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Fall '03: "Cold Case"

CBS has got to be feeling pretty damned smug about itself these days. And why not? After all, it wasn't so long ago that the eye network was getting its ass kicked up and down the dial by the other major networks. NBC had Friends and ER. ABC had twenty-four hours of Regis. All CBS had was a sizeable lead in a demographic consisting of Alzheimer's sufferers, octogenarians too feeble to change the channel, and the corpses of nice old widowers found two-weeks dead in their recliners when the neighbors complained about the smell.

Then, in the space of three short seasons, CBS went from perennial monologue-filler for Letterman to a ratings powerhouse. What could have happened to effect such a turnabout? Some mysterious alignment of the fates? A sudden and inexplicable surge of interest in The District? Perhaps an unholy union between Les Moonves and some raven-haired she-devil?

None of the above, actually, but what did happen was every bit as improbable: CBS found itself a goose that lays golden eggs; specifically, a tousle-haired, bestubbled goose named Jerry Bruckheimer. In the last three years, Bruckheimer has produced an impressive string of successes, from CSI to The Amazing Race to the 2002 double whammy of the excellent Without a Trace and the miserably shitty but still insanely popular CSI: Miami. And never mind that no fewer than three of those are basically the exact same show, all of them have been unqualified hits, almost single-handedly pulling CBS out of the Nielsen gutter.

Meanwhile, NBC is a shambles of its former glory. Friends is finally tottering its ancient ass off into the sunset this year, hoping not to shatter a hip on its way, while top-rated drama ER is so old and decrepit that any day now its cadaver will be found rotting in its Barcalounger while the sounds of JAG burble merrily from the TV at its feet. As for ABC... well, it's best not to speak ill of the dead. Suffice it to say that, were it not for Monday Night Football and the untimely passing of a certain beloved sitcom star, you could read the weekly Nielsen Top 20s and remain blissfully unaware that ABC even exists.

So CBS is riding high, and they have their golden egg-laying goose to thank for it. No surprise, then, that CBS commissioned Bruckheimer this season to squeeze another 24-karat ratings bonanza out of whatever orifice metaphorical golden eggs come out of. And Jerry dutifully complied, putting together -- surprise, surprise! -- a procedural crime drama that goes by the name of Cold Case.

The thing about laying golden eggs, though, is that it's an inexact science. Sure, nine mornings out of ten you might walk into the barn to find a delectable, golden-shelled ovum fit for the frying pan. But every so often, through either a physical miscalculation on the part of the goose or just plain bad luck, a goose turd is going to end up in the basket. And since those are also golden and vaguely ovoid, you might not discover the mistake until you crack through the hardened outer shell halfway through your recipe for a delicious golden omelet.

After watching the first few episodes of Cold Case, I'd say that CBS had better start hosing out the hopper, because something stinks, and it don't smell like huevos rancheros de oro.

Just exactly how this show managed to turn out badly is bit of a mystery to me. Television, in defiance of the laws of physics, has no saturation point for crime dramas. There are already three CSIs, three Law and Orders, even a couple of JAGs, and hardly anybody ever complains about it. All the Cold Case crew had to do was crank out a fourth copy of CSI, make one or two cosmetic changes, and wait for the critical huzzahs to roll in. Instead they chose to deviate greatly from their own proven formula, and the result is a purposeless, improbable bore.

Cold Case is about a Philly homicide detective named Lilly Rush, who one day has a sudden epiphany and decides that her calling is to investigate decades-old unsolved cases. If Cold Case followed the CSI formula, you might expect to tune in each week to watch Lilly apply modern investigative techniques and technologies to these old cases; analyzing ancient DNA samples, digging up long decayed corpses, that sort of thing. And that would actually have made for a pretty cool show.

But you won't find it in Cold Case. Instead, you'll spend the better part of an hour following Lilly around as she endlessly questions the original set of suspects, in the hope that one of them will have changed his story in the intervening years. And yes, that's just as slow-paced and tedious as it sounds.

As for newfangled investigative techniques, so far the only one Lilly has applied is competent police work. Seems the reason that most of these cases weren't closed is that the detectives who originally worked on them were drooling idiots. In the pilot -- basically a note-for-note-retelling of the Martha Moxley/Michael Skakel case -- Lilly solves the thirty-year-old murder by simply interviewing several witnesses who were inexplicably ignored the first time around. The second episode involved a presumably fictional case in which a woman was killed by a bomb that went off in her house. The big break in the investigation comes when Lilly has the brilliant idea of looking for explosive debris in the crawlspace. I guess the gaping holes in the floor weren't reason enough for the police to look down there back in 1983.

