV entertainment operations, the timing of the pitch was perfect: the writers' strike was ending and CBS needed "more and more original programming." Like Boyce, Tellem says the benefit of a summer start, especially for a non-U.S. show, is that "the bar is set a little lower, allowing the show to grow with less pressure."
Meanwhile, on a cool, blustery June evening, the Flashpoint cast and crew are on location at Toronto's harbour filming episode six. During a break, writer Mark Ellis recalls how a visiting CBS exec told him that they've been pitched dozens of SWAT shows but this was "the first one that seemed fresh and interesting." Ellis reacted in true Canuck fashion: "Really?" he asked.
Maclean's July 7, 2008