Saturday, June 22, 2013

Rhoda season 3

When word broke this past winter that Valerie Harper was battling brain cancer, I was prompted to pick up my DVD of Rhoda Season 3, which I'd purchased just a month or two earlier. I don't know: I guess I wanted to see Valerie Harper at a time when she was healthy and vibrant; I wanted to be reminded of how much pleasure her performances had given me over the years. The first episode I watched was Michael Leeson's "Rhoda Questions Her Life and Flies to Paris," and it was a honey. Rhoda Season 3 is the season where Rhoda and Joe separated: aka, the season where the ratings tanked. Creators Burns and Brooks did a lot of interviews at the time to justify the break-up. Life was so perfect for Rhoda Gerard -- the writers had trouble coming up with stories; they wanted back that firecracker we'd all fallen in love with on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the one whose insecurities always put her on the offensive. But the truth is, by splitting up Rhoda and Joe, they didn't get that Rhoda back -- at least not right away. For much of Season 3, she's just an unhappy mess. "Brenda, was I ever any fun?" she asks her younger sister at one point, and Brenda replies, nostalgically, "Yeah, you used to be great fun, Rhoda." It takes at least a year for Rhoda to regain her self-respect and her sass; what we're left with in Season 3 is one very sad lady.

But that said, time has done wonderful things for Rhoda Season 3. At the time, TV Guide complained that the show couldn't decide if it was a sitcom or a soap. Nowadays shows don't need to decide. Friends neatly walked the line between sitcom and soap for ten years; How I Met Your Mother has been doing it for nine. The sense of loss and pain that runs through much of Rhoda Season 3 -- and inspires some of Valerie Harper's most moving performances -- doesn't seem jarring anymore; it certainly don't seem out of place within a sitcom format.

Now that we're 35 years past the show's original airing, none of us are over-romanticizing Rhoda's marriage anymore. Back in 1976, there was a real sense of betrayal that the writers had robbed us of our fairy-tale ending; we'd watched Rhoda blossom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show: drop the weight, lose the attitude, and reveal herself as a woman capable of loving, and being loved in return. Didn't she deserve a happy ending? I don't think anyone in 2013 still thinks David Groh was the happy ending. Now it's easier to see that the lasting relationship on the show is between Valerie Harper and Julie Kavner. You want a happy ending? How about having a sibling you're that close to? (I didn't have one.) Rhoda and Brenda: there's your love story.

The cast shake-ups in Season 3 look better with age as well. Thirty-five years later, we no longer lament the missing-in-action Nancy Walker. In the fall of 1976, you turned to ABC and watched her on The Nancy Walker Show (and then, after midseason, on Blansky's Beauties), and there was the constant, puzzling reminder that Rhoda's mother -- that perpetual thorn in her side -- was off doing something else. Now she's out of sight, out of mind; if anything, we take comfort in the fact that while Rhoda was going through the worst year of her life, Nancy Walker was off crashing and burning in two series. As bad as Rhoda Gerard's life got that season -- well, Nancy Walker's was probably worse.

In 1976, Ron Silver was at the start of his career; when he turned up on Rhoda as wimpy wannabe lady-killer Gary Levi, he didn't make much of an impression -- for all we knew, the actor might have been playing himself. Now that he's appeared in a wealth of impressive, audacious roles (and in the thorniest one-man show I've ever seen), Gary the lovable loser is clearly a performance, and a rather endearing one at that. (He's also on the receiving end of some of Rhoda's best jabs that season, and for that reason alone he's indispensable. "I'm gonna go take a shower," he announces to Rhoda and Brenda in one of his first appearances. "Does anybody want to join me?" -- to which Rhoda deadpans, "Sorry, Gare, I never rub-a-dub-dub with a schlub.") And if Anne Meara seemed a little strident during her (brief) run during Rhoda Season 3, we're unlikely to complain anymore. Now we've seen her on everything from Archie Bunker's Place to ALF, from Murphy Brown to Sex and the City to The King of Queens -- and for me, she'll always be the woman who co-wrote and starred (opposite Hal Linden) in the 1983 CBS film The Other Woman, still one of the best made-for-television movies I've ever seen (certainly the best romantic comedy). Now I watch her on Rhoda, and go "That's Anne Meara, a national treasure." There are people who've earned the right to be beyond criticism: Anne Meara, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Michele Lee -- maybe four others.

