I have a confession to make. Late at night, when the cold wind blows, and the informercials take over most television stations, I huddle in the dark, hoping no one wakes, and watch Canadian television. It’s a shameful but somehow comforting thing, if only because all the series are shot in Vancouver, which means that every other guest star has been on a SyFy channel series at some point. Hell, “Cold Squad” is practically a “Battlestar Galactica” prequel. I toyed with making up a drinking game, but whatever rule governed Cylon sighting would have you dead of alcohol poisoning before the opening credits finished rolling. Plus, the lead is played by Enrico Colantoni, who I can never see without yelling lines from Galaxy Quest, so it’s got that going for it to.
And that’s how I ended up watching “Flashpoint” which has surprised me as being one of the most consistently entertaining procedurals that you can find on television. That might be because it doesn’t really operate as a procedural so much as hour long miniature action movies. See, there’s this crack team of police officers called the Strategic Response Unit, which is apparently Northern-speak for fancy pants SWAT. And they’re not mounties. They are called in whenever hostage situations or big violent events go down. So instead of reserving those items for very special episodes, those are all the episodes. It almost feels like the first season of “24”, except without the continuous story and Kiefer Sutherland isn’t growling at everyone. So, nothing like “24”, except that sort of cinematic fast moving feeling.
The team has a nice tension between the first and second in command, who are respectively a negotiator and a shooter. Plus, the Pink Power Ranger is on the team, and I like to pretend that being a police officer is only her day job, and that in the evenings she still fights giant aliens.
A few seasons of the show apparently ran on CBS a few years back, making some noise as the first Canadian television series broadcast in primetime on an American network. I have no memory of this event. Surprisingly though, not all shows involving uniformed men with automatic weapons can succeed on CBS. Who would have guessed? It turns out that for most people, suspension of disbelief involving the premise breaks down right around the 41st parallel. I know that I only accidentally watched it when nothing else was on, despite the interminable commercials on Ion in the evenings during every commercial break. Amazingly, the presence of Enrico Colantoni monotonizing that we should “watch the excitement unfold” just didn’t make me set an alarm to turn the television on.
Yet despite the constant threat of violence, the series does not have a casual approach to it, and nothing like a celebratory one. The deployment of lethal force is agonized over, both before and after events occur. The show returns again and again to that decision point, of when to kill, both with the officers and with the stories of the week. There’s a particular moment, when the officers shoot an abuse victim who is about to shoot her abuser, that generated significant controversy at the time. But it was exactly that dialogue that it sought to start, and it did so starting with the characters, some of whom simply could not accept that it was the right decision, no matter that it was exactly what the law said should happen. It’s significant that the repeated line of the show, the mission of the police force, is essentially alien to American television. Rather than the familiar “to serve and protect” it is “to keep the peace”. The distinction is both narrow and monumental. “Flashpoint” comes from a place where what the police defend is not the citizens but the idea of a peaceful society. Violence is only the solution of last resort it insists, and no one has the right to deploy it except in the moment of self-defense. While less morally objectionable to our focus on the primacy of the individual, the show argues for a morality in which even violence we deem individually acceptable is an affront to civilized society.
It’s not exactly something we would expect to see on American television, except in a very special episode before returning to casually shooting down the bad guy at the end of the next episode.
It’s a show that manages to make shooting the bad guy the worst possible outcome. And that makes for captivating television.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.