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; when the show was at its peak, during its first five seasons, I was a rabid viewer. 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 from 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, it took my breath away.

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. Sud wrote the first six. To this day, I still think "Daniela" is the best hour of procedural drama I've seen. It doesn't subvert the genre the way other favorite episodes do, like Sud's own "One Night" or Sarah Goldfinger's "Gum Drops" and "Rashomama" on CSI. But in the natural tricks it plays on the viewer, and in the astonishingly humanistic message it conveys, it feels subversive nonetheless. It's quietly subversive.

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 Cold Case starts to feel like a series in need of a shake-up. And it gets one, when Sud is promoted from writer to showrunner for Cold Case's fourth season.

Flashback #3: The premiere episode of Season 4, Sud's "Rampage," aired on September 24, 2006. (Its climax was a teen shooting at a mall: it was set in 1995, but the issue of kids with guns felt wildly relevant then -- as it does now.) About four weeks later, I had a severe adverse reaction to an antibiotic, 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 I had occasion to rewatch Cold Case Season 4 recently, when it aired on ION Television, and I was 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.

During the first three seasons, the cases had been paramount; we'd learned about the detectives mostly by how they'd handled the investigations -- and responded to the issues that arose 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; Scotty helping his brother come to terms with his childhood abuse; Vera's budding romance with the nurse next door; the successful integration of a fifth detective, Kat Miller, who had joined in Season 3, but been left pretty much undefined. (CBS had asked all its procedurals to add a younger detective that season, to shore up the demographic.) And best of all, the return of Lilly's ex-boyfriend (a rugged Brennan Elliott) in the fall, and the return of her mother (a wonderfully haggard Meredith Baxter) in the spring, both of whom shake up Lilly's life for the better. These story-lines wind in and out of the cases all season, but at no point do they overwhelm the narrative. (That'll start to happen, disastrously, once Sud departs at the end of Season 5.)

As for the cases, they're mostly solid, and often strong. Twenty-three episodes, and only two that are stinkers. The stinkers are both by Liz Garcia, probably my least favorite staff writer; over her four seasons with the show, she rarely turns out a decent effort. (Her victims tend to be piteous or precocious, and even her pitches make me cringe: "an overweight woman looks for love," "a teenage boy dreams of becoming a dancer.") But aside from Garcia, and the reliable Tyler Bensinger, Sud brings in a new writing staff in Season 4, and the infusion of fresh blood proves key to the season's success. Sud loved her social issues, and her writers reward her with episodes about women's rights, child molestation, forced prostitution and incest -- but none of it's heavy-handed. Nothing about the season feels preachy; the cases are powerful, not polemic. Sud clearly holds up her own scripts as the gold standard; a few of the entries take on causes that Sud herself had already championed (e.g, 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 footnote, that trend continues into Season 5, 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, or to bring the season to a satisfying close.)

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. 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 turning up the heat with "And then you killed him/her!" To which the suspect would reply, "I wasn't the one who had it in for 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 was what Cold Case devolved into fairly quickly, and the new writers who come aboard in Season 4 don't redress the issue. But they counter the show's predictable weeding of suspects by polishing their mysteries, and by 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 throwaway line early on provides a clue that ultimately flips the narrative. Shelton's "Fireflies," which tracks a girl abducted from her home in the mid-'70s, encourages us, in the best Christie manner, to make an assumption merely because it's standard to do so -- then plays us for fools. And in "Knuckle Up," which immerses itself in the underground subculture of bare-fist brawling, new writer Greg Plageman (who'd go on to become the next show-runner, and ultimately one of the driving forces behind CBS's Person of Interest) offers up a particularly cunning solution: the kind we should have seen coming, but didn't.

There's a freshness about Season 4. Throughout, 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 Jennifer 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 moving, especially Johnson's "The Good-Bye Room," set in a church-run home for unwed mothers in 1964. 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. 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 "Static" (helmed by Kevin Bray) features the 1958 slaying of a radio DJ, charismatically played by Charles Estin; 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. "The Good Death" (also by Harris) takes on euthanasia, and ties the case to startling events in Lilly's own life; Anthony Starke's performance as a man diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor, an entrepreneur who comes to realize the value of all that he's amassed, is one of the series' most memorable, and the subject matter allows director Paris Barclay to create some of his most haunting images. And Tom Pettit's "Forever Blue," a GLAAD Media Award nominee, subtly riffs on Brokeback Mountain, with a story no less resonant and a trio of exceptional turns by Shane Johnson, Brian Hallisay and Chad Everett, all imaginatively conceived and impressively captured by the great Jeannot Szwarc (Somewhere in Time), nearly forty years into a career that continues to this day. Those three episodes go beyond mere excellence; they're classics. 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.