In praise of cop and crime shows, the comfort food of a TV diet
Wait, Mark Harmon is doing what now??
By Jeff Simon
The Buffalo News, N.Y.
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Mark Harmon, star of “NCIS,” is 70 years old. William Petersen, star of the newly resuscitated “CSI: Vegas” is not only 68 years old, but was the subject of hand-wringing August news stories when an ambulance took him from the show’s set to the hospital. He was reportedly suffering from exhaustion.
Primetime TV is hard work. It may not look it, but it is. That’s why after all these years starring in “NCIS,” Harmon negotiated a new contract allowing him to stay home watching ballgames for much of the show’s working season. That’s what comes of starring actors so popular that they’re part of the show’s ownership/executive class. (His clout dating far back to the small number of words he was given to say as Leroy Jethro Gibbs. Yes, it works that his character is strong, masterful and laconic but, as Gary Cooper and Steve McQueen discovered decades before, nothing becomes an action star and “tough guy” like saying as little onscreen as possible.)
For an action big shot, that’s always a victory. Let the show’s “little people” memorize pages of dialogue. It’s much easier — more fun sometimes, too — to emote minimally in closeup and work out some action with the stunt guys. That’s especially true if your chief stunt stand-in who does all the hard and dangerous stuff while you go back to your trailer, have a beer and watch the game.
There gets to be a point where the big shots yearn to work less. Harmon, it seems, was there. Petersen WAS there for many years in retirement but decided to come back to the band and co-star with 53-year-old former cast mate Jorja Fox who wound up marrying him fictionally when they brought the show back.
All of this is due to an elementary fact of TV: We senior citizens and, uh ... mature, couch potatoes and petunias are nothing if not fond of cop shows. We just love them.
The year 2021 TV has come a long way from the staple network diets of cop and crime TV but they still provide the comfort food of TV diets, even for those replete with adventure and massive curiosity about what’s now provided by cable and streaming sites.
Those old shows provide the equivalent of meat loaf, mac and cheese and pizza in the TV diet. Just as those foods always deserve serious attention they seldom get, so do the “comfort food” TV shows.
So I thought I’d pay more than cursory attention to a bunch of them. Here’s my 2021 “comfort food” TV show report card.
The newest in the bunch is merely the newest version of one of the oldest, which first hit us in 2000 at the start of the new century. The original “CSI” was seldom given the revolutionary credit it deserved. It came from the kitchen of mogul Jerry Bruckheimer, which is why so many in TV’s executive classes gave it a pass. Even as it was, former Variety Editor Peter Bart, in his book “Boffo: How I Learned to Fear the Bomb and Love the Blockbuster,” said that former Disney pasha Michael Eisner wanted to banish the show to oblivion but could never quite manage to do it. What he and everyone else got instead was one of the most eccentric and popular and influential shows in the history of TV.
Because its creator Anthony Zuiker was raised in Las Vegas, the show was set in Vegas, itself a radically creative act. What that meant is that they could, at the time, not only get away with a cop/criminalist who was an ex-stripper played by Marg Helgenberger but also the daughter of a Vegas mobster.
All of that was the setting for a world of esoteric forensic procedure and technology — microscopes and mass spectrometers up the wazoo, which turned the whole country into people who expected DNA to catch every criminal.
I must confess some shock that CBS decided to hook the once-revolutionary program up to the paddles and holler “clear.” It’s called “CSI: Vegas” redundantly now, as we all know, because in the intervening years we’ve had others, most notably “CSI: Miami,” which starred David Caruso, he of immortal pantomimes involving the removal of his sunglasses and the constant hand-on-hips poses of a fellow conveying masterful boredom.
The new “CSI” is still in Vegas, as the title promises. It brings back Petersen, former lab chief, and Fox, the former colleague who is now his marriage partner brought out of retirement with her old man to clear their old buddy Hodges, a victim of Nevada cancel culture. They upped the ante of tough stuff to understand, which means that I understand much less of the show than I used to.
What I’d Do With It If They Asked Me: Have more stuff at home with Fox and Petersen so we could hear what the wizardly August-December lovers talk about at dinner over hot dogs and baked beans.
With Harmon’s contract authorizing a lot of legal hooky, the show goes like this: The new head of Gibbs’ old investigative prodigies is played by character actor Gary Cole, a fellow with a constant 14-carat smirk in his voice. This increases the show’s humor, which is a very good thing. The latest episode Monday was one of the sprightliest in years. It was written by Steven D. Binder, with the flavor of a staff writer who’s been dying to hack around a little but has been holding back because the ratings were too high to mess with it. Now that the fictional Gibbs is off in Alaska fly-fishing, it’s actually going to be fun to see where it decides to go.