Mostly, I watch Rhoda Season 3 now and I'm reminded how much I enjoyed Charlotte Brown's writing. If the whole season is a warm-up for her best script, the Season 4 opener (22 minutes of mother vs. daughter banter: all the things you wish you could say to your parents, and all the things you're terrified they'd say back), what a warm-up it is! Let's put the season in perspective for a second. CBS, the land of smart sitcoms, was just losing its dominance in the Nielsens: ABC's Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley had risen to the top of the ratings heap; two days after Rhoda Season 3 ended, ABC's Three's Company premiered, and jiggle TV soon ruled the airwaves. That Rhoda Season 3 is so adult and uncompromising is particularly impressive given that it aired in an 8 PM timeslot; it's CBS's assault on the dreaded Family Viewing Hour, and Charlotte Brown is there leading the charge.

In the season opener, Brown's "The Separation," Rhoda and Joe get into it; she knows he's drifting away, and it terrifies her. He says he needs to cool off, and heads for the door. She responds, instinctively, "Joe, you walk out that door now, don't --" and he interrupts, raising his voice, "Don't come back? Is that what you were going to say?" And she backpedals instantly: "Who was going to say such a thing? There are many ways to end that sentence," and improvising and stammering like mad, continues, "Don't, uh, forget to pick up some milk. Don't, uh, c-cross against the light. Don't talk to strangers. Don't do this to me..." But Joe isn't just taking off to get some air; he's taking off, period: moving out -- and the best he can manage before he goes is a perfunctory "you gonna be OK?" And Rhoda's response is, well, pure Rhoda: "Of course not." She's not going to be noble and brave, like one of those self-sacrificing Thirties heroines; she's going to tell it like it is. Valerie Harper gives a lot of heartbreaking performances during Season 3, but the scene in which Rhoda watches Joe walk out is in a class of its own.

That's not to imply that the season is all turmoil and tears. Geoffrey Neigher and Coleman Mitchell pen a couple episodes featuring lounge lizard Johnny Venture (Michael Delano, a great addition to the cast) that are among the series' funniest -- and they give Rhoda (and Harper) a welcome relief from all the separation anxiety. And several episodes spotlighting Julie Kavner (in particular, Leeson's "An Elephant Never Forgets") are warm and well-played. But when it comes time for the somber stuff, that's Charlotte Brown's domain. About two-thirds of the way through the season, in Brown's "The Ultimatum" (sounds like a Waltons episode, doesn't it?), we see the last of Joe. Rhoda knows it (we in the audience don't know yet that it's David Groh's final appearance), and she's struggling. Where does she turn? To her best friend Mary, of course. She reaches her on the phone, in her Minneapolis apartment, and lets her know she's counting on her: "I really need some clear thinking. You always know what to say. You always see a problem and cut right through to the nub. So whaddaya think, Mare? Tell me my life isn't over. Tell me I can get along without Joe." On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary would have said something wise and winning, the kind of thing you need your friend to say in a crisis. But on Rhoda, she says the kind of useless pap that friends really do say. First she stalls for time -- "Rhoda, Rhoda" -- then the best she can do is parrot, in an overly emphatic way, Rhoda's own words: "Your life...isn't...over. You can get along...without...Joe." That's it. There's a pause, a perfect pause, then Rhoda sighs, "Still got the touch," with a ruefulness that pretty much epitomizes the brilliant Rhoda Season 3. It's perhaps the saddest moment in a wonderfully sad season, and another great turn by Harper, who plays Rhoda with a combination of toughness and terror that's quite unlike anything I've seen on the small screen. No quick fixes for Rhoda Morgenstern: nothing to soothe the pain; nothing to ease the loneliness. Forget those Minneapolis winters; New York is the coldest town of all.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Old Christine: invasion of the Raymond writers

It's startling to revisit the first few episodes of Old Christine: she seems so competent. If you watch the whole series, and watch the lead character shed brain cells with every passing season, you forget how the show was conceived: as a single, working mother trying to cope in a high-pressure world. Leaving herself voice messages in the middle of the night, of things she had to accomplish the next day (most memorably: "shave things"), she was instantly relatable: there's too much to do in the modern world, and creator Kari Lizer got that. Christine Campbell was the calm center in the storm. When she got set up with blind dates, they were the crazies. Her ex-husband was a horny adolescent; her employee at the gym she owned was a ditz. Christine was the responsible one. It's a drag being the responsible one, but Lizer also made it deeply funny, because there amidst all the crazies was Christine, trying to do it all: to be a good mother, run a successful business, enjoy an active social life. She even had political causes: in one episode, she's determined to bring a little diversity to her son's whitebred private school. But there aren't enough hours in the day, as Christine learns, and however hard you try, the world is stacked against you. When she tries to instill some tolerance in Richie's school and sponsor a black family for admission, she discovers the family hate gays. That's classic Christine, a point echoed in the Season 4 episode "He Ain't Heavy," when her friend Barb describes the trajectory of Christine's life: she's a modern-day Sisyphus, the one who keeps pushing the boulder up the hill, only to have it roll back down and crush her. But Christine keeps pushing that boulder, and that's why we like her.

