Flashpoint (part 1) — the legacy

The Canadian crime-action TV series Flashpoint is in its final season, so I thought I’d take a few moments to reflect upon it.

Flashpoint is a cops n’ robbers series about an elite Strategic Response Unit in Toronto — essentially what would more colloquially be known as a SWAT team. It’s a fictionalized unit (the real Toronto equivalent is called the Emergency Task Force) but surprisingly, a lot of the details hew reasonably close to reality — at least for a TV series. When the series first aired I came upon a message board posting where some angry poster was denouncing it as unrealistic garbage, citing his own experience working in such a unit (in another country). Some of the errors he fixated on? The code words they used when taking a shot/not taking a shot were different than what he had used…

Um, most of us would probably see that as an indication of the series’ accuracy…that they had the characters using special code terms just like in real life.

Indeed, sometime after the series started airing I was listening to a radio interview with a guy who had spent time with such a unit. The interview had nothing to do with Flashpoint (I don’t think they ever referred to the series) yet I was surprised that what he was describing were things I had seen in the show but assumed were a fancy of the filmmakers (like the chief negotiator having an ear plug so a guy at a computer could feed him pertinent details in real time).

Not that the series should be mistaken for a documentary — it is just a TV drama.

And drama with a capital “D”. Flashpoint is an odd mix of action series, with plenty of adrenaline pumping action, chases, running, and shooting that, paradoxically, sits next to a lot of human drama, mystery, and character scenes. For a series that could seem so formulaic — it’s an emergency response unit, which means usually it involves a hostage taking in the opening scene or two — they’ve managed to keep it fresh, precisely because of this character focus. The stories often less about someone holding someone else at gun point — and more about who they are and why things have come to this point.

Now I really liked Flashpoint when it started, and gave it an appropriately gushing review on my website The Great Canadian Guide to the Movies & TV. But I’ll admit I haven’t been watching it as regularly lately. Not through any fault of its own, or any jumped sharks. Just there are other things to watch. Flashpoint adheres a lot to the story-of-the-week plot. There are character threads that carry through, and minor sub-plots, but in essence, you watch it for that night’s story. As such, you can maybe find yourself watching it irregularly, not worrying over much about missing anything too relevant. And you can drop back in anytime and not find yourself completely confused by an incoherent episode that only makes sense if you’ve been watching the last two seasons! (Sometimes — yes, but mostly, no). There are some series that once you’ve stopped watching…you can never go back. With Flashpoint, it’s still something I like to drop in on when a feel like a Flashpoint fix (and it will make a great fixture of syndicated re-runs as a result). I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a bad episode, or even a mediocre one. Some are just okay more than great but most usually happily fill out an hour.

Knowing this was the last season, I turned into the premiere — and because I like to watch out for actors. The guest stars included Lisa Houle (an actress who I first noticed years ago, seemed to make only irregular appearances, and now seems to be popping up more), Brooke Palsson (a scene stealer on the sitcom Less Than Kind and I was curious to see her in a dramatic role, and sans the braces that are as much her character’s signature as Bubble‘s glasses in The Trailer Park Boys!). Houle’s role was a bit limiting, tending to involve a lot of crying and cringing — basically the kind of role that I suspect an actor would find the worst of both extremes: creatively unsatisfying and emotionally exhausting. Ty Olsson as the villain, however, gave quite an eye opening performance, playing a loathsome, abusive, control freak…but avoiding the cheap route of playing him as a bad guy; that is, Olsson’s performance, and the script, gave us a nuanced guy who really did believe he was the victim here — which made him, in a sense, all the more creepy. And Palsson — Palsson had a role guaranteed to break your heart. The scene in the back of police jeep, where she asks the two heroes for their names is a scene that’ll stick with me for a while in its understated power. It was an episode that reminds you that, just as Flashpoint likes happy endings where good triumphs and the innocent are redeemed…they also don’t mind sticking the knife in and twisting…hard.

