Sunday, May 28, 2006

How I learned to stop worrying and love CBS crime dramas

I checked in with a bunch of CBS crime dramas through the month of May (to check out the season finales and a couple of heavily hyped episodes of Without a Trace), and I realized I had forgotten just how enjoyable these shows can be (perhaps, given the grim world these shows take place in, "enjoyable" isn't the most apt word, but you know how it is).

In general, these aren't the sorts of shows I like to watch. The character development tends to be an afterthought, subservient to the twists and turns of the mysteries. But there has been SOME character development over the years, and the generally top-notch actors on these shows imbue their characters with some life. Anthony LaPaglia in Without a Trace is particularly good, though I'll always have a soft spot for William Peterson and his big floppy hat on CSI.

But these shows are very, very popular. They've made CBS the most-watched network by far. But they're starting to see their popularity erode (especially among the younger viewers advertisers cherish). That's probably because there are too many of them, and they are too similar, but, by and large, the CBS crime dramas are pretty good programs. Not a one of them is outright awful (though Criminal Minds flirts with that distinction through its sheer pretentiousness). Every single one of these shows is well-produced, well-written, well-directed, well-acted and well-done. Every single one of them does ripped-from-the-headlines stuff in a much more interesting fashion than the Law & Orders over on NBC.

So in this season of summer reruns, I tell you that there are worse things you could do than click on over to CBS for a little crime-solvin' goodness. CSI (the original), Without a Trace and Cold Case are particularly good and won't make you feel dirty in the morning. Plus, you'll get to see that big, floppy hat, which William Peterson appears to have asked CBS to work into his contract.

What's most odd about the CBS crime dramas is that they're all pretty unrelentingly grim (the only ones that aren't are NCIS, which appears to be trying to be a comedy every so often, and Close to Home, which got rid of its non-grim aspects for season two -- whee!). I can't think of a network that has built its image around the idea of bordering on nihilistic. Even their top comedy, Two-and-a-Half Men, borders on sheer chauvanism from time to time. People on CBS inhabit a bleak, bleak world, where your only hope is the staff of your local law enforcement agency. Thankfully, these people are all perfect at what they do. Even CBS' network branding emphasizes how much they kick butt in the ratings every week (CSI = THE WORLD'S NUMBER ONE SHOW!), as opposed to how much they get people buzzing over their latest plot twists (ABC) or how great they used to be (NBC).

When you're on the top, you can do that, I guess.

It's just odd. One of the common complaints about things like Homicide and NYPD Blue was that they were so grim, so realistic, so gritty, that they would NEVER see widespread success. Who knew that just over ten years later, that model would be the TOP DOG on TV. All you need are a few deadpan jokes and some grisly violence, and you got yourself a network.

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