Hoping to jazz up the cop genre, networks are unleashing
dramas starring detectives armed with far more than a .38-caliber
revolver and a hunch. In addition to “Numb3rs,” which
starts Jan. 23, there’s ABC’s “Blind Justice”
(arriving March 8), in which a blind NYPD detective (Ron Eldard
from “Men Behaving Badly”) cracks cases with his heightened
non-visual senses. The show is executive-produced by Steven Bochco,
whose resume includes two cop classics, “Hill Street Blues”
and “NYPD Blue.” And Jan. 3, NBC introduced “Medium,”
with Patricia Arquette as a thirtysomething lawyer whose abilities
to communicate with the dead enable authorities to reconstruct crimes.
The trend has more to do with network economics
than the latest wrinkles in criminology. As Falacci put it, “I
think everyone is looking for a new variation on what’s been
done so far” on crime shows.
With “CSI” clones multiplying, producers
have to work hard to make their cops stand out. The procedural cop
drama is far and away the most popular format on network television,
with 12 prime-time series devoted to the formula. Now in its 15th
season, NBC’s “Law & Order” is one of the
longest-running scripted series in history, although its ratings
have tapered. This season, CBS’ “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”
is the No.1 program (tied with ABC’s “Desperate Housewives”)
among the young adults sought by advertisers. “Law & Order”
and “CSI” have bred two successful spinoffs.
But the networks have paid a price for the ubiquity
of cop shows – which has arisen, incidentally, during an era
in which real-life crime stats are mostly falling. As murder rates
soar during TV’s evening hours, writers have found it increasingly
difficult to make an impression on jaded viewers. One possible solution
is the hero with a special hook. In TV parlance, this is what’s
known as a “promotable” device, which can be hammered
home in ads for the show.
“It’s always good to look for the next
generation, the next incarnation,” said ABC prime-time entertainment
chief Stephen McPherson. As a result, he said, the “standard
crime show” – that well-worn precinct where gruff, workaholic
FBI agents and local cops track down killers within a tight four-act
formula – is probably on the way out.
That doesn’t necessarily mean viewers will
cotton to crime-fighting clairvoyants and math geniuses, though.
A thin line separates an intriguing hook from a mere gimmick that
audiences reject. “Blind Justice” isn’t even the
first series to make use of a blind detective: In the early ’70s,
James Franciscus starred as “Longstreet,” an investigator
permanently blinded by crooks he was tracking.
The experiment failed, and the program was canceled
after the 1971-72 season.
That kind of history already has some TV analysts
downbeat on the latest cop-with-a-twist shows.
“Typically, I don’t think these kinds
of things work,” said Brad Adgate, senior vice president at
Horizon Media in New York.