By the series' end, Christine has been so dumbed-down that she gets trapped in a subway station, and loses her passport on a flight to the Bahamas, and, oh yes, gets her foot stuck in the john. It's a fate that befalls lots of sitcom characters over the course of a long-running series: it's easier to write for people who are lazy and inept rather than driven and well-meaning. Certainly it's easier to mine laughs. Let me mention that I think The New Adventures of Old Christine is a smashing TV series. I knew it was good when it first aired; in syndication, I've realized it's a classic. But it's a very uneven classic, at its worst when Christine strays furthest from her original conception -- and when she strays, starting in Season 2, it's mostly due to the invasion of the Raymond writers.

Jennifer Crittenden, Lew Schneider, Aaron Shure: they all came to Christine from Everybody Loves Raymond, and what did they do?  They turned her into Ray Barone.

Old Christine starts strong. It's a splendid pilot, and a solid (short) first season. And, as so many sitcoms do, it catches fire at the start of Season 2: the resolution of the Season 1 cliffhanger, the introduction of Blair Underwood as Mr. Harris, the priceless two-parter where Old Christine dates New Christine's father. Then Jennifer Crittenden pens her first script -- it's the fourth episode of the second season -- and it's the first time the series feels "off." Richard and New Christine have taken Richie to church, and Christine objects; her objections are voiced, but they're never convincing. They seem random and hypocritical. (Footnote: Ray Barone, in season 4, didn't want to go to church either.)  And here's the kicker: as obsessed as Christine is with keeping her son out of church, she's more obsessed with locating a sandwich shop she visited once and now can't find -- that's how skewed and self-centered her priorities become under Crittenden. And in the requisite scene near the end when Christine attends church, she makes a fool of herself. She can't sit still, or accomplish the simplest task, and winds up disrupting the service -- it's Ray stuffing food down his pants at the PTA meeting. Where is the valiant working mother?  Where is the crusader?  When Crittenden takes the reins, she's gone. Season 2 is a very good one: Lizer and her writing team -- Jeff Astrof, Adam Barr, Jonathan Goldstein and Katie Palmer -- rarely miss a beat. The only missteps: every time Crittenden pens an episode, whether it's the forgettable "Playdate With Destiny" (in which Christine, crushing on Richie's African-American teacher, stumbles over the word "black" for what feels like an eternity -- you keep waiting for Robert Barone to show and up and say, as he would to his brother Raymond, "Why do you even open your mouth?") or the misguided "Strange Bedfellows," where Christine, who less than a year ago had campaigned for ethnic diversity, suddenly doesn't support causes -- or understand them -- or vote -- or even know where to vote. 

The best early Christine scripts develop the rich relationships set up so neatly in Lizer's pilot, and often they do so not just with humor but with heart. You couldn't claim that Goldstein and Palmer were the strongest Christine writers, but every time they pen a script, it seems grounded. Goldstein's "Mission: Impossible" (in which Christine and Richard assert their influence over Richie) and "Let Him Eat Cake" (in which Christine and New Christine assert their influence over Richard) aren't even among my top 10 episodes, but bless them, the characters feel convincing, their concerns are taken seriously. And they're true to the irony at the heart of the series: you'll do your best, and you'll probably fail. That's the revolutionary message that early Christine turns into memorable comedy. And indeed, a lot of Palmer's scripts are genuinely memorable, in particular "Endless Shrimp, Endless Night" (the first episode to really delve into Christine's one-sided relationship with her brother Matthew), full of quotable lines, and when Goldstein and Palmer collaborate on a script, "My Big Fat Sober Wedding" (in which Christine resolves to be the designated driver at a friend's wedding), it's the highlight of late Season 2. (If Julia Louis-Dreyfuss had submitted that episode -- or "Come to Papa Jeff" -- for Emmy consideration, instead of Crittenden's "Playdate With Destiny," she might have had a shot at her second consecutive Emmy.) Warmth, credulity, and a refusal to stoop to crude or easy laughs: features of the first two seasons that nearly vanish when the Raymond writers descend en masse in Season 3.

