Sunday, November 20, 2005

A Time Switch That Works

You know, I thought I had already reviewed Close To Home but I suppose all the writing I've done about The Amazing Race for that show's newsgroup has kept me from it. You would not believe how much time writing recaps of that series can be. Still the fact that I haven't written about Close To Home doesn't mean that I don't like it; far from it since I've watched every episode. It isn't often that changing timeslots helps a show, but it appears that moving Close To Home from Tuesday night to Friday may be its salvation.

Jennifer Finnigan (a veteran soap opera actress who played a young coroner on Crossing Jordan) plays Annabeth Chase, a prosecutor for the Indianapolis District Attorney's office. She's an extremely hot prosecutor - in both ways but I'm talking about her abilities as a lawyer - but she's hasn't been advanced in her job because she's just come back from maternity leave. Yes, after one maternity leave she's been "mommy tracked". The promotion that she should have had has instead gone to Maureen Scofield (Kimberly Elise) who is an equally hot prosecutor - again in both ways but I'm talking about her abilities as a lawyer again - but one who seems dedicated to advancing her career at the expense of a personal life which includes inconveniences like a husband and children. They can come later, after she's established herself, or so she says now. Their boss is Assistant District Attorney Steve Sharpe (John Carroll Lynch in a fairly good rug; Lynch has done a lot of stuff but I'd say he's probably best remembered as Marge Gunderson's painter husband in Fargo - the fact that I didn't recognise him until I checked the IMDB shows how good the toupee is) and you just know that he's never had any trouble blending family and career. In fact in his position having a wife and kids is probably a significant asset. Rounding out the cast is Christian Kane (best remembered as Lindsay on Angel) as Annabeth's contractor husband Jack Chase.

The concept behind Close To Home is that it focuses on crimes that occur in suburbia. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer's idea is that the closed doors of suburbia hide crimes that are every bit as horrendous - possibly even more horrendous - than the sort of crime that occurs on the mean streets of the city, which some of his other shows focus on. The crimes themselves are not the typical. On the episode which aired on November 18 for example what seemed to be a simple hit and run was revealed to be a murder, and the murderer was herself influenced by her husband... who was also the husband of the victim, in a case of bigamy for profit. The twists and turns of the case come out gradually. In that particular situation what seemed to be a promising lead, concerning the death of the bigamous husband's first wife, turned out not to be a crime but in turn provided a valuable insight into the motives of the man. In the "B-plot" of the episode a murder case which Maureen had previously prosecuted was facing appeal because the witness who had been crucial in the original case recanted his statement, four years after the original trial. It was left up to Sharpe to learn why the witness changed his story.

For the most part I like the show. Bruckheimer and series creator Jim Leonard have taken an idea that Alfred Hitchcock was rather fond of; the idea that behind the closed doors of small towns otherwise ordinary people are capable of the most horrendous crimes. Hitchcock used this idea in most effectively in his 1943 film Shadow Of A Doubt. What this series does is transplant the idea of the small town to suburbia. It's a good concept, although I think it could work better if instead of making the locale of the show Indianapolis itself, it were to take place in a smaller town - perhaps a bedroom community for a larger city - simply because it is hard to believe that Annabeth's cases are all crimes that occur in the suburbs. Why isn't she prosecuting cases which take place in the inner city of Indianapolis? Obviously of course we're only seeing the cases she deals with which fit the premise of the show but if the series were set in a town in Connecticut or Long Island where the people commute into New York (just as an example) the focus would be entirely on crimes that occur in that mostly middle class community. It fits the premise but also adds the complication that the police in the community may not have all the resources that a bigger city - even if it is a place like Indianapolis - would have. Of course that's a minor point, albeit one that interests me.

The fact that the show focuses on the prosecution side of the equation is probably an inevitable result of the popularity of Dick Wolfe's Law And Order franchise, where the prosecutor is the hero and the defense attorneys are just barely better than the criminals they defend. This series isn't nearly as bad in its portrayal of defense council (it's hard to imagine that they could be as bad as in a typical Wolfe series) although inevitably they tend to be seen as somehow less capable and honorable than the prosecution. This is a huge change from the days of L.A. Law and Perry Mason, where the defender was the hero because they were on the side of right. One thing that they have done which I appreciate is that on occasion the series looks at a crime that is something other than murder. In previous episodes they've had cases involving child abuse, kidnapping, and housewife prostitution. While it's not a common event on the show it is at least more than most shows dealing with either police work or the criminal justice system have done.

The cast is for the most part quite good. To me Finnigan seems a little weak as Annabeth. She does quite well in the courtroom scenes but doesn't seem entirely comfortable in the domestic scenes. Kimberly Elise seems comfortable in her part, perhaps because it's a little less complex. Her character doesn't have much life outside of work (from our perspective of course) and the dilemma of the modern woman - whether to focus on career and delay having a family perhaps until it is almost too late - is integral to the character. Similarly John Carroll Lynch is excellent as ADA Sharpe who mixes competence as an administrator - only in the most recent episode have we seen him in a situation outside of the office - mixed with a significant portion of publicity seeker (he's always worried about how the public will perceive his office's actions). There is also just the slightest hint of pomposity. Of the regular cast, perhaps the one with the most difficult situation may be Christian Kane. The problem is that the character is given precious little to do and we see precious little of him. We need to have Jack Chase and Annabeth's new daughter to be real presences to us, to give the character some grounding within the community that she serves but at the same time Jack is entirely peripheral to virtually every episode of the series. It has to be a difficult situation for any actor to be in.

Close To Home is a good show although not one which rises too far above the crowd either in terms of performances or situations. The problem it had in its normal timeslot - Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. (CST) - is that it was facing two popular series in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Boston Legal and wasn't building on audience from The Amazing Race: Family Edition. The move to Friday nights, which was originally meant to be temporary, has been beneficial to Close To Home. Close To Home and Ghost Whisperer have compatible audience demographics, something that didn't exist with Threshold. While there hasn't been an official announcement yet, even the people at NBC seem to expect the move to become permanent - they've reduced the previously announced extension of the episode order for Three Wishes. The only loser in this situation is probably Threshold, the series which has held down the Friday slot that Close To Home now occupies. Since the show has yet to air on Tuesday nights, it is difficult to know if Threshold (a show that I like) will be able to survive opposite where Close To Home did not.

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