Groundbreaking cop series takes final bow

With its seventh and final season gracing the airwaves, Cold Squad remains perhaps the most under-appreciated of all Canadian drama series.

The forensic cop show starring Julie Stewart is a consistent also-ran to rival Da Vinci’s Inquest for peer commendations, doesn’t get kudos for presaging the current tidal wave of police procedural shows, and has lived in the shadows of U.S. series at its home network, which was motivated more by strategic than creative reasons to make a show in Vancouver.

Still, Cold Squad has 98 episodes in the can – a staggering number for any series these days – 34 Gemini Award nominations and six wins, four Leo Awards, and is viewed in 50 international markets – all of which adds up to the real legacy of the series’ achievement.

The first time Cold Squad was mentioned in the pages of Playback was back in September 1995, when Vancouver producers Julia Keatley and her father Phil thought they had a series deal with Lifetime in the U.S.

The younger Keatley had already been flogging the story bible for a year, having pitched the idea to Atlantis Communications at MIP-TV in April 1994, just months after writer Matt MacLeod, a deep undercover RCMP officer, had germinated the idea of a female detective who solves old, cold murder cases.

Who knew that the show, the seventh and final season of which is finally airing on CTV, would become the longest-running drama series on Canadian television? It rode the bucking Canadian drama-funding bronco, catalyzed the expansion of West Coast drama production, and eventually saw its concept cloned by U.S. television big shots with three times the per-episode budget.

‘I never thought it wasn’t going to happen,’ said Julia Keatley back in 1997, on the eve of day one of production. ‘If you’re going to be a producer in this country you have to be optimistic.’

Atlantis on board

By August 1995, Atlantis had optioned the Cold Squad idea and agreed to coproduce. Keatley MacLeod was formed as a Vancouver prodco and Lifetime ordered a script. MacLeod, who had previously penned an MOW called Trust in Me, produced by the Keatleys for now-defunct WIC Western International Communications, began writing the pilot with two U.S. writers.

Later that December, Ivan Fecan, then-CEO of Baton Broadcasting, also came aboard – good thing, too, as Baton eventually took control of CTV in 1996, just as management changes at Lifetime resulted in Cold Squad getting the cold shoulder from its U.S. partner.

In 1996, the West Coast domestic production sector was begging for a major Canadian series. The CBC was playing its own lottery to ‘discover’ a West Coast drama. Baton, meanwhile, was packing all kinds of goodies – including a Vancouver-based primetime series – into its benefits package to win the CRTC nod for Vancouver Television (VTV), the first new Vancouver station in 20 years.

With the CRTC approval of VTV on Jan. 31, 1997, Baton promptly ordered 13 one-hour episodes of Cold Squad – one of TV’s earliest forensics dramas (not to forget Quincy) – for its CTV affiliates and VTV.

The producers played the funding game, hired writers and began casting. However, bad news came late when Telefilm Canada turned the show down two weeks into prep. Keatley believes that, at the time, the funder didn’t take CTV seriously as a broadcaster of 10-out-of-10 content series – a prejudice that handicapped Cold Squad’s application. A lot of scrambling, cajoling and pressure convinced Telefilm to reconsider, but only at 60% of the original request from the producers. Financing was finally secured for 11 instead of 13 episodes.

Also in the series’ corner was union ACFC West, which negotiated a landmark low-budget contract that saved the series $225,000 over its first season. ACFC West stuck with Cold Squad for its entire run.

Its birthing complications resolved, Cold Squad took its first steps toward being the first primetime national series to be produced out of Vancouver – which created an albatross of expectation it never really cast off. In 1997, there was little industry respect for the production capacities of Vancouver, better known as a for-hire service production backlot for shows such as The X-Files. Many wondered whether Vancouver could pull off a primetime series, and depending on whom you talk to, it took several seasons for Cold Squad to find its creative legs.