Season 3 of Christine was a truncated season, just 10 episodes airing during and after the 2008 writer's strike, and it's a disaster. (I'm still not sure how the show got renewed for Season 4, or how the mediocre quality of the scripts led CBS to consider it strong enough to lead off a new sitcom block on Wednesday night.) Schneider and Shure come aboard, joining Crittenden, and the show inches ever closer to a late-Raymond mentality. There had always been a incestuous undercurrent to Christine, but it was blithe. (In Season 2's peerless two-parter, "The Answer is Maybe" and "Come to Papa Jeff," Christine and Matthew have a half-dozen moments that play up their codependence, but they're innocent, and all the funnier for that.) There's nothing's blithe about Season 3; all the sexual innuendo is written out instead of leaving us to guess at it. We get Matthew and Christine dry-humping on a rock-climbing wall (writer: Shure), and Christine dreaming about making out with her brother (writer: Crittenden), who's slept with her best friend Barb (writer: Shure). It's one very uncomfortable season; it's like watching Raymond Season 7, when the writers -- among them, Schneider and Shure -- drain the warmth out of the series, and what was once subtext now passes for plot, as in the execrable "Counseling," when Ray reveals that he'd like a mother for a wife, and Robert rewards him with a lifesize cutout of Marie in a wedding dress. 

It's not just the sexual component that overwhelms Season 3; it's the full transformation of Christine into Ray Barone. In the most objectionable episode of the bunch, Christine meets a single father at Richie's school, a new arrival, and explains to him how to get out of doing volunteer work. In two seasons, she's become the very character the show was satirizing with its "meanie moms" -- the proud do-nothing (the new father even calls her a "meanie mom"). And the writer of that episode?  Crittenden, of course; once again she's writing Christine as Raymond. The Woman Who Tried to Do It All has morphed into The Woman Who Tries to Do Nothing. (By Season 5, Christine's shrink diagnoses her as having a fear of "anything requiring work"; the hard-working mother of Season 1 has been long forgotten.)

Schneider sticks around for Christine Season 4, but Crittenden and Shure, mercifully, depart, and for a while, you think the show might be righting itself. Season 4 kicks off with the show's funniest set of scripts, as newly-arrived writers Sherry Bilsing-Graham and Ellen Kreamer bring back the sense of warmth and believability that vanished during Season 3. (Their "What Happens in Vegas Is Disgusting in Vegas" is another one of those episodes, like the season opener "A Decent Proposal," where every line seems quotable; it's also one where Christine tries to do something nice -- and succeeds -- and where her self-awareness trumps her self-absorption.) The top of Season 4 holds promise that things are getting back on track, and the highlights come often: "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down" and "Self-Esteem Tempura" and "Rage Against the Christine," to name just a few. But "Vegas," midway through the season, marks the end of that string of memorable episodes: most of the rest of Season 4 is a train-wreck. We start with Christine getting her foot caught in the toilet, and the show never recovers. Bad scripts by free-lancers, some clinkers by the regular staff, and a remarkably strained two-part season closer -- Richard and New Christine's wedding: so singularly unconvincing that it's like writers Lizer and Astrof have lost their way.

And Season 5 is pretty much a disaster. The Raymond writers are gone, but -- as the Season 4 finale suggested -- their spirit lives on in the suddenly subpar scripting of Lizer and Astrof. Season 5 starts with Christine flying to the Bahamas to rescue Barb, but there's no rescuing -- it's all about Christine fidgeting on the plane, insulting the flight attendant and losing her passport. (It's like Lizer and Astrof have embraced the image of Christine the dimwit, as pioneered by Crittenden.) She manages nothing, not even a good laugh, and yet Lizer and Astrof wrap it up with her final self-congratulatory line, "Well, Matthew, we did it." And that's what Christine has become: the apotheosis of the clueless. Two episodes later, in perhaps the series' nadir, she spends twenty-two minutes melodramatizing what she thinks is a mole on her breast, but what in fact turns out to be a piece of a brownie; making your lead character suddenly dumb as dirt certainly opens up new storylines, but at what cost? By series' end, Christine's become such an indecisive, obtuse annoyance that even salespeople go out of their way to avoid her.