What I’d Do With It If They Asked Me: Call a halt forever to B.S. international intrigue plots following the fortunes of the group’s fugitive agent Ziva David.
‘LAW AND ORDER SVU’
In the same way that “CSI” changed the way America perceived that crime would be conclusively solved, “Law and Order: SVU” was probably even more significant. The whole radical reckoning of gender roles in modern America wouldn’t have been possible if this show hadn’t been on the air weekly. Seldom has TV fiction influenced society quite as directly. In its newest incarnation, the formerly populous show is down to four regular cast members. It’s no accident in long-running shows that the good guys are suffering middle management interference crises but the big shots above our heroes aren’t painted as being smart enough to understand how great the show’s heroes are. It works as TV for tired adults watching at night.
The cast is one of the more weirdly hardy in all of TV, led by Jayne Mansfield’s daughter Mariska Hargitay and ex-rap hitmaker Ice- T. If you package people with enough savvy, America can accept almost anything.
What I’d Do With It If They Asked Me: Give Ice-T’s character almost as much of an off-stage emotional life as the show gives star Hargitay playing Olivia Benson. A potentially rich and complex source of plot stuff there.
‘LAW AND ORDER: ORGANIZED CRIME’
The new show of Christopher Meloni, at 60, began as a house afire and has gone sharply downhill. Without Dylan McDermott as the major villain, a lot of tediously unbelievable undercover bologna gives Meloni very little that’s compelling to do except bald-pate modeling and empty cop show threats and calisthenics.
Tom Selleck, 76, is another who might well be expected to be happy elsewhere and not memorizing so many lines and muttering them into his mustache. The show — as always with TV a family but in this case a literal one full of law enforcement prodigies — has done some hugely clever things about how it developed characters. It would have to, considering that at the outset, it cast Len Cariou as Selleck’s father even though he’s only seven years older. Its only recent mistakes are big ones, true, but short lived. Giving Donny Wahlberg’s character a potential girlfriend who’s a psychic was dumb. Just as dumb was coming up with a long-lost grandson for Frank to try to lower demographics. Both arrived drenched in writer’s room flop sweat.
More than making up for it five times over was giving DA daughter Erin Reagan her dramatic opposite as an investigator (played by Steve Schirippa, famous for “The Sopranos”). Drop dead brilliant, especially now that he’s pushing Erin to run for New York City district attorney.
What I’d Do With It If They Asked Me: Give Abigail Hawk, as Frank’s assistant Baker, more to do, even if necessary getting her to divorce her cop husband and launch a mysteriously May-December illicit relationship with Frank. And give more to do to Robert Clohessy as Frank’s loyal blue-collar cop assistant. And if nobody minds, fewer lines to Gregory Jbara as Frank’s PR guy.
The nuttiest action cop show on TV. At one point, one of its team members, the sharpshooter played by Lina Esco, was involved in a thrupple, i.e. a romantic entanglement with a male-female married couple. I ask you, SWAT? Prime time? CBS? Say what?
The hero, put upon by superiors, is played by Shemar Moore, formerly the fellow having the innocent flirtation with the FBI behavior unit’s info specialist on “Criminal Minds.”
In this show’s writer’s room, they may well be up for anything CBS lets them get away with. It remains, as they used to say, a trip.
Dick Wolf discovers the Feds. The big cast wrinkle in this show is the casting of Zeeko Zaki as an Egyptian-American FBI agent and partner of strenuously all-American Missy Peregrym. Kudos for that innovation. It’s a little bit of fun weekly to watch Jeremy Sisto in his headset bark at underlings, but no fun at all to watch beauteous Alana de la Garza play a middle manager playing footsie with bosses and dodging their monumentally insensitive power plays.
’ FBI: MOST WANTED’
More Dick Wolf FBI. The show is mostly distinguished by star Julian McMahon’s common expression at rest of jutting out his lower jaw at least a half inch from his upper. Thoughtfulness and resolve are no doubt being conveyed. It just looks painful to me. I only watch when there’s nothing else to watch.
What is the FBI doing chasing bad guys in Hungary and Scotland? The new show attempts to tell you. If this is Dick Wolf’s attempt to colonize Europe, it’s not working.
No longer on TV’s new schedules, thank God, and not a likely revival either. This show is sick. But it can still be seen in abundance on cable, where it is popular. It should come as no surprise to anyone that this show’s backstage life was rocky, losing one star early and another in the middle when he got into physical altercations. No one’s going to convince me that it had nothing to do with its ultra-grim content. (Indeed fleeing actor Mandy Patinkin said as much as he walked out the door.)
What I’d Do With It If They Asked Me: See if someone could invent a “Veep"-style sitcom about what it’s like to put such a ghastly show on the air.
(c)2021 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)