Regular airtime: Tuesdays, 10 pm EST (ABC)
Producers: Steve Bochco, Kevin Hooks, Rick Wallace
Cast: Kim Delaney, Kyle Secor, Rick Hoffman, Tom Everett Scott, Diana-Maria Riva, Scotty Leavenworth
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Two new shows premiering on consecutive nights. Two Irish-American female protagonists pitched as appealing, post-feminist types: the first a “sexy, brilliant, and fearless medical examiner,” the second a “tough, no-nonsense defense attorney.” Two accomplished tv actresses, Jill Hennessy and Kim Delaney. Add also two prime-time drama innovators, Tim Kring, who combined Oprah Book Club sentimentality with Fox paranormality into the glossy Friday night hit, Providence and Steven Bochco, whose Hill Street Blues ripped up the conventions of character-driven cop shows, ensemble drama, and prime-time scripting.
What does all this talent achieve? It achieves, in the last few minutes of each show, the dispassionate infantilization of two grown women, each weeping bitterly, one in the arms of her father, the other in the empty bed of her absent 10-year-old son. Pass Freud, go directly to schlock. Here are two shows that lift their premises, plotlines, and even their personality quirks from tv past and present, fritter away the skills of good actors, and lock skilled writers and producers into tired formulae.
In the premiere episode of Crossing Jordan, Dr. Jordan Cavanaugh (Jill Hennessy) returns to Boston, location of her family home, her old job (as resident irritant in the medical examiner’s office), and the trauma of her mother’s unsolved murder, the very case that retired her father (Ken Howard) as a cop. In doing so, she joins the ever-growing flock of prodigal tv children (Syd in Providence, the eponymous Northern Exposure wannabe in Ed, and this season’s Ellen reincarnation, to name a few), fleeing home in the face of mid-life crisis. Characters used to return home to die, late in life. Now they crawl back to the womb in their thirties, as if roots can be a consolation prize for failed attempts at independence and success.
At first, though, it seems as if Kring has brought some freshness to the genre. Jordan imagines her father is still obsessed with her mother’s murder. But he’s fallen in love with another woman who has soothed his soul with self-help books. And the Chief Medical examiner, Dr. Garret Macy (Miguel Ferrer), who rehires Jordan, is clinging (quite amusingly) to the edge of sanity with the help of a glove puppet alter-ego recommended by his shrink. Maybe that explains why he not only re-employs a woman who has lost four jobs in five years, but also professes that he’s glad to have her back.
But when Jordan finds a rosary on the body of her latest corpse, and then goes home to finger ruefully the rosary laid, tribute-like, in front of her mother’s photograph, the whole episode plummets into cliche, including the biggest cliche of the female ‘tec business, that the vulnerable protagonist always falls for the bad guy, in this case, a suitably slimy Kyle Secor, moonlighting from his regular gig on Philly, where, in the most bizarre of the coincidences that link these two shows, he’s called Daniel X. Cavanaugh.
Philly quickly accumulates its own set of cliches. In the words of one of the judges she encounters, Kathleen Maguire (Kim Delaney) gave up the chance to remain the wife of the next DA and future gubernatorial candidate (Secor) to go to law school and become a low-rent defense attorney and single mother. In the first minutes of the series premiere, the only other woman lawyer who appears (Joanna Cassidy), who also happens to be Maguire’s partner, bares her breast to a full courtroom and is forcibly removed to a psychiatric ward. Thereafter, Maguire is surrounded by men, from the rich-kid public defender (Tom Everett Scott), who elects himself her new partner, to the chummy ADA (Rick Hoffman), who rehearses his closings to an empty courtroom and throws Maguire the occasional smile. They’re backed by a cacophony of misogynistic judges and sexist lawyers chuckling at the “feisty” woman holding her own in a stairwell dispute, and the aforementioned Daniel X. Cavanaugh.
In concept, Philly ricochets straight back to eighties’ mini-series, like Woman of Substance, in which the marginalized female protagonist proves she can survive in a man’s world, not by changing that world but by out-manning the guys. Of course, times have changed, and this world is no longer a moral cesspit of high finance or global business. Instead, in tune with the nineties’ fetishizing of “reality,” Maguire struggles for survival in the grimy grind of Philadelphia’s city courts. There’s still moral ambiguity: if Maguire succeeds in her job, she puts criminals back on the streets (an unmaternal and thus unnatural act for a woman, a conundrum), and only if she fails can wrongdoing be punished. Like The Practice, Philly, to its credit, doesn’t shirk this dilemma inherent in choosing a defense attorney as its protagonist. But it does lack the courage of its convictions.
In early episodes of The Practice, when the firm’s survival lay on the line, Bobby’s conscience stopped at the payment of the firm’s fee. But Maguire is already proving her moral superiority by taking on a no-fee crusade three-quarters of the way through the first episode. Discovering that a client took a plea to a crime he didn’t commit as an alibi for the brutal murder he did commit (itself a pretty hackneyed storyline), she tracks down the innocent man arraigned for the killing and offers to represent him. At this point, all doubts about how the character will develop vanish. She’ll be the good girl in the bad world, will suffer for it, but, going by the predictability of Bochco’s recent work, will still triumph in the end.
That predictability, perhaps, is the most depressing aspect of both these shows. Kring saddles Jordan with a dead mother, just as he burdened Syd in Providence. Although Jordan escapes the smug visitations from the comely, coiffed corpse who pesters Syd, she does see in every victim just one more chance to solve (symbolically) her mother’s murder, a psychological kink that sets her working far more enthusiastically on “whodunit” than “howdunit.”
But just because Jordan doesn’t see Mom, it doesn’t mean that Kring has abandoned his hokey mysticism. Jordan revives the childhood game of “real-life Clue” she played with her Dad in the wake of her mother’s death. He would spread out the evidence from his open cases on the kitchen table. She would choose the role of victim or killer, then they’d act out the crime. Only this time, they act out Jordan’s open case, and the viewers see, Profiler-style, (though sadly, not with Profiler‘s brevity) Jordan’s mental reconstruction of the death. The experience of watching these segments is akin to watching Gwyneth Paltrow accept an Oscar, so physically excruciating that this viewer took momentary refuge in the frenzied perusal of a Lands’ End catalogue.
The same pattern of reiteration rather than reinvention hangs over Philly. Bochco does what he does well very well. He recaptures the visual and psychological density of even minor scenes (last seen in the first series of NYPD Blue) with the constant choreography of harried extras and the frequent uncertainty as to where or even whether one of the main characters will appear. Yet, at key transitional moments (like the credits sequence or the beats and pauses between scenes), he copies his own work on NYPD Blue exactly, right down to the pan up a building at night to cue a scene of romantic intimacy. There, the intricate, constantly developing, visual texture functioned as a vibrant character in the show: In Philly‘s first episode, it functions more as a glossy camouflage for lack of substance. It’s hard to believe that this man ever did anything as daring as script and produce a rock opera courtroom drama series (Cop Rock).
Both Philly and Crossing Jordan play safe, and with such a concept-by-numbers mentality that it becomes more fun to pick out their references to other shows (conscious or unconscious) than to follow their plots. I didn’t quite join Jill Hennessy and Kim Delaney in tears, but later in the week, when a Law and Order re-run I had seen three times before looked very, very good at 11pm on Tuesday night, I knew the prime of prime-time cop and court shows was finally passing.