In the Season 1 finale, after enduring yet another humiliation, Christine cries, "Why do these things keep happening to me? I'm a good mother. I'm a decent person" -- and it's written and delivered without irony. Christine in Season 1 is a good mother; she is a decent person. By Season 5, had she uttered those same lines, the supporting cast would have been cued to roar with laughter at her self-delusion. (By the final season, there's a running gag where Christine has no idea where her son is -- and doesn't really care.) Season 5 does have a few sharp episodes -- "Dr. Little Man" and "It's Beginning to Stink a Lot Like Christmas" and "Truth or Dare" and "Get Smarter" -- and one great thing going for it: Eric McCormack, a marvelous comic match for Julia Louis-Dreyfus. (His reactions are almost as fast as hers; it's a fully believable relationship, in a way that Christine's affair with Blair Underwood's character never was. It takes the writers three seasons to realize that we don't want Christine with someone merely handsome; we want her with someone funny.) But the show remains a relic of its former self, done in by the invasion of the Raymond writers.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Cold Case season 4

Flashback #1: I was on the phone with my grandmother Sophie, whom I adored, sometime in the late 1980's; it was a Sunday night, and suddenly she said she needed to go. Her detective was on. It took me a few moments to realize that "her detective" was Jessica Fletcher, and that she never missed an episode of Murder, She Wrote. I got off the phone quickly, because we had learned never to interfere with my grandmother's TV time.

Twenty years later, from 2003 to 2010, Lilly Rush of Cold Case was my Sunday night detective. As creator Meredith Stiehm conceived her, and as star Kathryn Morris (brilliantly) played her, Lilly Rush -- the Philly homicide detective so immersed in the cold cases she's investigating that she keeps photos of the victims on her nightstand -- was an original, and she headed up a show that was, at its best, far more affecting than the other Jerry Bruckheimer procedurals.

Flashback #2: In my early twenties, I devoured the works of Agatha Christie; the train ride home from college was three hours, and I could get through a Christie novel in just that time. I loved the puzzles -- still do -- but soon came to realize that my favorite Christies weren't the ones with the cleverest cluing; they were the ones with the most emotional weight. The ones that left me not only satisfied, but shaken. One of the Christies I took to most, Five Little Pigs, was in fact a cold case. Hercule Poirot is approached by the daughter of a woman who, decades earlier, had been convicted of murder. The daughter believes her mother was innocent; will Poirot take the case? Poirot objects: it was a long time ago. But the daughter persists. The physical clues are gone -- the footprints in the blades of grass, the cigarette dangling from the ashtray -- but the psychology remains. The people are still alive. Poirot will interview them, and then he'll know the truth...

Cold Case operated like Christie's famed "murders in retrospect." It couldn't dazzle us with forensics, like its CSI sisters; most of the forensic evidence was gone. The detectives -- Rush and her team: Scotty Valens, Nick Vera and Will Jeffries -- had to follow the psychology of the crime, and that meant immersing themselves in the lives of the victims, the suspects and the survivors. Like Five Little Pigs, which I came to discover was widely considered one of Christie's classics, it dug deep into character, and that's what gave it resonance.

I was a casual Cold Case viewer at the start, but writer Veena Sud's first-season "The Letter" turned me into a fan. Each Cold Case episode began in flashback, with a scene from the victim's life; it then skipped ahead to the crime scene -- then leapt forward to the present, when the case came to the attention of one of the detectives. As "The Letter" began, as it set down in 1939 in a boarding house for "colored women," I was struck by how vibrant the characters felt. The format of the Bruckheimer procedurals (e.g., the three CSI's, Without a Trace) rarely allowed the guest cast to make much of an impression; their personalities were typically stripped down to one or two useful traits. As Sud's characters chattered away like old friends, their speech seemed nuanced, their relationships complex. Forget the murder mystery to come; I would have been happy just watching these women interact. Even during the half-dozen interrogation scenes that consumed a good chunk of the episode, the characters retained their quirks; they never seemed to exist just for the purposes of plot. And the case itself, set some sixty-five years in the past, did more than humanize its victim and survivors. It immersed us in an era far removed from our own, and used the attitudes, mores and prejudices of that era to explain how and why the crime had been perpetrated -- and why it lay unsolved. "The Letter" operated -- and succeeded -- on so many levels, I was dazzled.

I didn't know Sud's name at the time, but after "The Letter," I made note of it, and over the next few seasons, all my favorite episodes were hers. If I had to list my top-10 Cold Case episodes, they would be "The Letter" from Season 1; "Daniela" and "The Woods" from Season 2; "The Promise," "A Perfect Day" and "One Night" from Season 3; "Forever Blue" and "A Good Death" from Season 4; and "Two Weddings" and "Free Love" from Season 7. The first six are Sud's. There were some fine writers in those early years (Jan Oxenberg and Sean Whitesell among them), but Sud's episodes were in a class of their own.

