Crime dramas have been a staple of American television since its inception. What possible new angle can there be? Women have long since become detectives; even criminals and psychic mediums have joined the force. When television’s loosened mores made sex a staple of prime time, the genre inherited a seemingly endless trust fund, but even that’s been spent. The developments in forensic science offered a new frontier for crime drama, which homesteaders quickly claimed.
Two cop shows, however, deserve attention—and a third is developing in interesting ways. The Emmy nominations that "Justified" gained in its first two seasons are well deserved. One doesn’t expect a lawman to be laconic, but Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens—Timothy Olyphant, the avatar of marshals, after his performance as one on the HBO Western "Deadwood"—is just that. Perhaps he’s laid-back because he’s sipping bourbon and fighting crime in rural Kentucky rather than overstimulating himself with L.A. lattes. Justified picks up a formula used only once before in TV crime, in the campy 60s "Batman" series: villains steal the show. Margo Martindale won an Emmy for her portrayal of a moonshine-brewing, mountain matriarch, who kept the family fed by lifting pot growing to the level of agribusiness. And no brief review can do justice to Boyd Crowder, played by Walton Goggins. Only Milton’s Satan could match the joyful fecundity of his evil, and, in Boyd’s case, it’s iniquity on the fly, not so much avocation as a venal adaptation of rural life in 21st century America.
TNT’s "Southland" has never received the attention it deserves. It’s difficult to imagine how its creator Ann Biderman sold a uniformed patrol-car drama to television executives. Why go back to the streets with thoroughly ordinary cops, their divorce and drinking problems in tow? Because good art reveals what we can’t, or don’t want to, see. No other cops on television confront the wino Vietnam vet, get to know him, and then make us face the fact that they must leave him on the street because we as a society haven’t given them the resources to do anything else. No one can approve of rookie cop Ben Sherman (played by Benjamin McKenzie), “haul-off” a mouthy Catholic high school girl, but, seeing the scene unfold, one can certainly understand why he did it. And watching Michael Cudlitz play John Cooper, a burly, closeted gay cop, using Oxycontin to push his lower back and his psyche across the finish line of retirement, it’s difficult to gainsay his choices.
In this era of reality TV, two first-class crime dramas should be blessing enough, but a third, NBC's Awake, may have joined their ranks. Its niche? What if the cop needs a therapist to recover from tragedy? Been done before, though not as a series premise. But there’s more. What if the cop’s condition is so deteriorated that he requires a therapist to tell him what’s real and what isn’t? Wait, there’s still more. What if reality for this cop has become so bifurcated that he has two therapists, each one telling him that the other is a figment of his imagination? Who, in his right mind, is going to gainsay the gravitas of B.D. Wong—who has already played a cop psychologist on Law and Order, S.V.U.—unless his other therapist is none other than Broadway’s celebrated Cherry Jones, whom TV viewers would also know as President Allison Taylor of Fox’s "24"? In this drama, the viewer must also puzzle over which shrink is real. Of course, I want claim my own pathology. B.D. Wong challenges Detective Michael Britten; Cherry Jones affirms him. Wong has to be a figment of the imagination.
Dramatic series don’t survive without compelling characters and story arcs that cause them to change. At this point, the character development is centered upon Detective Michael Britten, played superbly by Jason Isaacs, who is perhaps best known for playing Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter film series. He was so dastardly in Mel Gibson’s "The Patriot," crowds cheered when he died. Here, one can’t help but to root for this grieving man.
In the early episodes Britten first realizes that he is solving crimes in two alternative realities—one in which his son survived an auto accident, another in which his wife did—and then he learns how to exploit the gift. Here I draw an image from spiritual direction. Blessing and curses tend to come entwined. There’s a bright side to the darkness, and a danger in the boon. As the series unfolds, Britten begins deliberately to move between his realities, using experiences gained in one to helpful effect in the other. And one more note from spiritual direction. If the great act of deception is to convince us we alone of God’s creation aren’t good, aren’t psychologists doing a bit of the Lord’s work when they do affirm us?
Yet characters don’t develop in isolation. If this series is to work, B.D. Wong and Cherry Jones will not be able to maintain their professional distance. They’re already inside Britten’s head. At least one of them might be real and might perhaps have a less than professional interest in him. That’s the promise of a story arc, which is needed, because each episode is highly formulaic and because it is, in equal measure, both intriguing and unsettling for the viewer to watch each week, trying to unscramble these parallel realities along with Detective Britten. Is it the son or the wife—the latter particularly forgettable as a character—who is alive in the B.D. Wong version? Laura Innes, previously Dr. Kerry Weaver on "E.R.", appears as Captain Tricia Harper. She knows something about the car accident that claimed the life of Britten’s son, or his wife, or both.
Drama worth watching should help us to confront and to claim our own humanity. To do that it has to offer compelling characters, whose challenges and ensuing personal change make us want to watch them develop. That’s why cop shows are thrilling as entertainment but essentially trivial as art. Each week the slate of character development is thrown out of court in favor of a new crime, which explains why actors can so easily be replaced in crime dramas. "Justified" works because it brilliantly centers its character development in the criminals. And, if another of my cops on "Southland" is killed, I might go into therapy. In that case, I will have joined millions of Americans in that uniquely modern forum of character challenge and development. At least I hope that challenge occurs there, but what do I know? I’m watching from the outside.