There’s never been a better time to be a crime-show junkie. Any day of the week, particularly if you have cable, you can find a detective interrogating a suspect or a crime scene investigator putting some evidence under the microscope.
Turn on TNT almost any night of the week and it’s like a roulette game of “Law and Order” cast members. One hour, you’ll see Chris Noth, the next hour he’ll suddenly be replaced by Benjamin Bratt. It’s as if they’ve thrown all the episodes up in the air in a game of 52 Pickup.
And if a CBS reality show has wrapped for the season, it’s likely to be replaced by an episode of “Cold Case” or “CSI.” Even the tragically cancelled “Boomtown” got a last hurrah over the holidays with four previously unaired episodes finally getting their due on NBC.
But what makes one crime show stand out from the crop? Why should you watch “CSI” but not “CSI Miami”? Has “NYPD Blue” had its day? Is “The Wire” really as engrossing as the critics say? And will one of the cable networks please pick up the king of the crime shows: “Homicide: Life on the Street” now that CourtTV has replaced it with old episodes of “Profiler.” Shame on you, CourtTV.
The best crime shows are the ones that make being a cop or an investigator feel like, well, a job. Look around your own workplace. There’s a subculture, a lingo. People who normally wouldn’t go near each other may have to share a cubicle (or, in the case of a crime show, a squad car). There’s the drudgery of paperwork and bosses who don’t understand, the daily pressures of getting the job done, and perhaps even that rare feeling of satisfaction. Crime shows capture these very real feelings of work better than almost any other genre.
The language helps create a sense of insiderness – viewers learn the lingo and get the feeling they know exactly how cops talk. On “Homicide” the interrogation room became “the box.” On “The Wire” homicide detectives are “murder police” and influence within the department becomes “suction.”
“Homicide,” (first three seasons available on DVD, occasional reruns on Court TV) was fond of strange pairings. One memorable episode featured Detectives Pembleton (Andre Braugher) and Felton (Daniel Baldwin), discussing why Felton refused to call a street Martin Luther King Boulevard, instead insisting on referring to it by its previous name. What does this have to do with police work? Perhaps nothing, but racial tension has more to do with life in today’s big city police departments than high-speed chases.
Because “The Wire” (HBO, various days, times) was created by David Simon — the writer who penned the novel “Homicide” was based on — the shows have a similar feel. And as on “Homicide,” office politics can play a very ugly and crucial role. The entire second season of “The Wire” was predicated on one of the bosses seeking revenge on a union leader and using his influence to assemble a team, which in turn threw our cast of characters together. Anyone who’s suddenly experienced an office re-org knows the feeling of random decisions made by the seemingly anonymous bosses.
On “The Wire,” even when the cops do their best and solve the crime, the criminals often don’t get the punishment they deserve. In fact, because "The Wire" does such a good job making us get to know the bad guys, they often seem more sympathetic than some of the cops.
No superheroes, no stars
If “Law & Order” (NBC, Wednesday, 10 pm)has proved one thing, it’s that anyone is replaceable. While the cast of “Everybody Loves Raymond” argues over whose salary is the biggest, “Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf need only look around New York for dozens of other fine New York actors more than willing to give up waiting tables to become his next detective. The benefit is that on Wolf's shows, the crimes themselves take center stage. The acting is always good, but viewers never get the sense that the show wouldn't survive if one of the actors was suddenly let go. While the detectives are vital, they never overshadow the action. The other benefit to this is that they never seem like superheroes.
Hospital shows almost always eventually succumb to the miracle surgery of the week pitfall — look what’s happened to “ER” in the last couple of years. Lenny Brisco (Jerry Orbach) of original recipe “Law & Order” is not a character who’s going to perform miracle heroics. He’s there to do a job. When he runs down the street after a perp, he looks tired afterward.