Cold Case found its voice halfway through its first season: "The Letter," which aired in January of 2004, was followed by Stiehm's "Boy in the Box," easily one of her two best scripts. The show was on a roll, and it got tougher and tighter as it headed into Season 2; the writers had mastered the rules, and now they knew how to exploit them -- and when to break them. I used to think Season 2 was Cold Case at its best, but on re-viewing, I was struck by how much a key subplot -- an affair between Scotty and Lilly's barmaid sister -- drags it down, pitting the two detectives against each other in a way that reflects badly on both. (It derails the show the way Watson's pairing with Sherlock's brother did in the second season of Elementary.) And it's filled with laughable, sudsy dialogue like Lilly's "Whoring it up with a cocktail waitress won't bring back your dead girlfriend," a line that so reeked of camp in 2005, I had it emblazoned on a T-shirt. Season 3 isn't saddled with that story-line, but you can feel a bit of writers' malaise setting in. For every great episode, there's a dismal one to follow, and although the pitches themselves aren't bad -- e.g., "an insecure girl gets conned into helping two bank robbers" -- there doesn't seem to be much going on beyond the pitches. The show feels a little limp, like a series in need of a shake-up. And it gets one, when Sud is promoted to showrunner for Cold Case's fourth season.

The premiere episode of Season 4, Sud's "Rampage," aired on September 24, 2006. The subject matter was a mass shooting in a mall, carried out by two teenagers. Like all Sud's scripts, it took on broad issues -- teen violence, gun control, bullying -- while maintaining a tight focus. It examined the effects that a brutal attack can have on everyday people, exploring our varying capacities to cope and carry on. And it asked the question we all ask after a tragedy of this magnitude: how does this happen? When two teenagers open fire in a crowd, killing thirteen before taking their own lives, who shares responsibility? The popular kids who bullied and antagonized them? The self-proclaimed misfits who encouraged them? The adults who cast a blind eye to what was happening? "Rampage" was set in 1995, but the issues felt wildly relevant in 2006 -- as they do now.

Flashback #3: About four weeks after Season 4 got underway, I was struck down by an auto-immune illness, and was off my feet for nearly six months. I watched a lot of TV during that time, but I can't say that I appreciated a lot of TV during that time; probably as a result, I've always remembered Sud's first season as showrunner being underwhelming. But as Cold Case reminds us, sometimes you need to take a second look. I engaged in a Season 4 rewatch recently, and realized my initial impressions were wrong: it's a splendid season. There are only a couple of lackluster episodes; by and large, both the cases and the personal stories are top-notch -- and it maintains a good balance between the two.

The first three seasons are all about the cases; we learn about the detectives mostly by how they handle the investigations -- and respond to the issues that arise along the way. In Season 4, Sud delves further into the detectives' lives, scattering subplots throughout the season. But she sees to it that the personal stories complement and inform the cases; they rarely seem a distraction. And happily, and crucially, the subplots are all good ones: the neat disposal of Lilly's drippy, clingy boyfriend, with whom she'd been saddled at the end of Season 3; Scotty helping his brother come to terms with his childhood abuse; Vera's budding romance with the nurse next door; Will's efforts to solve his own cold case, that of his wife's death in 1995 in a hit-and-run; the successful integration of a fifth detective, Kat Miller, who had joined in Season 3, but been left pretty much undefined. And best of all, the return of Lilly's ex-boyfriend (a rugged Brennan Elliott) in the fall, and the reappearance of her mother (a wonderfully haggard Meredith Baxter) in the spring, both of whom shake up Lilly's life for the better.

The return of Lilly's mother is neatly foreshadowed, as several of the cases Lilly works in Season 4 prompt her to reflect on the abuse she suffered as a child. Fittingly, one of the season's recurring themes is parental neglect: in particular, mothers who mistreated their daughters, and who now regret the choices they made. (It inspires a string of memorable guest turns, from Jenny O'Hara in "Fireflies" to Patricia Place in "The Good-Bye Room" to Paula Malcomson in "A Dollar, A Dream.") But seeing all those mournful mothers doesn't exorcise Lilly's demons; if anything, it fuels them. Their pleas for forgiveness, something her own mother has never offered, makes Lilly's baggage seem that much heavier, and when her alcoholic mother ultimately turns up, suffering from late-stage cirrhosis, the two have a lot to hash out. The story-line that ensues is sensational, a real showcase for Kathryn Morris and Meredith Baxter, but shrewdly, it reaches its climax off-screen, and Lilly's left to recount the details to her partner Scotty; however much Sud delves into the detectives' lives in Season 4, she insists that Cold Case remain a case-driven show, and that Lilly's primary focus be her work. It's not all that's going on in Lilly's private life that makes her fascinating and admirable; it's that she puts her job -- and the victims she's fighting for -- ahead of all that's going on. (It's a point that will be lost on new showrunners Jennifer Johnson and Greg Plageman, disastrously, in the seventh and final season.)

