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Friday, November 9, 2012

Flashpoint, Toronto and the character of Setting

Flashpoint is a hit show both here in Canada as well as in the USA, and its Toronto setting is a part of its success. But, what took so long for Toronto to be front and centre?

Setting is an important part of story-telling. Setting is often actually a form of character, and certain stories can only be told in certain settings, because the character of setting impacts the story.

For some strange reason, Toronto had yet to be embraced as a setting in which a compelling story could be told...but I've never understood why. Thanks to Flashpoint, however, those days could finally be over.

Yes, there is money in the mid-west, but typical stock market or business-oriented movies (Wall Street, Other People's Money, American Psycho) are set in New York City. In one of Billy Wilder's many classics, The Apartment, main character CC Baxter (played by Jack Lemon) starts with a voice-over introducing his insurance firm in the context of what life is like in New York City.

New York City has a few faces available to it. The business face is well-known. So is the urban decay side. The two are fabulously juxtaposed in The Bonfire of the Vanities, a story that could only happen in a city that facilitates the cavalcade of characters and conflicting interests from the master of the universe to his Hampton parents to his lawyer to the kids in the hood to the Reverend to the cops to the mayor to the judge...

And then there's the mid-town (or uptown, as the case may be) romantic side of New York, as seen in The Thomas Crown Affair, You've Got Mail or Autumn in New York, a story that wouldn't be the same if set in Miami, because autumn in New York is different than in a tropical, palm-tree-lined Miami. Productions set in Miami are going to be steamy, pulsing; when set in New Orleans, they're often going to be seedy, because that's how New Orleans has been used, that's the identity it has come to offer, with its enchanting history.

During an episode of the TV show Fraser, Kelsey Grammer's Fraser says "It's always 'raining in Seattle'."  Whether that's true or not, that is how Seattle likes to sell itself, as a town where things tend to happen indoors because the rain makes outdoor stuff less fun; thus coffee and brew pubs abound in Seattle. At the beginning of Al Pacino's 88 Minutes, his main character, on a drab, overcast/rainy day, gets into a cab with "Seattle" splashed across the side, and the radio playing in the cab announces "good morning Seattle" - the rain, the cab, the radio...the producers made darned sure the audience knew right up front that this story was being told in Seattle. Pacino's Insomnia is set in Alaska - his main character Will Dormer (did you catch it? "Dormer" is like the French for "sleep", so his name is "Will Sleep"...anyway) he's a guy who can't sleep in a place at a time where/when the sun never goes down.

Like New York, Los Angeles also has a few faces available for story-telling. It has a glamorous side, and an urban-decaying side. Boyz n the Hood, Colors, or Falling Down show a very different LA than, say, Get Shorty. Los Angeles, being where Hollywood is, has some great movies set there, including one of my all-time favourites, another Billy Wilder gem, Double Indemnity, not to mention his equally spellbinding Sunset Boulevard (I'm long overdue to write what makes Wilder so special in my mind; will get to it sooner than later, any one who likes movies needs to know Wilder) as well as Chinatown, LA Confidential, and a bazillion others. A great juxtaposition of LA's multiple faces is seen in a movie I highly recommend and have reviewed, The Soloist).

OK, so we get it - setting is important. But (and here's the thrust for the segue focusing on Toronto)  each town can create its own identity, its own brand, if you will, for purposes of story-telling. I've often wondered why TV shows and movies can't be set in Toronto.

We know lots of them are shot in Toronto...but in most of them, Toronto is made to look like other locations. In RED, for example, one great scene is when John Malkovich's character runs at the limo with the bomb strapped to his chest; it's clearly in the driveway between the Royal York Hotel and the Royal Bank building - the limo dashes westward on Front St. before making a u-turn back eastward towards Bay Street...but the sign on the wall says Fairmont Chicago). 

Then there are scenes such as one in Traitor, in which Don Cheadle's character has a meeting in a number of places around the world, including Toronto, and they show a TTC streetcar and the meeting inside some nondescript restaurant. The movie isn't set in Toronto, but there is a scene where Toronto plays itself, albeit so briefly it's hardly worth more than the mention.

Then there was the fiasco of The Love Guru. The story centers (no pun intended) on a hockey player in Toronto...yet the overhead image of the arena in which they play is actually the Staples Centre in Los Angeles. Lame for those looking to see Toronto on screen as Toronto.

Then, there's a TV show called Flashpoint.

Normally, I avoid "Canadian TV shows" because they tend to make Canada look like farmland or rural backwaters. I'm tired of Canada perpetuating, or allowing to perpetuate, the rugged rural thing (I know where it comes from - see the sample chapter on the Group of Seven for my book The Essential Artist). Today, more than half the entire national population is found in the greater metro areas of three urban centres - Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Canada is increasingly an urban, and demographically diverse, country, and it's past time this reality gets portrayal in the arts.

Anyway, then Traders came out, which was a little better, set in a boutique investment house on Bay St. It was slick and modern and all, definitely a step in the right direction, but the stories didn't show Toronto (to my recollection, although I missed most of the series), as a character the way New York or Paris is a character in movies set in them - no, Traders was mostly inside buildings and talked business talk without much reference or connection to Toronto.

Flashpoint, however, is what I've been waiting to see.

Rather than see the Empire State Building or the Twin Towers or the Brooklyn Bridge, we see the CN Tower, the TD Canada Trust building, ScotiaBank Tower; instead of "West 57th Street" we hear characters talking about "The Danforth", "King Street" and "Temperance Street"; rather than areas such as "Soho" or "mid-town" we here areas such as "Downsview" and "Rosedale" mentioned. It's Toronto being itself, finally.

Scan Twitter these days and there are people in the USA calling Flashpoint a great show, their favourite, the best show... kinda like how I talk about Mad Men. Again, these tweets are not coming from Canadians trying to pump up Flashpoint, they are coming from Americans who, I was told, would never be interested in a story set in Toronto, because Toronto couldn't be interesting. I've never believed that, and a show has finally pushed the envelope and splashed Toronto all over the screen - finally, Toronto is not hiding, Toronto is not trying to be somewhere else to be accepted...finally, Toronto is on display at itself, and being accepted as itself.

What took so long is beyond me, but that day has finally arrived. Like any town, Toronto can create  characters of itself for use in story-telling. To make it in show business, one must go out and get it; it doesn't come to you. Actors go to audition for roles they want. Similarly, a city can't sit back and wait to be noticed. Producers, directors and actors must proactively tell stories in Toronto in order to craft an identity for the city that can be used as character in story.

Granted, Flashpoint is not perfect. No show is. I might like to see a little more, um, diversity, amongst its main characters. Given it's now in its final season, that's probably not going to happen, so we'll have to accept it for what it is. And, its success south of the border is likely due, in no small part, to the fact that the show is about a special tactics police team - Americans like guns, right? Whatever the case, the part Flashpoint has played in the emergence of Toronto out from the shadows of other cities is still valuable.

At the end of the day, one must have confidence in their story-telling, and tell a compelling story. At the climax of last night's episode (season 5, episode 8), on the Cherry Street bridge, the emotional drama had viewers on the edge of the their seats; it could have been the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, but it wasn't - it was Cherry Street, Toronto. And viewers were transfixed just the same. 

So, let's see if we can see more writers, producers, directors and actors involved in telling stories set in Toronto - it's a beautiful, vibrant, diverse, action-packed city with lots to offer. Flashpoint is a good show, and its Toronto setting is a part of its success.

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