With no ongoing television shows making my list for the summer, I discovered old episodes of Cold Case, an American detective show of the same family as the CSI franchises. (The show ran for seven seasons, none of which I saw originally aired.) Like most of its relatives, the episodes are mostly formulaic: a death happens, the investigation is reopened, and a perpetrator is discovered and usually arrested (unless already dead).
However, as the title suggests, the stories are not recent murders, but cases that have languished for years – in some cases, decades. Thus, in addition to the reliable detective genre, we are treated to a history lesson. Unlike a historical series like Murdoch Mysteries, however, the history lesson is very much a case of “look how different things were back when and how much more enlightened we are now.”
While thought-provoking, it can feel very forced. Unless the audience is a bunch of twelve-year-olds, being told repeatedly that it used to be very difficult (or downright dangerous) to be non-white, homosexual, or a woman grows less informative and more frustrating with every episode. Moreover, the detective characters react as though this is the first time that they have heard this. While I am not the best judge of the historical knowledge of the average person, I would think that “racism used to be worse”, “American society used to be racially segregated”, “it used to be illegal to be gay”, or “women used to be second-class citizens and treated like property” should be common knowledge for any adult who has finished middle school. In other words, many episodes seem like they were written for high school lessons – and probably would be great teaching tools.
Not all of the episodes have this problem, of course – many are standard murder mysteries. Some have a strong focus on the main detectives, which can be both interesting and distracting. Why can’t the characters have a normal home life away from the station? That is probably one of the reasons why I like Castle, as the main characters are often shown having breakfast, making supper, and doing otherwise normal-if-eccentric things. By contrast, all I have seen so far of the home life of the detectives on Cold Case are severely dysfunctional familial or romantic relationships. It is hardly worth it – show me more about the victim of the week.
In Cold Case, the victim of the week is the real star of the show. The stories explore the human side of the crimes, introducing various interesting characters and showing how they have been affected by the crime even after many years. The episodes include multiple flashbacks, starting with the first scene that sets the tone and shows us the era in which the murder occurred. Many of the characters are introduced, giving us cause to wonder when one of the central characters in said scene is shown dead in the subsequent one – although this second scene is usually quite some time after the establishing scene. We are left to try to piece together how the character ended up in such a situation. Throughout the rest of the show, the detectives piece together the story and more flashback scenes are shown (usually when they are interviewing witnesses) that slowly fill in the gaps between the first two scenes. The flashback story is a coherent plot that intrigues the audience and is usually fun in its own right. The music alone is worth watching some of the episodes for.
At the end of the episode, a musical montage shows each character both as they were in the past and as they are in the present (often two different actors) as the consequences of the investigation take effect. The murderer or collaborator gets their long overdue arrest, the innocently-imprisoned are released, the family members are left to make their peace, loved ones are reunited after years of misunderstanding, etc. Finally, the victim is shown as a ghost, usually appearing to one of the detectives unless they had a particularly strong connection to another character that needed to be resolved. Every episode ends relatively peacefully. Case closed, finally.
Aside from not enjoying the historical browbeating, I find that the peaceful, musical montage ending and flashback style makes for a good storytelling device. Every week, we get to see new characters with new stories and explore different aspects of the past. Sometimes, the murder is relatively recent, other times nearly all of the witnesses are dead of old age, but this does not matter because they are given the same weight in the flashback sequence. In the episodes set in the 1920s or 1930s, it is easy to forget how old the characters would be. Their stories are just as exciting as recent ones.
Ultimately, it is the humanity of the characters and mysteries that sets Cold Case apart from the CSIs and other investigative shows like them. It is also the formulaic style and ensemble cast that sets it apart from the modern detective shows like Bones, The Mentalist, Castle, Unforgettable, and Body of Proof. For something that can be watched in nearly any episode order and yet has an emotional storyline, Cold Case is perfect viewing.
Just excuse the history lessons. Or show them to the kids age 10 and up.