I do love a good police procedural. I got hooked on them somewhere around Hill Street Blues which uncoincidentally is about the same time I became addicted to hospital shows (thank you, St. Elsewhere). These were character-driven, with short arcs of crime stories interspersed with longer relationship arcs of the ensemble characters, and the latter knew to never really upstage the former. Yes, we knew all about Jessica Fletcher’s life, but we really were invested in her solving another murder. Priorities, people.
No show cast this balance better than the flagship Dick Wolf production Law & Order. We even had the episodic plots carved out for us with the now-iconic metal staccato sound. Were there plot repeats over the 19-year run for the series? Of course there were, but who would have noticed were it not for the omnipresent reruns on A&E and TNT? I’m okay with that, because I was busy watching Lenny Briscoe gum it out as a veteran cop in recovery, Anita Van Buren manage her office while battling cancer, Claire Kincaid duke it out with Jack McCoy over legal ethics, and making note of all of the wonderful cameo appearances for the role of villain.
Shake a stick at detective shows these days and there’s something gimmicky about most of them—this detective never forgets a single second of her experience, this man is a former charlatan who can trick criminals into giving themselves up, this guy is a numbers whiz (Numb3rs) and can apply game theory to the current case at hand—and while their extreme talents may be interesting for a while, eventually they drag down the narrative into silliness or unbelievability at some point. Because sooner or later the ability of the central character needs to be explained, or threatened, or put to the test, and so on, and this upstages everything else about the show. What happens when Carrie Wells (Unforgettable) is knocked unconscious and can’t remember? What unravels when Patrick Jane (The Mentalist) is so troubled by his wife’s killer that he no longer can spot people’s tells?
Maybe we’re so afraid that American Exceptionalism is dead that we’re etching it into prime time television. NCIS and Bones feature characters who are the very best in their businesses—people with multiple PhDs, world renown researchers, sharpshooters and the like. Lie to Me and Person of Interest boast not just super-smart investigators, but also teraflops of computing power; Criminal Minds has its cadre of geniuses and its own Lear jet so that the team can run a project anywhere on the continent. Even White Collar spends a lot of screen time showcasing the extreme talents of Neal Caffrey, cat burglar extraordinaire.
One of the reasons that The Closer stood out for me as an engrossing series is that other than Brenda Lee’s CIA training, everyone is rather ordinary. A man too old to keep dating pretty young women; a young detective wanting to find his place in the community; a veteran administrator who has personalized his career—they were folks I could relate to. But where The Closer tried to dazzle viewers with impossible-to-figure-out criminal cases, Law & Order kept it real. Yes, there were the “keep watching until the last second!” episodes, but more often than not it was about people who murdered for love lost, for money, by accident, for revenge. Simple motives, few conspiracies. I could leave at the end of an hour and not worry whether I was enlightened by the experience. I was merely entertained, and darn it, entertainment was all I wanted.
I don’t need another extraordinary detective (Grimm, Castle) or an extreme situation or set up for the detectiving (Leverage, Breakout Kings, Burn Notice, Covert Affairs). I just want to see ordinary people dedicated to their careers and/or justice, working hard on garden variety cases, because there is more than enough that is watchable and interesting in those realities. And I write this as a person who tries to write science fiction, so I’m totally okay with non-realities in storytelling. But there needs to be a grounded detective show on the air for those of us who don’t want something magical at every moment.
When does the next season of The Killing start again?