Since most of these cases were originally handled so incompetently, Lilly basically has to start at square one, so it's effectively like she's the first detective ever to investigate them. And since she isn't doing anything that the police couldn't have done three decades ago, it makes the idea of these cases being "cold" seem sort of like having to phrase Jeopardy! answers in the form of a question; a pointless and slightly irritating technicality, but the only thing separating the show from a dozen just like it. And like a petulant Alex Trebek, Cold Case keeps insisting that that technicality makes all the difference in the world.

For example, a good chunk of the pilot is spent trying to tell us that the advanced age of these cases somehow makes Lilly's investigation of them that much more noble. The episode begins with Lilly and her colleagues checking out the scene of a triple homicide at a deli in the bad part of town. (Here, by the way, Cold Case seems to have taken a page from CSI's book by presenting us with a brief glimpse of some pretty gruesome gore. But whereas CSI usually has a good excuse for the blood and guts -- such as showing us what a heart looks like when it's exploded by a hollow-point bullet -- this particular scene seems to be there exclusively to pull in the prurient-minded. I'm no prude when it comes to gore. I'll gladly extol the many virtues of George A. Romero's cinematic classic "Dawn of the Dead" to anyone foolhardy enough to listen. But any show that, in its opening minutes, hits us with the image of a dead child lying with the corpses of his parents in a pool of blood on the floor of a dirty bathroom, is clearly not a class act.)

Soon, however, Lilly is presented with some fresh evidence in the thirty-year old killing of a teenage girl, so she decides to forego her investigation into the deli case in order to pursue it. When her co-investigators ask her why, she puffs up and explains, "People shouldn't be forgotten." That's a lovely sentiment, except that Lilly is at that very moment forgetting about the dead ten year old lying in a heap of entrails next to the pooper at Del's Chicken 'n' Ribs. And she's also blowing off a case involving a poor black family in order to crusade for the memory of a white, blue-blood society girl; something I'm fairly confident that her more politically minded superiors might not be too happy about. Maybe naming the character Lilly was supposed to be ironic.

To further remind us that these crimes happened in the past, each episode of Cold Case is peppered with a bunch of cutesy, overwrought gimmicks. Occasionally, and for no apparent reason, a suspect will suddenly appear as his younger self, meaning that he's briefly replaced by a younger actor who sort of looks like him. I'm guessing this is supposed to add poignancy or something, but so far all it's added for me is the distraction of noticing all the glaring differences between the two actors. For instance, at the end of one episode, the 1980s version of the killer is being led away in handcuffs. He passes a pillar and emerges from the other side as his contemporary self, only without the obvious facial mole his younger self was sporting. Either the guy had his mole surgically (and flawlessly) removed at some point -- and on a fireman's salary that seems highly doubtful -- or he just discovered a magical blemish-eliminating pillar. It certainly eliminated my suspension of disbelief handily enough.

Perhaps the most calculated of Cold Case's gimmicks is its damnable musical denouements. Each episode concludes with a montage of the criminal being brought to justice in slow-motion, while meaningful period music plays in the background. These little pastiches have been done before on Bruckheimer's other shows, usually at the end of a two-part episode, and when done right they can be fairly affecting. Here they're just cheesy. An hour's worth of time is not nearly long enough to become invested in any of these characters, so the fact that some dizzy broad's murder has been avenged after oh-so-long doesn't warrant three full minutes of the perp being marched through a deluge, morphing pointlessly between his younger and older self while John Fogerty croaks out "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?"

Worse still, the second episode's montage featured an extended mega-mix of Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" and Bryan Adams' "Straight From the Heart." In the past, I've been impressed with Bruckheimer's ability to license real music for his shows -- obtaining several tracks from Radiohead's "Hail to the Thief" for CSI several weeks before the album was even released springs to mind. But dredging up the aural horror of Bryan Adams for whatever purpose is a far more heinous crime than any that the Cold Case writers could ever dream up.

