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Staring Down the Barrel of the Flashpoint Pilot

MikeA guest point from our good friend Mike McPhaden:

Since Flashpoint burst onto the scene this summer on CTV and CBS, its taut stories and sharp visuals have nabbed impressive ratings and a second season from both broadcasters. The series tells the tales of the fictional SRU, an elite tactical unit trained to deal with extreme urban policing situations: gun calls, hostage takings, high-risk arrests and more.  The unit is based on Toronto’s real-life Emergency Task Force (ETF).  A close look at the Flashpoint pilot reveals some effective ways to pull the trigger on a police procedural. (Full disclosure: I did some minor post-production work on the pilot episode.)

Episode 101, entitled Scorpio, was written by series creators and co-producers Mark Ellis & Stephanie Morgenstern, who also co-wrote several other episodes this season.  The pilot shows the SRU in action as they respond to a  “critical incident” that ends when police sharpshooter Ed Lane (Hugh Dillon) kills a hostage taker with a single shot to the head. We’re used to seeing the story end there, but Ellis & Morgenstern take us into the aftermath of the shooting from Ed’s perspective, examining the true cost of the duty to “serve and protect.”

Shooter and HostageTeaser: We’re dropped into the middle of a hostage-taking situation going from bad to worse. An enraged man holds a woman (played by Morgenstern herself) at gunpoint in a downtown plaza, shouting in Croatian at the police surrounding him. Sgt. Greg Parker (Enrico Colantoni) gives the “Scorpio” order to sniper Ed Lane, positioned high above. Ed lines up the kill shot, tightens his finger on the trigger … and we flash back to 7:01AM that morning.

Now we see Ed in a different light – at home with his wife and son, a family man on his way out the door to work. As a typical shift on the SRU gets underway, we meet the rest of the team, including Jules (Amy Jo Johnson) the force’s only female sniper.

We also see Goran, our hostage-taker-to-be, exit the subway and approach Marta, a cleaning woman in a downtown office building. They argue bitterly in Croatian before Goran shoots her in front of several witnesses, ending the teaser.

Act One:  When a beat cop tries to arrest him, Goran grabs a bystander, putting a gun to her head.  The SRU heads to the scene. Meanwhile, a cocky new character, Sam Braddock (David Petkau), has just arrived in town. He hears about the incident on the radio and immediately heads for the action, leading us to wonder what he’s up to. The SRU sets up at the scene and Dr. Luria, the team’s advising psychologist, arrives. Ed and Jules, the designated snipers, take high vantage points on the rooftops above the plaza. When Goran points his gun at the police, Parker calls “Scorpio” and the action catches up with the flashforward that started the episode. Sam arrives and watches with interest. Once again, Ed’s finger tightens on the trigger for the act out.

Act Two: A young man runs into the plaza, screaming in Croatian. It’s Goran’s son Petar, who runs into the line of fire just as Ed takes his shot. The shot kills Goran, missing Petar and the hostage by inches. Time screeches to a halt for Ed as standard procedure take over: the regular cops move in and essentially arrest him. He’s stripped of his weapons and sequestered from his teammates. For the act out, Ed is driven away by Special Investigations.

Act Three: Sam approaches Jules, coming off as a creepy gun club guy. When he reaches for something in his pocket, the rest of the team pounce on him, thinking he has a weapon. He doesn’t – and it turns out he’s about to join the SRU.  Not a very good first impression.  Meanwhile, Ed is questioned  about the incident by the SIU, then released. Ed turns down Dr. Luria’s offer to talk about the incident, preferring to hit the shooting range instead.

Act Four: At a retirement party for another cop, Ed and the others are formally introduced to Sam Braddock, who’ll be joining their unit.  Ed can’t get into the fun of the evening, he’s still in shock. After a few words of wisdom from Parker, Ed heads home to his family. The episode ends with Ed giving his son a hug, holding on for dear life.

Here is a rough timing breakdown:

Teaser            9 mins (2 mins + 7 mins)
Act One            10 mins
Act Two            7 mins
Act Three            10 mins
Act Four            6 mins

The Teaser is actually a teaser-plus-first-act. It starts with the flashforward of the hostage incident, then a rapid-fire series of images yanks us back to how the day began, leading us into a seven minute act that ends with the opening credit sequence.  It’s fair to think of the episode as a teaser and five acts, although the actual scripts name the acts as they appear above.

For a quick & dirty breakdown the story beats, I decided to call the main tactical plot (the hostage taking) the T plot. Ed’s personal story is the true A plot, and Sam’s intro functions as a B plot. Beats that simply establish (or embellish) character are labeled “Char”. Scenes that serve two functions include a slash.

Teaser: T, then flashback to: to A, T, Char (meet the team), T, A/Char (Ed & Parker), T, Char (more of team), T.

