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Flashpoint is the recent Canadian crime-drama that has been getting those in the know buzzing in Canada. It was originally greenlit (I believe) by the Canadian network, CTV -- but then the American network, CBS, came sniffing around during the US writer’s strike (since the Canadian writers didn’t belong to the WGA, they weren’t crossing any lines). So though originally conceived as a Canadian-only production, by the time it hit the airwaves it was a co-production with American CBS.

What would that mean for its “Canadian” identity? pundits asked. And would it matter? Was Flashpoint the beginning of a wave of US interest in Canadian programs…or just a convenient little metal mesh to be jammed under the tires of the CBS vehicle, help it get out of the snow bank of the writer’s strike, and then be discarded once on better ploughed roads (man, talk about running a metaphor/simile into the ground!) Americans were crying “scab”, Canadians were saying it wouldn’t last. Some viewers took a visceral dislike to the show simply for it being in production when their favourite shows were cancelled (it getting the timeslot previously held by a vampire-detective series, Moonlight, and its premise apparently evocative of a short-lived series called Standoff) Most pundits seemed to feel it’d be little more than a blip in the annals of cultural experimentation.

And then Flashpoint became a hit, on both sides of the border.

To be fair, its “hit” status is still up for debate. On the pro side, there’s no doubt it did everything CBS/CTV could’ve hoped it would do…and more. Winning its time slot, often the top rated show of the entire night. Yet the naysayers have a point which is: being the top rated NEW show among a summer of reruns following on the heels of a writer’s strike isn’t exactly the world’s toughest competition. But the fact that Flashpoint has held its numbers, and even increased them, would seem to bode well for its future.

And in Canada it’s the highest rated Canadian-made drama probably since Due South a decade ago!

Interestingly, the series’ “Canadianess” seems relatively intact, despite the US involvement -- it’s still set in Toronto and with a Canadian cast (ironically, the series’ sole American regular, Amy Jo Johnson…had apparently been residing in Canada for a couple of years!)

How one defines Canadianness is, itself, a grey and mushy area. On one hand, it could be argued there aren’t a lot of obvious Canadian flags flapping in the background. On the other hand…the series is unapologetically peppered with Canadian linguistic idiosyncrasies and pronunciations; Canadian cultural references to “Timmy’s” (i.e.: coffee shop chain Tim Horton’s*), JTF2, Highway of Heroes; and Canadian places (the Yukon).

(*this was of special interest to me, as I had not too long ago made the comment on another person’s blog, citing the lack of casual Canadiannisms in so-called Canadian shows, and saying that I’d like to see a character in a Canadian TV show refer to “Timmy’s” the way real Canadians do -- and, lo and behold, Flashpoint did. And yes, advocating for Canadian colloquialisms, even in a forum supposedly supporting Canadian programs, is a little like dressing yourself as a stuffed rabbit and leaping into a kennel of greyhounds).

As someone who has spent a loooonnnng time thinking about Canadian identity in pop culture, my personal litmus test for whether something seems like it’s acknowledging or is hiding its Canadianness often comes down to whether, to my mind, dialogue stands out as avoiding a Canadian reference. That is, if the logical line would’ve been something Canadian, and the filmmakers conspicuously avoid it -- and seem to be doing gymnastics with the script to avoid being too Canadian -- then that show is avoiding being Canadian.

And for the most part: Flashpoint doesn’t seem to do that. They aren’t forcing in Canadian references…but they aren’t afraid of ‘em, neither, even if it might be a reference that will seem oblique to its American audience.

With that being said, and just ‘cause I have to be a little ornery or you’ll think I’m going soft, you can notice little things like the episode set at a courthouse where you see lawyers milling about in judicial robes -- American lawyers don’t wear judicial robes -- but the lawyer character with lines didn’t, as if the filmmakers thought it might be too weird for their American audience to see this character wandering about like he just stepped out of an audition for The Crucible.

But Flashpoint’s nonchalant “Canadianness” combined with its strong ratings helps put to rest the hoary old lie that anything “Canadian” can’t be successful internationally.