Because I’m a proponent of tough love in the arts, I don’t believe in not being critical just because you’re also praising. So if I had one pet peeve with the series overall, it might be the race angle. Not that the series is overtly racist — not at all. But you do have to wonder about a series with a set cast for five seasons…yet seems to switch its black actors almost as readily as socks, with Mark Taylor, Olunike Adeliyi, and Clé Bennett all playing essentially the “black” team member in different seasons. On one hand, one could perhaps see that as a sign they are committed to a multi-racial cast…on the other hand, it does feel as though they aren’t really investing anything in those characters. Likewise the guest star cast has boasted a few black actors as key guest stars…but not many, and even fewer I think when you consider other visible minorities. Particularly when you consider the racial make up of the real Toronto in which the action is supposed to take place.

I’m not condemning them, or saying they should hang their heads. Just pointing it out, suggesting they tuck it away in their thoughts to think about the next time they’re putting a series together.

(Another pet peeve of mine is the over-reliance on the musical montage epilogues!)

Anyhoo…

As a series, Flashpoint’s significance is that it may well have changed the face of Canadian TV.

Okay maybe it didn’t change the face…but it might have given it a nose job.

Flashpoint apparently was already in production when the American networks were hit by a writer’s strike, essentially halting American TV production. CBS, looking for some way around the crisis, turned north to Canada (which is governed by different unions which weren’t on strike) and offered to partner with CTV on Flashpoint, instantly boosting the series’ budget and giving it something no Canadian series had had since Due South: a slot on American network prime time. And though Due South was about a Canadian mountie in Chicago, Flashpoint was making no obvious concessions to an American partner. It was set in Canada, with a Canadian cast (star Enrico Colantoni was well known to American audiences from series like Veronica Mars and Just Shoot Me, and co-star Amy Jo Johnson was American…but had already been living in Canada for a couple of years). Sure, it was a “soft” Canada, with a few deliberately obfuscating references (in the series, Colantoni’s son was living with his ex-wife…in Dallas) — but it wasn’t pretending it was something it wasn’t. Dialogue referred to Toronto, Canadian flags could be seen on shoulders, and occasional Canadian phrases (“zed”) and references (“Highway of Heroes”) cropped up.

And it was a hit. In Canada it became a top rated series and in the U.S. it performed well (as a summer replacement series) often winning its time slot. Granted, its relationship with American CBS seemed uncertain — according to some reports, its audience tended to skew older. It brought in the viewers…but not necessarily the viewers coveted by advertisers. Still, it was enough to get it renewed year after year. And it seemed to open the door for a slew of Canada-U.S. co-productions on American networks that, like Flashpoint, were more openly Canadian than the previous generation of such series had been (and which rarely won network slots). Some were set in Canada with a Canadian cast, some had a Canadian cast but were a little ambiguous about the setting, some were clearly Canadian but with some American stars.

Success has been uneven. Rookie Blue has been renewed for a fourth season…while The Bridge and Combat Hospital were cancelled after one (the latter despite great Canadian ratings) and The Listener and Saving Hope were cancelled after one in the States…but continue in Canada. Which, given the attritional nature of American TV (where networks assume failure and have replacement series already prepped and waiting to go) probably isn’t such a bad ratio. And in fact, a series that was a throwback to the “old” model — The Firm (ie: set in the States with some American stars) — was also cancelled after one season.

Flashpoint is still boasting top drawer ratings in Canada, leading the creators to insist the decision to bring it to an end was a voluntary creative one. But CBS did eventually drop it after four seasons (the series moving to a cable station in the U.S.) so we can also assume they might be worried about an impact on their budget per episode. Still, four years on an American network and five in general is a pretty decent legacy.

Now one doesn’t want to give too much credit to one show. Canadian populist dramas existed before — Street Legal, North of 60, Due South, and others. Still, the very “big budget” feel of Flashpoint (with its mix of action and drama) probably helped reset the bar on viewer expectations. And one can’t help noticing the rise in ratings overall for a lot of Canadian dramas (as mentioned, even some of those that were cancelled because of tepid U.S. ratings boasted large audiences in Canada). So that may well be because Flashpoint kind of opened the door and showed a jaded Canadian audience that Canadian dramas were as good and as pulpy as anything out of Hollywood.

Next time: Flashpoint’s cultural legacy…and the worrisome acting vacuum it will leave…

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