As for the Season 4 cases, they're mostly solid, and often strong. Twenty-four episodes, and only two that are stinkers. The stinkers are both by Liz Garcia, the show's most uneven staff writer; she gets off to a good start in Season 2, but after a few years, she runs out of steam. (In her worst scripts, her victims are either piteous or precocious, and the pitches alone are cringe-worthy: "an overweight woman looks for love," "a teenaged boy dreams of becoming a dancer.") But aside from Garcia, and the reliable Tyler Bensinger, who steps up his game for Season 4, Sud brings in a new writing staff, and the infusion of fresh blood proves key to the season's success. Sud loved her hot-button issues, and her writers reward her with episodes about institutional racism, women's rights, child abuse and forced prostitution -- but none of it's heavy-handed. The season doesn't get bogged down in messages; it doesn't get bogged down in anything. Sud demands her writers stay alert, keep their eyes on multiple targets. Her instructions aren't "tighten the mysteries" or "develop the characters" or "strive for relevance" -- she tells them, "Do it all." And make sure you address the question any good episode has to answer: why couldn't the case be solved then? Why now? What's changed? The best Season 4 episodes (and there are a lot of them) seem richly textured, taking on numerous and varied challenges and meeting them -- in a way we'd pretty much only seen, up to that point, in Sud's own scripts.

Sud clearly holds up her own scripts as the gold standard; a few Season 4 entries take on causes that Sud herself had already championed (e.g, Plageman's "Sandhogs," with its plea for racial tolerance), and occasionally, the new writers seem a little too eager to please the boss. But mostly, it feels as if Sud is encouraging them to find their own voices. And just as, by Season 3, you could recognize a Sud script just a few lines into any of her episodes, by the end of Season 4 you come to distinguish, say, an Erica Shelton script from a Gavin Harris script. The writers' styles become identifiable, highly unusual for a network procedural. (As a sidenote, that trend continues into Season 5, Sud's second and final season as showrunner, which shows promise of being as compelling a season as its predecessor. But it's ultimately done in by the dreaded Writers' Strike of 2007-08. The Season 4 cliffhanger leaves the show in a dark place; they start to lighten the mood just as the show is going on its strike-mandated hiatus, but with only six episodes left after the strike ends, they never have time to fully let the sun back in.)

The new writing team offers up stirring cases and engrossing story arcs. The only thing they don't address is the rigidity of the format, which had already grown stale. Not the cold opens, which remained pretty much what I described above, nor the epilogues: musical montages that buttoned the cases, as the killers were taken into custody. Those were a given, and they bookended the episodes nicely. It's the interrogations that had become predictable. In the earliest seasons of Cold Case, not every interview grew confrontational, or dissolved into a flashback. By Season 3, however, the weekly formula had become the detectives grilling a suspect, announcing some new and incriminating evidence they'd just uncovered, then instantly turning up the heat with "And then you killed him/her!" To which the suspect would counter, "I wasn't the one who had a problem with him/her; that was [new suspect]" -- and then we'd cut to a flashback, pointing the finger at someone else. And then they'd go accuse that suspect, who'd deflect blame with their own recollection -- and it would all repeat. Six or seven times, and by then, it was about eight minutes to the hour, so you knew it was time for someone to confess.

That's what Cold Case devolved into fairly quickly, and the Season 4 writers don't entirely redress the issue; even a good episode like Garcia's "Baby Blues" (which re-examines the death of an infant in 1982, originally classified as SIDS) still has the detectives pouncing on every suspect twenty seconds into questioning them. But the writers work to counter the show's predictable weeding of suspects by polishing their mysteries, and dropping proper clues along the way, so that the reveals ultimately feel both satisfying and surprising. In Harris's "Blood on the Tracks," the 1981 murder of a married couple with ties to radical activists, a couple of throwaway lines early on provide a clue that ultimately flips the narrative. Shelton's "Fireflies," which tracks a girl abducted from her home in the mid-'70s, encourages you, in the best Christie manner, to make an assumption merely because it's standard to do so -- then pulls the rug out from under you, gleefully. And her "A Dollar, A Dream," which focuses on the plight of the homeless, hides its biggest clue in plain sight, letting a suspect indulge in a reverie that's so charming that you overlook how out-of-touch -- and potentially dangerous -- it is.

