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A scene from Cracked. (Russ Martin)
A scene from Cracked. (Russ Martin)

Cracked: How the new CBC drama gives mental illness a starring role Add to ...

In the debut episode of the new CBC-TV police drama Cracked, Detective Aidan Black confronts a schizophrenic murderer who has turned his knife on himself. The cop stops him from killing himself by copying him, pulling out his gun and pointing it at his temple.

A real police officer would never actually do this, notes the show’s co-creator Calum de Hartog. He ought to know: He is a real police officer whose job includes talking down potential suicides. De Hartog, a 35-year-old constable with the Toronto Police, works on the Emergency Task Force executing high-risk search warrants and negotiating with the agitated, violent and suicidal. On the set of Cracked, he initially balked at the fanciful scene but has to concede that this is what the medium demands.

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“It’s TV,” he says. “I was standoffish to the idea but when I saw it, I said, ‘That’s compelling.’”

The moonlighting de Hartog, a hobbyist filmmaker since his youth who is now both cop and screenwriter, is busy navigating the gap between reality and fiction; so too is Cracked, a show that has to walk a fine line between television’s melodramatic requirements and its own desire to break new ground with a sensitive and realistic depiction of the mentally ill.

Cracked, which premieres Tuesday, follows an emerging pattern in Canadian television to base cop shows on the specialized units of real police forces. From 2008 to 2010, CBC’s The Border, also created by Cracked’s production company White Pine Pictures, was inspired in part by stories from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the RCMP; Flashpoint, which recently wrapped up five seasons on CTV, was directly based on the Emergency Task Force, Toronto’s non-paramilitary equivalent of a SWAT team.

Cracked heads into more delicate social territory, however: Inspired by the pairing of officers with psychiatric nurses by Toronto Police, it features a fictional psych-crimes unit in which Black (David Sutcliffe) works with forensic psychiatrist Dr. Daniella Ridley (Stefanie von Pfetten) to solve crimes that involve mental illness. She has the medical knowledge; he’s got the street smarts – and some first-hand experience, too. After years on the SWAT team, Black is suffering from a touch of post-traumatic stress disorder himself.

“Clearly he’s got to be fit for duty; he’s got his wits about him but he’s got an edge,” Sutcliffe says. “He’s a little bit out of control.”

The actor is creating a fictional character who, like Hamlet, may leave you speculating on the nature of the man’s madness, but hearing de Hartog’s story you also have to wonder how much of this is autobiographical.

“Hopefully just a small part,” de Hartog says with a laugh. “Bits and pieces of life become part of it, but he was created for theatrical purposes.”

He adds that the key to avoiding Black’s kind of problem is talking openly about stress to family and friends. Also, he has done an excellent job following the advice of his father, a retired Ottawa police officer who always emphasized the importance of maintaining active interests outside policing.

Creating his first TV series, de Hartog has discovered just how far the medium does have to depart from real life. He arrived at White Pine Pictures with a concept inspired by the psychiatric teams who do front-line work on the streets of Toronto, and was paired with screenwriter Tracey Forbes, who wrote for Flashpoint. She created a fictional psych-crimes unit with an investigative brief so that the series could have a procedural element, a weekly bit of detecting undertaken by a policing team.

On screen, the team is supposed to bring psychological smarts to both policing and detection, recognizing the realities of mental illness, explains von Pfetten, who plays the medical side of the equation in the character of Daniella Ridley.

“It’s very simple,” she says of the doctor’s view of the issue: “This person is not a criminal, this person is sick.”

As a public shocked by cases such as the Ashley Smith prison suicide becomes increasingly aware that law-enforcement agencies need training to deal with the mentally disturbed, the show’s various creators speak passionately about that kind of consciousness-raising. “Without being too melodramatic about it, it’s about creating mental-health awareness not just for front-line professionals but for everybody,” de Hartog says. Still, the demands of drama may mean a disproportionate number of these sick people play criminals rather than victims.

“It’s got heart; it’s very sympathetic to the mentally ill,” says executive producer Peter Raymont, promising that the mentally ill will be represented as victims as well as perpetrators. “We treat the mentally ill as whole people.” He says the writers and producers, who have consulted staff at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health for their research, know they have to be both accurate and sensitive in their portrayal of diseases such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or Tourette syndrome to avoid falling into stereotypes of gibbering crazies. As the show evolves, balancing social sensitivity with intense drama may prove difficult without seeming earnest on the one hand or melodramatic on the other: The first episode is deeply sympathetic to the young schizophrenic it portrays, but also makes him responsible for a horrific murder.

Raymont, a documentary filmmaker who created The Border after he interviewed CSIS agents and heard off-the-record stories he could never film, believes TV drama can be a way of exposing the truth behind the headlines. “We said maybe to make a more honest and true portrait of what these people do we need to do a drama,” he says. Still, he also recalls how, as The Border progressed during its three-season run on CBC, it became increasingly easy just to pull out a gun to up the dramatic stakes.

In the aftermath of last month’s Newtown shooting, a crime committed by a young man most assumed to be mentally ill, psychologists pointed out that, statistically, people with mental illness are much more likely to be victims of crime and, if violent, more likely to hurt themselves than others. De Hartog is cagey about the actual situations he encounters on his day job, discreetly pointing out that, in real life, negotiations with potential suicides do not always end happily. It’s only on TV that an erratic gesture from a canny cop is guaranteed to save the day.

Cracked premieres Jan. 8 at 9 p.m. ET, on CBC Television.

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