Monday, April 11, 2005

The Series That Came In From The Cold

Canadian TV drama series don't have that good a reputation, and in many cases they don't deserve a good reputation. Still there's one thing that Canadian producers do that is surprising. They come up with ideas first. Before there was Crossing Jordan there was DaVinci's Inquest, based in part on the true story of former British Columbia Chief Coroner Larry Campbell (Campbell ran for and won the office of Mayor of Vancouver; there are rumours that his fictional counterpart will become the mayor of the fictional Vancouver). Before that there was Quincy M.E. on NBC in the 1970s, but before that came CBC's Wojeck in the 1960s starring John Vernon as a character based on the real Toronto Coroner Dr. Morton Schulman. Before there was CSI there was a little known Canadian show from the early 1970s called The Collaborators focusing on forensic scientists working for the Ontario Provincial Police in Toronto. And then there's Cold Case.

Cold Case is a direct steal of the Canadian series Cold Squad. In Cold Case you have a squad of detectives, led by Detective Lilly Rush (Kathryn Morris), who investigate previously unsolved cases in Philadelphia. In Cold Squad you have a squad of detectives, led by Sergeant Ali McCormick (Julie Stewart), who investigate previously unsolved cases in Vancouver. Cold Case is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who is a partner with Alliance-Atlantis Productions on CSI. Cold Squad is produced by Alliance Atlantis Productions. Bruckheimer claims never to have seen Cold Squad, and I suppose it's possible, but the structural similarities are close enough to be scary.

None of this is to say that Cold Case is a bad show - it's not. Indeed it's usually compelling entertainment. It's also far more stylish than it's Canadian counterpart (although Cold Squad has it's moments as in a recent episode where Stewart wears an assortment of gaudy wigs apparently as a device to show us how the suspect views her). The show tells a portion of each story through flashbacks, accompanied by the music of the day - or a close approximation. Another of the show's conceits is introducing a character, suspect or witness, as they appeared at the time of the crime and then as they appear today. From time to time after that they'll snap between the way the character looks today and the way they looked at the time of the crime. Each episode begins with some aspect of the discovery of the crime and then the file box with the evidence being put into storage. It ends with Rush, or one of the other detectives in the squad putting the box back into storage with the word "Closed" written on it. Once the crime is solved we see see a montage of the people still living who were involved in the case, as they were and then as they are. Finally there's always the image of the victim, usually smiling now that their case has been solved. As I said, very stylized.

None of this would work if the writing wasn't good and the cast solid. A show like this is usually dependent on the quality of the mysteries and for the most part they're solid if at times predictable. The initial suspect will usually be the wrong person and lead us to a surprising conclusion. The writers seem a little heavy handed when dealing with the personal lives of the various characters, and while I'm one of the few who would like to see a bit more of the characters on CSI away from work, I could do with less of the personal stories for the people on Cold Case. The emotional roller coaster that Scotty Valens (played by Danny Pino) has been on over the last little while has been distracting, and I guess I need my hand held a bit because I don't really get the reason for the coldness between Rush and Valens after Scotty slept with Lilly's bar waitress sister.

The actors in Cold Case are well chosen. Kathryn Morris's Lilly Rush is suitably unglamorous, with a hair style that can charitably be described as haphazard, but with a first class mind and a strong ability as an interrogator, qualities she shares with her Canadian counterpart (well except for the hair). Pino's character is younger and I suppose a bit of a hunk (although I'm not qualified to judge). He's also impetuous and sometimes a bit of a loose cannon. Administration is in the hands of Lieutenant John Stillman, who is respected by his people but not afraid to use discipline if needed. Perhaps the most interesting supporting character are the ever calm veteran Will Jeffries, played by Thom Barry, and the tough but funny Detective Nick Vera who works hard when interrogating a suspect. Of the four main supporting characters, we know the least about Jeffries, but not knowing about him is somehow appropriate for his character.

Cold Case is definitely a keeper on Sunday night which used to be a poor night for good TV. Indeed Sunday is becoming overcrowded with good shows as every network in the US except CBS and UPN are programming new shows instead of theatrical or made for TV movies. It's sometimes a hard choice between Cold Case, Extreme Makeover Home Edition, The Simpsons, Arrested Development, and Charmed, and that's just at 7 p.m. Central. I just wish that someone in charge of Cold Case would acknowledge a bit of a debt to the real innovator, Cold Squad.

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