Sundays at 9 p.m. on CBS. Season four in progress.
People who don’t like police procedurals often point out that they’re formulaic, one episode interchangeable with the next. As one who rather likes police procedurals, I respond, “Well … yeah.” It is, in fact, the formula that keeps me coming back. As simple and familiar as comfort food, the police procedural formula is the small-screen equivalent of macaroni and cheese after a long day at work. After all, it isn’t just any formula; it’s a primal one. Someone commits a great moral transgression, and someone else uncovers it. Watching that happen is a kind of ritual: entry into an illusory world in which wrongs are righted and the truth is revealed.
The creators of Cold Case understand that ritual. The CBS procedural, now in its fourth season, follows not only a narrative formula but also an aesthetic one. Using the same distinctive visual and auditory techniques each week, Cold Case serves as a lovely example of the genre, artfully singing each episode’s new stanza before returning to the show’s familiar refrain.
The detectives on Cold Case investigate old crimes, sometimes just a few years in the past, sometimes decades. As they re-interview witnesses and suspects, the show slips into extensive flashbacks to events surrounding the murders. Often different actors play older and younger versions of the same character, so as the detectives talk to a present-day individual, sitting on a park bench perhaps, the show rapidly cuts to a shot of her past self sitting on that same bench. It’s a functional conceit, of course, clarifying the flashbacks, but it also serves as an elegant way to express the idea that our past is always with us. Inside a grown man is the angry, petulant boy he once was, and for a show so fixated on the need to right long-buried wrongs, that’s an important concept.
Within flashbacks, though, the filmmakers take great care to differentiate the past from the present, and music is integral to that effort. Each collection of flashbacks is a musical time capsule, the songs carefully chosen to establish time and place. (CBS even posts a track list for each episode on its website.) For example, the fourth season premiere’s case was set in 1995 among a group of teenagers, which meant they used the soundtrack of my adolescence: Smashing Pumpkins, Filter, and Bush. In perhaps my favorite episode, from back in season two, the detectives investigate (however improbably) the death of a young black woman in the 1920s. As they learn about her interest in the Harlem Renaissance, the soundtrack unfurls the music of Duke Ellington and Billie Holliday and the gorgeous, mournful voice of Bessie Smith. It establishes not only the setting but the mood, as well.
The cross-cuts and music converge at the culmination of each episode. During a closing montage, we briefly revisit all the key players, including the murder victim, after the case has been solved. Contemporary TV overuses the musical montage—it’s become a terrible cliché—but Cold Case uses it so effectively that I nearly always forgive the triteness of the device. Besides, the montage works thematically, tying together the past with the present and, metaphorically speaking, releasing the ghosts. That sequence, more than anything else on the show, makes a ritual of the genre.
Unfortunately, Cold Case also has one of the genre’s chief weaknesses: a tendency to give the detectives their own small character arcs, veering off into pointless digressions that contribute nothing to the mystery at hand. I sympathize with the actors, who must tire of endless interrogation scenes, but the ritual of the police procedural does not directly involve them. Detectives are essential, of course, but they are the priests, not the offering. An exception might be Homicide: Life on the Street, but that wasn’t so much a crime drama as a workplace drama that happened to be set in a police station—a fine distinction, perhaps, but a real one. In Homicide, the relationships between the cops are the point, but in true procedurals, they’re beside it.
But despite that shortcoming and occasional unevenness in the quality of the mysteries, Cold Case intrigues me more often than not. The writers thoughtfully explore how the particular climate of a period led to the crime (one case, for example, was pointedly set in the years before Roe v. Wade), and that allows for greater variety in storylines than your typical contemporary cop show. Meanwhile, attention to the time that has passed since the crime was committed makes Cold Case more conscious than many shows of the consequences of violence, both the obvious absence of the murder victim and other unforeseen repercussions.
Is it great TV? Well, no. I’m not sure mac and cheese can achieve true greatness: It’s not ambitious enough. But when I just want to curl up on the couch and absorb a good mystery, Cold Case, with its familiar cadences and evocative music, is a ritual that rarely disappoints.