And there’s the other notion of cultural identity. Not simply whether it says it’s Canadian (via references and place names) but whether it feels Canadian (in values and philosophy). I’m loathe to go there, as in a democracy made up of varied people, defining something as a “Canadian” value versus a “non-Canadian” value seems somehow…un-Canadian. But, in a way, Flashpoint does seem as though it reflects Canadian stereotypical “values” (as opposed to Canadian reality, perhaps). As others have pointed out, Flashpoint isn’t just an action series where Hannibal Lector kidnaps a bunch of orphans, Jack Bauer caps his ass in a hail of automatic gunfire, and then gives his pals a hi-five as the end credits roll (as, the suggestion is, you would expect it to be if this were a US or a British series). No, it’s a series about consequences and repercussions. It’s a series where “bad guys” are few, and troubled people who make bad choices common. It’s a series where, when the heroes learn they are being sued by the family of a man shot by the SRU team, the level-headed leader remarks, not with rancour, but a simple comment about how everyone grieves in their own way. It’s a series where the heroes are perfectly willing and able to shoot someone dead…but would rather not if it can be avoided. As a character remarks in one episode: “A false alarm is my favourite kind of alarm”. Is this vision of sensitive, compassionate officers an accurate depiction of real Canadian police officers? Well, probably not. But it’s obviously a depiction the filmmakers -- and their audience on both sides of the border -- would like to believe in. One could argue it’s a very “Canadian” vision, like Due South’s Benton Fraser, but no longer hiding behind a shield of camp and exaggeration. It’s machismo…with a bleeding heart.

Ironically, although The Border -- the other current network Canadian crime series -- is more overtly “Canadian” with its constant border crises and clashes with American security frequently drawing attention to its Canadian setting more than does Flashpoint’s generic big city…philosophically, Flashpoint seems the one more truly reflecting Canadian values of liberalism and tolerance. Peace, order and good government…with a cup of Timmy’s on the side. And maybe it seems so truly Canadian precisely because…it doesn’t seem like it’s trying. You believe the writers are just writing from the heart…and that heart is red and white.

But the most interesting thing about Flashpoint…is that it’s actually pretty good. No, wait…it’s really good. It’s surprisingly good.

Why “surprisingly”?

Well, because the very high concept premise about following a Special Response Unit (i.e.: a SWAT squad, an ETF team) is that the series seems kind of limited, as you know each episode will basically revolve around a hostage taking, usually encompassing no more than a few hours. Watching commercials, it looked kind of repetitive. My criticism of the Canadian series The Guard was that, though the episodes on their own might be entertaining, watch two or three in a row and it seems like the same script being recycled week after week.

But Flashpoint has (so far) avoided that -- big time. Each episode has its own unique story to tell, its own unique dilemmas and obstacles…even often its own environment in which to set the crisis. Can the series be a bit hokey? Yeah. Does sometimes the “happy” (or, at least, bittersweet) ending seem a bit too contrived? Sure. Is the incorrigible use of a soft rock tune playing during the epilogue as we cut to a montage of the characters each-and-every episode kind of trite? Uh-huh. But overall, in writing, acting, pacing, plot twists…it succeeds as a riveting hour of drama. And by playing with its ensemble cast, it can even shift which character is the focus...without losing track of the other characters. (i.e.: if you’re a fan of, say, Enrico Colantoni, then it’s not like he’s shunted into the background; he’s always there, always with a decent amount of screen time…but he shares it with the others).

Which then brings me to the point of the title of this essay. And that’s how what’s interesting about Flashpoint is how surprisingly old fashioned it is…and how that seems to be working for it.

These days, the vast majority of TV dramas -- and, indeed, even some sitcoms -- are done more as serialized dramas, where each episode is merely one part of the greater whole (some series even label their episodes as “chapters”). Even series with episode-of-the-week plots usually have on going sub-plots or story arcs bubbling along as well. This can make for great storytelling, series rife with emotional richness and complexity…

But something is lost, as well. The meaty, well written plot; the poetic brevity of a tale told in an hour. The mini-motion picture as opposed to this week’s episode. The ability of a viewer to point to a single episode and say: “now THAT was storytelling.”

And though the on going story arc hooks devoted viewers…it also loses viewers, as a casual viewer might tune into a random episode, then turn it off again, bored, being completely unable to follow the story without having intimate knowledge of the last two seasons!

But even with modern series that still adhere, basically, to the old “tell it in one” school of episodic TV, something else has been lost. The importance of the guest star. Once upon a time, when you were that week’s guest star…you were that week’s guest “star” -- you had scenes to play, emotions to articulate. These days, being the “guest star” on modern crime series often seems to amount to no more than two interrogation scenes. Actors might jump for joy at the cheque they receive for a guest roll on CSI, and the “exposure”…but I can’t imagine them being exactly tickled by the script.

