Detective Aidan Black used to be a cop with a string of successes and a good man in a crisis on the city’s tactical unit, until the day he started clucking like a hen and members of his own team decided he was too unpredictable to work with.
As the new CBC procedural Cracked begins, Black, played by Saskatoon-born actor David Sutcliffe, is in the process of being reassigned to the Psych Crimes Investigative Unit, and he’s not happy about it.
'It's a great dynamic that Aidan, suffering from some kind of mental illness, is encountering over and over again people who also have mental illness'—David Sutcliffe
There he’s teamed up with forensic psychiatrist Dr. Daniella Ridley, played by Vancouver actress Stefanie von Pfetten, who’s equally unsure that a cop with obvious signs of post-traumatic stress disorder should be on the job.
Their partnership is off to a rocky start as they begin investigating a bizarre murder in which a light-bulb is left protruding from the young victim’s chest.
Hatched from an idea by Calum de Hartog, a Toronto police officer turned screenwriter, Cracked is a police procedural that centres around crimes involving mental health issues.
"It was inspired by crisis intervention teams here in Toronto, front line police officers working alongside mental health professionals – that was the ‘Aha’ moment I had. It felt like a unique partnership in caring and very relevant," de Hartog said in an interview with CBC News.
The Psych Crimes Investigative Unit he envisioned for Cracked is a little different from the real partnerships seen in the Toronto force, he admits – joking that it’s under the influence of a little showbiz "pixie dust." The on-screen unit pairs the psychiatrist and the troubled cop and a mental health nurse and another officer — played by Dayo Ade and Luisa D'Oliveira – with most of the action centred on these four characters.
"It’s an ongoing training for the detectives because they’re partnered with doctors and nurses. They’re getting exposed to [psychiatric] specialty, they’re getting exposed to that educational background," de Hartog said.
"And the professionals are getting a taste of front-line responders. It’s always different than being in a clinical setting. There is that meshing of the two worlds — we’ve got some conflict and perspectives that might differ."
The issue of mental health and criminality is very much in the news in the real world, from incidents in which police confront psychiatric survivors, to cases where people who are mentally ill commit bizarre crimes.
Real cases become stuff of TV drama
Forbes and de Hartog say they have a broad spectrum of stories to work with, from high-stakes crimes to crises that evolve from very human misunderstandings. They also are able to work some of those real-life incidents, gleaned in part from de Hartog's insider's view as a working cop, into the plotlines of Cracked.
Forensic psychiatrist Daniella Ridley reveals in the pilot that her reasons for helping to set up the PSIU go back to two shootings of psychiatric patients by police.
But von Pfetten says her character has different reasons for staying and working in the unit, which will come out as the series progresses.
Her doubts about Aidan Black are somewhat alleviated when she sees him actually confront a schizophrenic man threatening to kill himself in a crisis situation.
"She slowly becomes very aware that what's going on with him is very complex. In the beginning she is fearful and just careful with him because he's unpredictable and she really wants to keep her job," von Pfetten says.
Medical, legal drama combined
She describes the drama as "not as straight as Law and Order, not as serious as Grey's Anatomy."
Black’s unpredictable personality often plays into his ability to react in a crisis — because part of him is cracked, he is able to unravel the thinking of people who are dangerous to themselves and others.
"It's a great dynamic that Aidan, suffering from some kind of mental illness, is encountering over and over again people who also have mental illness," Sutcliffe says of his character. "Of course, he's on some level seeing himself in these people. I think that adds to his terror and his isolation because he can see the effect it is having on them."
Sutcliffe points out that post-traumatic stress is not well understood and can be very unpredictable.
"It can hit in moments — kind of flashbacks, he can be taken back into moments of terror that he experienced. My understanding in talking with cops of what they experience, it's not one incident, it's over time the collective experience of seeing these tragic, disturbing elements of society, the misery, the heartbreak, that cops experience on a daily basis," he said.
Sutcliffe, who viewers may remember from Gilmore Girls and Under the Tuscan Sun, says he hopes audiences will see that being cracked is part of being human.
Cracked debuts Tuesday at 9 p.m., 9.30 NT, on CBC-TV.