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.