Monday, March 21, 2005

Comfort TV

Everybody has a comfort food, whether theyknow it or not. Comfort foods are the sort of thing that you eat and they take you to a happy place where the pressures of the world are set aside for the duration. For me it's "Hawkins Cheezies". They're an extrude cornmeal thing, coated in Canadian Cheddar and you can't get them in the US. Here's the thing; give me a small bag of those and in the all too brief time it takes me to eat them - savouring every cheesy morsel - the world can go on collapsing around me. Comfort food doesn't challenge you; instead it sort of wraps you up and let's you just sort of relax. Most comfort food goes back to something in your childhood, but it doesn't have to to work.

There are TV shows like that. I don't mean shows that make you revert to childhood. If I wanted that I could watch Have Gun Will Travel or Gunsmoke on the Lonestar Channel or find some episodes of Petticoat Junction or Three's Company. No, "Comfort Television" is like sinking into a nice warm bath after a hard day and just letting the tensions ease. Crossing Jordan is an example of "Comfort Television".

When I say that Crossing Jordan is "Comfort Television" I am not denigrating the show. It's just that it is certain that no cast member from the show, and certainly no writer, will ever win or possibly even be nominated for an Emmy. The show should come with a disclaimer - "No creative ground has been broken on this TV series." The show doesn't challenge you, the characters aren't innovative, and they don't break with TV convention. That said, the series is fun. The always enjoyable Jill Hennessy plays Doctor Jordan Cavanaugh a troublesome and high energy pathologist working for the Boston Coroner's Department, but this is no CSI. It's more like Quincy where the coroner solves crimes, while coping with her personal life. Her boss, the show's answer to Quincy's Dr. Asten is Garret Macy, played by the always enjoyable Miguel Ferrer (who isn't as good an actor as his father Jose Ferrer, but is at least as good as his cousin George Clooney). Garret at least does more out in the field than Asten ever did. The police are most frequently represented by Detective Woody Hoyt (Jerry O'Connell), whose relationship with Jordan provides whatever "unresolved sexual tension" the show may need. Part of the real joy of the show are the three main supporting characters, Dr. Nigel Townsend (Steve Valentine), Dr. "Bug" Mahesh (Ravi Kapoor), and Grief Counselor Lilly Lebowski (Kathryn Hahn). While all of the characters, with the possible exception of Dr. Macy, provide a certain amount of comic relief, these three provide a good bit of it. That isn't to say that they're comedic characters, simply that they are more likely to be involved in humorous situations, many related to the Nigel-"Bug" relationship. The cast meshes well together. What really shows this at work is that episodes where Hennessy doesn't appear or only appears briefly aren't the worse because of her absence.

The chemistry between the main characters is quite strong. You can readily believe that these people would go out together and grab a drink after work. I think that could be because we can actually believe that these people have a life outside of work. In so many current shows, like the Law & Order franchise or the CSI franchise it is difficult to believe that there is anything outside of work for these characters. That's one of the things that set NYPD Blue apart, although of course Crossing Jordan isn't in the same league as Blue. Relationships matter, both at work and away from work.

Over the years characters have appeared and fallen by the wayside, most notably Jordan's father Max Cavanaugh, a former Boston detective with a shadowy past. Max, played by Ken Howard, was featured in the credits in the first season and was integral in helping Jordan to solve the various crimes she was investigating as well as hiding the mystery of the death of Jordan's mother. From the second season on, Max increasingly became a secondary character and then more or less just a vague presence. In all honesty I think the change is for the better even though the character of Max fit nicely into the mix of the cast. He was becoming increasingly marginalized, and as it stands today when the character makes occasional appearances - as he did in last night's show, appearing to help solve the mystery of the death of several of his old partners - he comes in naturally, as a pleasant surprise. It is not, as was the case in NYPD Blue someone who was on the show and then went away not to be thought of again.

One interesting thing they've done, and promoted on the show, if to create an online presence in the form of
Nigel's Blog, which presents viewers with the mystery of the "Beacon Hill Murders" to try to help Nigel to solve. I haven't delved into it deeply, but it looks like it could be fun.

On the whole I find Crossing Jordan to be one of the highlights of the TV viewing week. It's a nice comfortable show to settle down with for an hour. The show doesn't bury the audience in science; it is driven more by the people than the work, and as the Lilly character frequently reminds us, People Matter.


tim gueguen said...

Of course to make it more like Quincy they'd have to have Jordan shout lots more. What was it about '70s tv that had popular characters shouting? Maude had to be the biggest example, with probably the loudest cast ever assembled.

Brent McKee said...

Well you have to remember that Maude was a Norman Lear sitcom. Norman Lear characters always shout. Maybe it was because they were all New Yorkers. As for Quincy he was seeking the truth and bucking the system to do it. You can't do that quietly. Besides he was Jack Klugman, and until the throat surgery Klugman was always loud.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

I'm really looking forward to the upcoming Quincy, M.E. DVD release, because I am a fan of both the show and Jack Klugman. But no one ever sees fit to mention that Quincy--and by that same token, CSI and its various franchises--owe a debt to the Canadian series Wojeck, which starred the late, great John Vernon.