Now, obviously, there are no absolutes. TV awards shows like the Emmies and the Geminis still regularly give awards to the Best Guest Star, so obviously it’s still felt there is room to shine. But it’s not like the old days, no sir -- the days of Wojeck and 12 O‘Clock High, the original Star Trek and Kung Fu.

Obviously, there can be a downside to giving too much time to the guest star. A miscast role, an uninteresting character, can sabotage that week’s episode. And the audience is tuning in, after all, to see the regulars. That’s why it’s a “series”. And it’s in that way that Flashpoint seems to have found a good middle ground. The guest stars are given meaty, demanding roles to play, with lots of scenes and screen time…but the regulars are not shorted, given an equal amount of time and good, emotional scenes to play. The focus on the regulars is what keeps you coming back to Flashpoint…the focus on the guest stars is what makes each episode a unique viewing experience.

Perhaps the fact that Flashpoint was created by two actors, Stephanie Morgenstern and Mark Ellis, is what has led to the stories. Perhaps remembering all the times they showed up to audition for a role-of-the-week that was hardly inspiring led them to create a vehicle where an actor would want to guest star on it…not for the money, not for the exposure, but simply for a chance to play the part. And Flashpoint’s format is ideally suite to providing meaty roles, because the guest stars (well, the principal guest stars) aren’t just given emotional moments…but are usually given a genuine character arc, a mini-movie where they get to play the lead. After all, the whole gimmick behind Flashpoint is it isn’t just giving us the big crisis/action moment…but shows us what leads up to it and, to some extent, what follows after. The episodes are basically chronicling the worst day in a character’s life, where they go from contentedly going about their every day business to desperately holding a gun on a roomful of people all within the space of a couple of commercial breaks. And the series often eschews the simple notion of a bad guy, instead giving us nuanced characters who aren’t always who, or what, we expect them to be.

Come on: don’t tell me actors aren’t salivating for those kind of “guest star” roles.

But there’s another benefit to the meaty guest star role than simply making an actor happy. And that is: it provides a showcase for actors. And in a country like Canada…that’s vital. Canadian networks make very few TV series, and Canadian movies, for the most part, are still seen by a rather limited patriotic clique. And if most TV series focus primarily on the regulars, with guest stars given what amount to little more than plot progressing walk ons, there’s not much work -- or exposure -- for the rest of the acting community.

I think the first actor I really recall thinking about as a “guest star” was American actor Gregg Henry, who used to make the rounds of the US series of the day (Simon & Simon, Stingray, etc.) and still does, of course. Why Henry made an impression more than others, I dunno. Maybe it was because he didn’t seem to have a signature role -- a lot of guest star actors tended to assume the same type of role from series to series (gangsters, grandfathers, housewives) but Henry didn’t play the “Gregg Henry part”, he played what ever was required...and played it well.

And from there, one could become a bit of a fan of the otherwise seeming nameless guest stars who were the building blocks on which series were built. You could get excited seeing certain actors as that week’s “guest star”.

Thanks to the Canadian series, Night Heat, I actually became a kind of quasi-fan of what was almost a semi-repertory troupe of guest stars (actors who appeared in more than one episode, but playing different roles). Actors like Geza Kovacs, Jack Creley and Miguel Fernandes. Heck, if Chappelle Jaffe’s closing scene in the episode where she played a mother whose daughter was murdered, possibly by a child molester, doesn’t kick you in the teeth and leave you gasping…then, brother, you deserve all the reality TV shows that are out there.

But as first American TV, then Canadian TV, began to move away from that, moving more into soap opera-y sagas focusing on a recurring core cast, or procedurals where guest stars were little more than plot devices, opportunities for actors who weren’t lucky enough to be the star of a weekly TV series were fewer and far between. Sure, in series like The Border there can be memorable turns -- Domenic Cuzzocrea was particularly intense as a conflicted pedophile, while Bayo Akinfemi milked a chilling enigmatic-ness from his role in an episode about African refugees. But these still aren’t meat and potato roles with all the garnishes the way they are in Flashpoint. These are performances you can appreciate precisely because the actor has so little to work with.

And so in a country where too few series are made and too few movies are seen, a series that provides a showcase, not just for the regulars to strut their stuff, but guest stars as well, is important. It’s crucial. This is your window on the vast talent that’s lurking out there, your exposure to the faces that just may be the stars of next season’s series.

Oh…and it makes for better television, too.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

Sept. 25, 2008

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