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Cold Squad is that rare TV entity -- a Canadian-made drama series that has found its own audience up against bigger-budget U.S. network series. Currently finishing up its fourth season, the show has survived and thrived by sticking to a simple formula: good writing, strong characters and solid storytelling. It is, by all definitions, a TV success story.

Even better news for fans of the Vancouver-based series is that CTV has renewed the show for fall 2001, securing its boast ability as Canada's longest-running cop show to date. Season five, currently being conceived and written, with shooting to begin in June, will bring protagonist Ali McCormick's back story to light, finally satisfying viewer curiosity about her. Plans for the season include a murder that confounds Ali through 13 episodes causing her to question her chosen profession, and the addition of a new Cold Squad member, who will pique her curiosity and cause her to look at her own personal life.

When Cold Squad began in 1997, the concept of building a series around a collection of cops investigating old murders was new. So was the idea of leading the cast of a Canadian police drama with a woman. Executive producer Matt MacCleod -- whose real-life experiences as a 30-year veteran of the RCMP inform the series -- created Ali McCormick, whom he thought of as an amalgam of himself, others he knew during his career, and his wife who spent nine years in Criminal Intelligence in the RCMP. "She was probably one of the best interrogators I had ever met," he explains. Using the first name of his neighbour's "cute as a button" 9-year-old daughter, and Julie Stewart's award-winning acting ability, Ali came to life.

In fact, she's been the consistent thread throughout the series, which has undergone a number of changes that were both creative innovations and attempts to attract the fickle younger market. One of the more drastic alterations was to dump the entire cast after year three, and start fresh with the addition of Stephen McHattie (Life with Billy), Gregory Calpakis (Ricky Nelson: Original Teen Idol), Tamara Craig Thomas (Tomorrow by Midnight) and Joely Collins (Madison). With the help of writer Peter Mitchell (Madison, Traders) the new Cold Squad focused less on simply solving murders and more on the emotional dynamics of the characters. Through it all, the show has held on to an audience consistently in the area of 500,000 viewers per episode, no small feat for a Canadian series. MacLeod is convinced that the winning factors are a good original idea, with many authentic stories to fuel it, and Julie Stewart as the stoical, driven yet compassionate McCormick.

Matt MacLeod is a pseudonym former RCMP investigator Ken Ross adopted when he began writing film scripts in 1985. While undercover in L.A., he visited the set of MacGyver with a friend who was working on the U.S. detective show. Intrigued by the storytelling process, which he likens to creating covers to befriend the criminals he was investigating, he enrolled in creative writing workshops at UBC and undertook to learn all he could about the film industry. By 1991, he had sold his first television script in the U.S. The same year, he created and developed a hourlong police series, which eventually resulted in Trust in Me, a television movie written by MacLeod and Hart Hanson (Traders, Judging Amy), and starring Stacy Keach. Thus began his production partnership with Philip Keatley (Beachcombers) and his daughter Julia of the Vancouver-based Keatley Film. The team reconvened a few years later for Cold Squad, and on the first day of principal photography in 1997, MacLeod quit his RCMP day job.

The idea for Cold Squad came to MacLeod after he had been involved in the start-up of Vancouver's unit to solve old murder cases. "I wanted a female protagonist," MacLeod explains, "because no one had really done it before in Canada. It's always guys kicking down doors and all that. I joined the RCMP in '67 and women didn't come into the force until the mid-70s. It was sort of shoved down our throats. But I began to realize that some of the most interesting, intelligent, intuitive and passionate people I worked with there were women. I wanted a lead character who embodied these qualities."

This desire was a boon for Julie Stewart. "Matt's experience as a cop was a lucky thing for me," she says. "He was able to look at the audition tapes and say, 'That woman looks like a real cop!'" Before she landed Cold Squad, Stewart had a recurring guest role on North of 60, played Sister Claire in Letter from Francis (both of which garnered her Gemini nominations), and had the role opposite Due South's Paul Gross as the enticing socialite Paula Ashley in Chasing Rainbows. With four years of Cold Squad under her belt, and two Gemini nominations for her performance as Ali McCormick, Stewart is in an enviable position as a Canadian female actor. Like the character she plays, she has focused intensely on her career but has learned to balance it with her off-camera life. She lives in Toronto when she's not shooting the series, loves to dabble in music (she plays bass), has completed two Boston marathons with another planned this spring. "The times I've spent unemployed, waiting for acting jobs, has been essential to me as an actor, because during that time I was building an identity outside of the industry." Asked if she feels like a role model for other female Canadian actors she says, "Yes. I love the idea that people are suddenly seeing they can cast a woman in a role that men like to think they own."

If Cold Squad sometimes looks and sounds distinctly Canadian (which some people still perceive as a bad thing), it is because it attempts to tell stories from true-life experiences. "Lots of cops watch this show. They are my biggest critics," MacLeod laughs. What comes through on the small screen is a loyalty to the authenticity of his stories. The fact that the show has hit its stride is a bonus. "To me the thrill is when you write words, and you get a really good and credible actor, like Julie, who will take those words and turn them into magic."

Cold Squad, Saturdays, 9 p.m., CTV

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