Cold Squad returns from the grave

Vancouver: In television crime series, you get killed off and that's that. You're dead. They examine you, they pray over you, they move on.

Vancouver: In television crime series, you get killed off and that’s that. You’re dead. They examine you, they pray over you, they move on.

It’s not nearly so linear in the drama of Canadian drama. Your series might be nixed and you might scatter your ashes to the wind, but with a little divine intervention, you are back at work like nothing happened. A miracle.

Ask Julia Keatley, sitting in a director’s chair outside Burnaby City Hall, on set of the surprise seventh season of Cold Squad (Keatley MacLeod/Alliance Atlantis), now Canada’s longest-running drama. Coming back from the dead has her amused.

A year ago, Keatley called Bill Mustos, president of dramatic programming at CTV, and asked, ‘What are our chances at another season?’

‘Five percent,’ she recalls him saying. ‘Your numbers are not trending up like Law & Order.’

She wasn’t surprised by the pronouncement. On set, they had decided six was a nice round number. The creative team made plans to kill off characters and wrap up storylines. Keatley started selling what wasn’t nailed down. In early January, they dismantled the last standing set. ‘We thought we were really done,’ she says of the series that kick-started a surge in domestic production in Vancouver back in 1997.

A couple of weeks later in February, however, she got a call while chairing a CFTPA meeting in Ottawa. It wasn’t exactly harp music she heard on the other end, but something just as astonishing. Mustos had seen the light. Cold Squad turned out to be CTV’s Law & Order, after all.

Aside from similar genres, both series found new and loyal audiences when they went into reruns on specialty channels. When Law & Order reruns began running on A&E, audience for NBC’s first-run episodes grew. Likewise, when Cold Squad reruns started airing on Showcase, CTV saw a surge in audience.Could Keatley pull off another

season? Why not – she had a whole five days to pull together the show before the funding deadlines. Lucky seven helped Cold Squad get through the Canadian Television Fund. Keatley was able to reassemble the team, mostly. The show found new production digs and invested in new sets. And surviving characters from the last season, including original star Julie Stewart, got to carry on at least another 13 episodes. Now, she has 123 crew members squinting and sweating in the hot September sun, lighting, primping, blocking, rehearsing, and shooting an opening scene.

‘There is good energy to this season,’ says Keatley, who has optioned cast for an eighth season. ‘We’ve been able to make enough changes to revitalize the show.’

Also on Keatley’s busy agenda is the launch of Jerry Bruckheimer’s new TV series Cold Case, also airing on CTV this fall. In the CBS series, Stewart look-alike Kathryn Morris plays a detective who finds her calling investigating old unsolved cases.

With some frustration, Stewart says, ‘Imitation is the highest form of flattery.’

Keatley, however, is more circumspect, declining to comment for now while she explores what to do about the striking similarities between her show and Cold Case.

‘Anything is possible,’ she says.

On this day, Stewart is directing this, the seventh episode of the seventh season. Matthew Bennett, who plays Det. Len Harper, blooms into a full-fledged cad in this season, divorcing his wife, fighting for child custody, making the sexy new Crown counsel, uh, see God. New cast members Sonja Bennett (no relation to Matthew) and Tahmoh Penikett benefit with jobs that arise in the afterlife.

Showrunner Peter Mitchell and writer/producer Gary Harvey – the team credited with much of the show’s creative success in the past two seasons – preside over this season, too.

In the scene of the moment, Stewart’s character, Ali McCormick, confronts the scoundrel Harper about an old case that he wants to reopen to prove a new case. An old suicide may actually be murder, he thinks, now that the grieving widow’s new husband is also dead of an apparent suicide. Even in black widow stories, the victims stay dead.

Director Stewart watches rehearsal, her stand-in filling her space.

‘It’s cool to step onto the other side of the camera,’ says Stewart. ‘I love the sense that it’s not all about me. The more you know [about directing], the more you don’t know.’

She’s careful not to talk about this being the final season. ‘In season five, we sort of wondered that we might be done. Then last year, we decided that was it. Then we were shocked in February. I’m not saying anymore. We might go on forever.’

Stewart adds: ‘It’s a bit like starting over. I didn’t expect the excitement to come back, but it did.’