The Profile: Calum de Hartog, the Toronto cop behind CBC’s new police drama Cracked
Calum de Hartog has seen some scary things in his job as a frontline Toronto cop. Now, as the co-creator of the new CBC drama Cracked, he has a different challenge: get people watching
Calum de Hartog is one of about 90 officers on Toronto’s Emergency Task Force, a unit that routinely does things like execute high-risk search warrants and manage volatile domestic disputes. He has talked people out of committing suicide, and once scrapped with a gasoline-soaked assailant wielding both a knife and a lighter. Last July, he was one of the officers on the scene after the Danzig Street block party turned deadly. “It’s a trip, man, it’s a real trip,” he says of his day job. It’s also in his DNA: his father is a retired cop, and his brother still serves on the force.
All that drama is grist for the mill of his other job: de Hartog is a creator and producer of the new CBC police drama Cracked. The show depicts a Toronto investigative team that specializes in dealing with mentally ill perps—dangerous obsessives and schizophrenic killers. (On TV, insane people are
Out of uniform, de Hartog has the manicured ruggedness of an Eddie Bauer model. He is chatty and avuncular, despite a punishing schedule that often has him starting his day at 2 a.m. He has not taken a leave of absence from the force to work on Cracked, and he frequently puts in 16-hour days, going directly from the ETF headquarters near Leslie and the 401 to wherever the show is shooting that day. It’s the kind of schedule that only someone in the grip of a twin obsession would attempt. “I’ve been burning the wick at both ends for far too long,” he says.
De Hartog’s passion for making shows predates his desire to wear a badge. In Grade 6, he made a short film for a project on World War II in which he appeared in an oversized flight jacket while G.I. Joe action figures parachuted down around him. When he was in his early 20s, he and a few of his buddies shot a trilogy of short brom-coms that featured two guys watching TV, working out and cracking jokes over the course of a hedonistic weekend. He made the films for fun, but they started him thinking about taking his hobby more seriously. “The few film people I knew told me I had to build a portfolio,” he says. “I was like, ‘All right, what’s that?’ ” He filmed ads for Interac, RadioShack and Harley-Davidson in his spare time, as well as a couple of short police procedurals. (The language of law enforcement sometimes creeps into his discussions of filmmaking: he refers to one of his early short films as a “training exercise” in storytelling.)
In 2010, a friend of a friend introduced de Hartog to Susan Morgan, the former creative head of drama at CBC TV. He talked to her about an idea he had for a short film centred on a psychologically disturbed cop, and she offered to help him develop it into a series.
On the show, de Hartog’s alter ego is Aiden Black, played by David Sutcliffe of Gilmore Girls. Black is a detective with post-traumatic stress disorder and a penchant for poorly timed outbreaks of unhinged behaviour. In the first scenes of the pilot, he responds to taunts from an impatient man in line at a coffee shop by clucking loudly like a chicken. In a later scene, he stays the hand of a crazed killer by putting his gun to his own head.
De Hartog’s bio overlaps with that of his show’s main character in a few places. Black works on the ETF’s Team 7, the same as de Hartog. And, like his creator, Black once quit the force for a year to manage a rock band. Which makes you wonder if de Hartog has ever experienced Black’s delicate mental condition; PTSD, most commonly thought of as something suffered only by soldiers and civilians in war zones, is now frequently diagnosed in frontline police officers, too. When asked if Black’s issues might be rooted in autobiography, de Hartog agrees that there are bits of him in the character, then quickly smiles and adds that he has never actually clucked like a chicken on the job.
The connections between fact and TV fiction are ultimately beside the point. While Cracked has moments of real darkness and knife-at-the-throat intensity, it isn’t aiming for super-gritty verisimilitude (which might disappoint viewers schooled on the long-arc narratives and moral ambivalence of cable dramas like The Wire or The Sopranos). Its creators want the show to reach as broad an audience as possible.
De Hartog does occasionally push back against the fanciful logic of network TV. He was initially unhappy with the gun-to-the-head scene. The show’s writer and co-creator, Tracey Forbes, who has written for Flashpoint and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, argued persuasively for its inclusion. “Calum kept insisting that a real cop would never do a thing like that,” she says. “But it felt right from an emotional standpoint.”
Like the cops and psychologists on the show, Forbes and de Hartog are always working to reconcile their disparate expertise. He understands the physical and emotional stakes of the profession; she knows what looks good on camera. “The job of a police officer boils down to about 10 per cent intrigue, five per cent eating pizza, five per cent sheer terror and 8o per cent sitting around,” he says, acknowledging that the drab realities of police work don’t always mesh with the demands of prime time. “We’re not making documentaries here.”
De Hartog won’t be the rookie on set for much longer. He’s working on an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Vietnam-era story “Running Out of Dog” and a love story set against the backdrop of the Danzig Street tragedy. As his second career begins to take off, the pressure to decide between policing and show business will only get more intense. “One day he’s going to have to make a choice,” says Scott Lowe, a gun team sergeant and de Hartog’s supervisor on the ETF. “He’s an incredible officer, but nobody can do what he’s doing forever.”
One of de Hartog’s other planned projects is a series about a unit of bionic cops who have been outfitted with artificial hearts and pressure-resistant joints. He isn’t sure where the idea came from, but it’s an appropriate fantasy for a sleep-deprived cop living two lives at once.
Premieres Jan. 8