Great expectations

Still, anticipation in the early going was high. Toronto actress Stewart signed on to play the lead role of Ali McCormick, a tough detective who, while struggling to succeed within the police department’s old-boys hierarchy, is handed the cold case files. Michael Hogan, who transplanted his family of actors from Toronto to Vancouver two years earlier, took on the character of crotchety partner Tony Logozzo. David Barlow headed up the story department.

On the first day of principal photography – July 2, 1997 – MacLeod quit his day job at the RCMP after 29 years. ‘The main difference between my life on the force and life on the set is that, in making television, no one is getting hurt,’ he said then. ‘My experiences are from real people. Now it’s make-believe.’

The first episode, directed by Vancouver’s Penelope Buitenhuis, focused on the discovery of a skull of a 14-year-old child murdered 15 years earlier.

‘Cop shows sell well internationally,’ said Keatley then, ‘and that Vancouver will be starring as itself will be exciting. A one-hour series is substantial and will help to continue to grow the talent and bring people home to work.’

Cold Squad’s first season debuted on a Friday night in January 1998, a few months after the September launch of VTV, and earned the freshman series eight Gemini nominations, but no wins.

By the very next year, B.C. was a hotbed of primetime production. With the July 1998 merger of Atlantis and Alliance Communications, there were seven AAC series in Vancouver, including the first season of CBC’s Da Vinci’s Inquest (Haddock Entertainment/Barna-Alper Productions), the Vancouver-based coroner series that would often overshadow Cold Squad at awards time.

CTV ordered 15 one-hours for Season II, with Bob Carney on board as the creative producer.

Season III presented another 13 eps, this time with showrunner Marlene Matthews making major changes in the show: Stewart went from red to blonde, actors Tamara Craig Thomas, Greg Calpakis and Stephen McHattie joined the cast and Hogan was killed off.

But there was a strain growing between the producers, culminating in MacLeod filing a lawsuit in B.C. Supreme Court around the October 1999 season debut for Cold Squad’s third season, alleging the Keatleys had not fulfilled their roles as coproducers. The suit was privately settled.

Julia Keatley’s time was divided between working on the set and lobbying government on behalf of the production industry. During the production of Cold Squad, Keatley took on senior roles within the CFTPA and in the financing body that eventually became the Canadian Television Fund.

Cold Squad’s fourth season saw a whopping order for 20 eps, led by a creative team of executive producer, writer and director Peter Mitchell and co-executive producer and director Gary Harvey, who would be key players for the rest of the series’ run. Local actor Joely Collins, step-daughter of pop star Phil Collins and future lead in the Bruce McDonald feature The Love Crimes of Gillian Guess, joined the cast.

The fifth season required a breezy 13 eps. Toronto actor Matthew Bennett (Total Recall 2070) and veteran Vancouver actor Garry Chalk (Dark Angel) joined the cast and the showrunners tried something new – a secondary story arc that played throughout the entire season.

In 2000, while Cold Squad carried on, B.C.’s domestic industry started its precipitous decline, with the demise of British Columbia’s television production funding and the overall fade of Canadian domestic drama. The CTF was on the brink of its funding shortfall, which Cold Squad avoided thanks to its longevity.

Season VI, produced in 2002, really seemed like Cold Squad’s last, and CTV wasn’t looking like it was going to commit to another. The producers wrapped up storylines, killed off main characters, and hosted a big set sale. But reruns of Cold Squad on Showcase were gaining a strong audience that spiked the series’ audience numbers on CTV. Five days before the CTF funding deadline in 2003, CTV’s Bill Mustos called Keatley on her cell phone in the middle of a CFTPA board meeting to order 13 more episodes.

The producers scrambled to buy everything back. Sonja Bennett (Punch) and Tahmoh Penikett (Battlestar Galactica) joined the cast, while other actors moved on. Adding to the frustration, Keatley and MacLeod had to deal with the prospect of competing against Jerry Bruckheimer’s strikingly similar CBS series Cold Case, which got a better slot and better promotion on CTV, Cold Squad’s home turf. The producers of Cold Squad and Cold Case continue to sort out the copyright issues today.

Cold Squad itself may soon be coming to an end, but its influence is sure to be felt for years to come.