Actually, the music is an annoyance in general. Every flashback scene is accompanied with vintage tunes, as if they thought the helpful "May 19, 1983" subtitle wasn't sufficient to get the time period across to viewers, so they had to hammer the point home with some classic Thompson Twins. This goes beyond ham-handed; it's more like two entire pigs flapping around at the end of the director's wrists. And I realize I'm stepping into the land of pedantry here, but the Thompson Twins song in question, "Hold Me Now," wasn't released in the U.S. until February of 1984. No doubt this will only bother the four Thompson Twins in the audience, but it's indicative of the sloppy research that plagues the show.

CSI isn't exactly the height of realism, but the cases themselves at least are usually reasonably logical. Not true of Cold Case. Take the aforementioned 1983 bombing case. When Lilly goes to investigate the burnt husk of a house where the explosion took place, a neighbor wistfully tells her, "Such a shame, them not being able to sell this place." Now I'm no realtor, but maybe they would have had better luck with the sale if somebody had thought to, say, clean the scorch marks off the walls, and perhaps remove the mountain of exploded debris from the crawlspace. Not to mention that twenty years is an awfully long time for the bomber -- who, as it turns out, actually owned the house in question -- not to bother to clean up the incriminating evidence he left behind. As far as I'm concerned, if the writers can't be bothered to find a less ridiculous way for Lilly to locate new evidence, I can't be bothered to give a crap.

Then there's the acting situation. The CSI recipe specifically calls for an ensemble in its list of ingredients, and for good reason. Having several protagonists enables the writers to include multiple plots (in case one of them sucks) and to make any necessary adjustments to the cast (in case one of them is Kim Delaney). Cold Case, however, focuses almost exclusively on a single detective. The rest of the squad shows up every so often, hanging around the station, drinking coffee, and supplying key details whenever it's convenient, but for the most part they're bit players. Which is kind of a problem, because Kathryn Morris, who plays Lilly, is horrible.

Morris' acting repertoire consists entirely of a smirk. Not a jaded, world-weary smirk that might actually fit her character, but a vacuous, smirking-at-nothing-in-particular smirk that suggests that the corners of her mouth are simply being pulled upwards by the vacuum between her ears. She even smirks when she's delivering her requisite "tough cop" dialogue; and if lines like, "No you don't [know me], because if you did you'd know I'm just getting started," weren't already ruined by her inflection-free delivery, they would be obliterated anyway by the inappropriate shit-eating grin on her mug.

That gritty dialogue also highlights another problem with Morris. You'd expect Lilly, experienced homicide detective that she is, to be hardened and brassy, and probably a little bit buff, especially considering that she's a female on a mostly-male force. But Morris is a creampuff. She's totally non-intimidating, and looks more like the kind of girl that cries during thunderstorms than the sort that daily stares steely-eyed into the gaping maw of death. And it doesn't help that they've tried to toughen her image by giving her the kind of carelessly disheveled look that can only be achieved by dropping a c-note at the hair salon.

Her hairstyle, by the way, is just plain ludicrous. I'm sure they were trying to make it appear that Lilly just rolled out of bed and ran straight to the station house, but it looks to me more like she went into Supercuts with a deck of Pokemon cards, pulled one out at random, and told the stylist, "Make me look like I have this guy on my head." (If I had to guess, I'd say she drew #73, Tentacruel. Which, by the way, means that she's at a distinct advantage when fighting criminals who have fire, ground, or rock type Pokemon on their heads.)

If Cold Case can be said to have a partially redeeming feature, it's that the flashback scenes are done very well. They have a stylish, dark atmosphere and are filmed with a neat, blurry effect that perfectly conveys that you're seeing the stuff of memories. Unfortunately, we've seen this kind of imagery so many times on CSI that it's become pretty commonplace, and doesn't do nearly enough to make up for the show's myriad problems.

So overall, Cold Case is a mess, largely because this CSI clone isn't CSI-ey enough. To put it in terms that Bruckheimer can appreciate, Cold Case is like a bad copycat serial killer. Sure, they offed a guy with a ten-inch butcher knife, but they forgot to cut off his eyelids, they didn't apply the henna tattoo of a duckling to his left thigh, and they completely forgot to lop off his testicles and attach them to his forehead with purple pipe cleaners.

Truth be told, that doesn't seem to matter a hell of a lot. Cold Case's ratings have so far been dandy. It remains to be seen what happens when The Simpsons is no longer preempted by baseball, but for now, it looks like CBS and Bruckheimer have another golden egg in their basket.

If I were you, though, I wouldn't try to eat it.


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