Similarly, on “Without a Trace,” (CBS, Thursday, 10 pm) one of the best of the newer crop of crime shows, Detective Jack Malone (Anthony LaPaglia), who runs the FBI Missing Persons Squad, is imbued with a world-weariness that seems to say: even if I find this person, another one will just go missing tomorrow.
Another new show this season is “Cold Case” (CBS, Sunday, 8pm) about homicide detective Lilly Rush (Katherine Morris), who has been assigned to solve all of the cases that have been sitting in the file cabinet for years. Yet because the premise is solving an “unsolvable” crimes, the episodes get tainted with that very special episode quality. Regular detectives couldn't solve these crimes when they occurred, but somehow Rush seems to have abilities that normal detectives don't. Watching the show becomes frustrating because, it seems Rushis on a mission rather than working a job.
Similarly Vincent D’Onofrio’s Detective Robert Goren on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” (NBC, Sunday, 9 pm)resembles Sherlock Holmes more than he does an average New York detective. Just how many languages does this guy know? He also makes incredible deductive leaps that it would be hard to picture “CSI’s” Gil Grissom making – Grissom would want to run a couple hundred tests first. If you want a modern-day Holmes, “Criminal Intent” may be the show for you, but if you think superheroes belong in comic books, skip this show.
In contrast, on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (NBC, Tuesday, 10 pm) — arguably the best show of the franchise — there are no stars. The entire show has been cast with great character actors. Chistopher Meloni, who ferociously stole every one of his scenes of HBO’s “Oz," tones it down for “SVU.” As detectives Stabler and Benson, he and Mariska Hargitay equally share the duties. “Special Victims Unit” is no one-man show. (David Caruso, screen hogof “CSI Miami,” please, take note.)
Keep soap operas to a minimum
One of the most heartening pieces of insider gossip this year was hearing that “CSI’s” (CBS, Thursday, 9 pm) William Peterson did not want a romance to develop between his character, Gil Grissom and Jorja Fox’s Sara Sidle. The show, about a team of crime scene investigators, led by Grissom, does not deserve to become a soap opera about interoffice romance.
A couple episodes of “NYPD Blue” (ABC, Tuesday, 10 pm)will show you exactly what happens when a crime show gets too soapy. “Blue” spends too much time on the personal lives of its characters. When the focus is on a crime, the show still seems sharp, but frankly I’ve learned everything I want to know about the life of Detective Sipowicz. These days, “Blue” also seems a wayward home for former teen stars – first Rick Schroeder and now “Saved By the Bell’s” Mark-Paul Gosselaar. Who’s next, Skippy from “Family Ties”?
There’s nothing wrong with a little workplace romance — it happens — but it shouldn't be allowed to take over the show. One of the great moments on “The Wire” this season came when Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) briefly considered a romance with Officer BeatriceRussell (Amy Ryan). As he stood in her kitchen looking at the pictures of her child on the fridge, a look crossed his face that simply said, I cannot get involved in something this complicated. McNulty quickly backed out of the situation and not a word passed between the two. It was a much more real and compelling situation then the two most beautiful cast members (see the awful final season of “Homicide”) on a show suddenly falling into bed together for no other reason than the fact that it's sweeps week.
On “Special Victims Unit,” we know that Detective Elliot Stabler has kids and that Detective Olivia Benson's mother was raped, but this information is only dwelled upon during episodes where the characters would naturally think about those things. It exists as background to make the show's crimes themselves seem more resonant — and to make the job seem that much more difficult to perform. It’s never simply subplot.
The other problem with too much soap opera mixed with the crime is that following the twisty soapy plots requires viewers to tune in every week. The beauty of “Law & Order” is that you can stop watching for months and suddenly pick up an episode one night and be fully engrossed again.
This may be the best thing about a crime show and a good lesson for other would-be crime show writers and producers. With all the choices available these days, maybe it’s better to have a show that’s “Anytime TV” instead of “Must See.”
Paige Newman is the movies editor for MSNBC.com