Act One: T, Char (Ed & Jules), T, B, T, T, T, B, Char (Dr. Luria), T, T, T, T.

Act Two: B, T, T, T, T (new complication), T, T, T, T (Ed takes the shot, at which point the T-plot’s collides with the A-plot), A, A.

Act Three: A, A, A, B, A, A, A, A, A.

Act Four: A/Char (Ed & Jules), B/Char (Sam joins team), A/Char (Parker & Ed), and then a concluding montage: singles of Petar, Jules, Sam, Greg, ending on Ed & his son).

Ellis & Morgenstern delineate three distinct tiers of regular characters. There’s no way to miss the fact that Ed is our hero. Besides carrying the bulk of the episode, he’s the only character whose home life we see. The co-leads, like Parker and Jules, do not have their own story arcs, but they’re given the best emotional scenes with Ed, as well as key roles in the tactical story.  Even without obvious cues from the casting, we know they’ll feature prominently in future episodes. The late reveal of Sam as a new teammate gives him added emphasis, as well. The remainder of the squad – Wordy, Lou, Spike, etc – get a chance to establish their defining character traits and that’s about it. The approach certainly works better than trying to give every character a chance to shine in a single episode.

While “Scorpio” is an effective pilot, it’s certainly not a typical episode.  The crisis-of-the-week is resolved early in the second act, while other episodes don’t resolve until much later.   In essence, the pilot shows us a short typical episode, giving us a taste of what kind of action we can expect week to week, then shifts gears to examine Ed’s character in detail as he struggles with the moral questions that lie at the very heart of his job and the series itself.

Coming soon: An interview with Flashpoint creators Mark Ellis and Stephanie Morgenstern.

8 Comments

  1. Maybe it’s me…and yes, several times it has been just me, but I really wanted to see that moment that elevated this show to something great. It could have been THE SHIELD pilot great. It could have had that little twist at the end where we see Ed and his wife have an argument and he hits her (mimicking the actions of the hostage-taker who he killed). I just didn’t see that bit of reflexive storytelling that would have made the story more poignant and really – more interesting. Instead, I felt that story was wrapped up a little too neatly in Ed’s case.

    (And yes, I know that later on we understand he’s been sued for his actions, but who didn’t see that one coming?)

    The point is that in each case they’ve handled, the team goes up against ordinary people (just like them) that see no way out except violence.

    What happens when one of them sees no way out except violence? How does the team handle their demons? Those are the stories I want to see with these characters. Not just the (admittedly cool) gun porn.

    Monday, September 22, 2008 at 4:11 pm | Permalink
  2. admin wrote:

    Really interesting point Bill. Of course it’s hard to get anything less than neat on network TV.

    Monday, September 22, 2008 at 4:23 pm | Permalink
  3. angela wrote:

    The show is watchable, but at this point is just pretty average. I only started watching the show because of Amy Jo Johnson, actually.

    Monday, September 22, 2008 at 8:49 pm | Permalink
  4. I just think it would have provided a really good B story engine for the rest of the season – is Ed going to keep it together? Will he get help? Will his wife and kid leave him? What happens then? How will the team react to the notion that one of their own, a man they trust, isn’t exactly trustworthy?

    It can’t be easy doing that job – not one ounce of easy – and that sort of stress CANNOT be neatly wrapped up. Not in television and certainly not in real life.

    So I have to ask:

    When is someone on the team going to reach their flashpoint?

    Tuesday, September 23, 2008 at 8:16 am | Permalink
  5. Kazza wrote:

    Methinks it’s time Mr. McPhaden took the plunge and got a blogger account, hmmmm?

    Tuesday, September 23, 2008 at 12:10 pm | Permalink
  6. Mike McPhaden wrote:

    Thanks, Kazza, but you know what they say: mo bloggin’, mo problems.

    Tuesday, September 23, 2008 at 8:07 pm | Permalink
  7. admin wrote:

    Wait a minute. They say that? Now you tell me…

    Tuesday, September 23, 2008 at 8:15 pm | Permalink
  8. J.L.Stamps wrote:

    Hello, Do you mind if I use the image of the man w/ the gun w/ the female hostage in a book I am writing? It would fit perfectly in a spot where I talk about having to shoot a man who had a woman and an 8 yr old boy hostage at gunpoint. Thanks, JL Stamps

    Monday, February 8, 2010 at 1:45 am | Permalink

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  1. Spec Flashpoint — Final Thoughts | A TV Calling on Monday, February 15, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    [...] Gol­lick has sev­eral of those around the cre­ation of the show.Actu­ally, she even made a much bet­ter break­down of the pilot episode than mine (with char­ac­ter beats et al.). So def­i­nitely check [...]