Throughout the season, you're struck by clever moves that don't feel calculated: the Sud touch is everywhere evident. Sometimes it's just a shift in focus, as in Johnson's "The Key," which dredges up one of Jeffries' unsolved murders, or Sud's own "8:03 AM," which finds Miller reopening a case that's haunted her for years. Similarly, in Plageman's taut and tense "Offender," Scotty finds it hard to stay impartial when a case hits too close to home. And fittingly for a showrunner whose first great episode had stretched some sixty-five years into the past, the oldest cases prove among the most engrossing, notably Harris's "Static," which revisits the 1958 slaying of a radio DJ. (As with all Harris's scripts, it features immaculate period detail, here an understanding of how payola was changing the music industry, and how rock 'n' roll was forever changing American society.) Even when the show stretches itself too far, as in Bensinger's "Torn," which reopens the 1919 case of a murdered suffragette and attempts to solve a mystery where there are no suspects left to interview, you can't help but admire the aspiration.

In any other season, those would be the highlights, and they'd be enough. But Season 4 features three episodes that exceed even those, where the quality of the scripts is matched by sterling performances and stylish direction.

Harris's "The Good Death" casts Anthony Starke as Jay Dratton, an entrepreneur diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor: a smiling cobra who comes to realize the value of all that he's amassed. Harris and Starke understand our fascination with the rich and powerful, and use it to their advantage; although we know the man's a monster, we're taken with him -- in all his ruthless self-absorption -- even before he rediscovers his humanity. Director Paris Barclay shoots the flashbacks against bone-white and icy-blue sets, as if the victim were reassessing his life from the confines of his hospital bed. (He also manages some of the most graceful match shots in the show's run, the present bleeding into the past and back again with eerie elegance.) As Dratton's condition worsens, his hallucinations allow Harris one delicious red herring, but he's careful not to indulge in story-telling flights of fancy that might trivialize the subject matter: when the character admits, in his final moments, "I've run out of ways not to think about the pain," it speaks to anyone who's ever suffered from debilitating illness. Ultimately, we learn that the killing was an act of kindness, and we're grateful for the intervention -- and doubly grateful when Lilly (whose own mother is facing her final days) decides, just this once, to look the other way. The closing montage is set to Paul Westerberg's "Good Day," and it's sublime.

Johnson's "The Good-Bye Room," directed by Holly Dale, offers up the season's most radiant guest turn: Johanna Braddy as Hilary West, a pregnant teenager in 1964, consigned to a church-run home for unwed mothers. She's surrounded by a particularly odious lot -- the weak-willed mother, the bad-seed juvie, the harridan nun -- but little by little, Hilary's unflagging optimism and unforced joie de vivre prove contagious. As the episode progresses, the other characters find themselves sympathetic to her plight and -- to the extent that they're able -- rally to her side. It's the rare procedural episode where the characters are not only fully defined, but dynamic. And there's one blissful scene midway through, in which Hilary and the other girls take a trip to a local record store, to sample the latest 45s. As they burst into a spontaneous sing-along of The Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go," Hilary's light burns bright -- and even though you know it will soon be snuffed out, you're quite willing to forget that for the time being and just savor the moment. In its celebration of female camaraderie, it calls to mind the opening of Sud's "The Letter"; you watch it and think, "Johnson learned fast, and she learned well."

And finally, Tom Pettit's "Forever Blue," a GLAAD Media Award nominee and perhaps the series' most celebrated hour, touches down in 1968 and focuses on the relationship between two cops: Sean "Coop" Cooper, charismatic and cocksure, a Vietnam vet who can't give up the fight; and Jimmy Bruno, yearning for something better yet terrified what that might be -- the kind of guy who fits in anywhere, be it a loveless marriage or a corrupt police department. It features a trio of remarkable performances -- Shane Johnson (as Coop) and Brian Hallisay and Chad Everett (as Jimmy in 1968 and in 2006) -- and a director, Jeannot Szwarc, who puts a haunting spin on it all: filming the flashbacks in black and white, but illuminating key objects (a police siren, the candles at a christening) in red and yellow. It's as if for Jimmy, still deep in denial in 2006, what he and Coop shared was so ahead of its time as to be almost out of its time, and as he looks back, only stray images linger: that, and the shared feelings -- passionate, loving and loyal -- he can't seem to shake. At the end, after Coop's killers are brought to justice, with The Byrds' "My Back Pages" playing in the background, Jimmy "now" and Coop "then" have one final, imagined farewell. Szwarc holds their reunion in black and white. And only when the love story at the heart of the episode is truly acknowledged does the scene come alive in full color.

Those three episodes go beyond mere brilliance; they're heartbreakers. And they're surrounded by a dozen episodes that are quite splendid in their own right. Forget my initial, medicated response: the fourth season of Cold Case is an exceptionally fine one. I think the case could be made that it's the best season of any Bruckheimer procedural.