You Want a Theory?
We’re fighting violent crimes and they’re creating the most violent weapons on the face of the earth.
—Grace Alvarez (Roma Maffia), “Unholy Alliance”
You live with a woman? Is that an alternative lifestyle sort of thing?
—John Grant (Julian McMahon), “Insight”
Police procedural shows are everywhere these days. And whether you see them as engendering faith in forensics or exploiting trendy techno soundtracks, Alias, CSI, and Without a Trace can trace their roots to Profiler. First appearing on NBC in 1996, Cynthia Saunders’ innovative series focused on Samantha Water (Ally Walker), an intuitive FBI profiler whose cases tend to involve serial killers—calculating, nasty, creative psychos.
Inspired at least in part by the popularity and critical success of 1991’s Silence of the Lambs, Profiler faced two potential obstacles immediately. First, it had to come up with a new lunatic, with a new target and a new means of slicing and dicing every week. Second, it had to provide an emotional thread, a character or characters with whom viewers might identify. While the show had trouble with the first, it did very well with the second… at least until Ally Walker left in 1999. (Poor Jamie Luner, who played the replacement profiler, Rachel Burke, for a season, came in when the show was already tired out, 1999-2000).
As A&E Home Video’s new DVD collection demonstrates, the first season of the series was, for the most part, terrific—innovative, socially progressive, emotionally complex. (This especially if you overlook occasional lapses, such as “Learning From The Masters,” where a one-armed killer who poses his victims like famous paintings ties up Sam to resemble Joan of Arc during a commercial break—and apparently without any resistance from her.) With 21 episodes on six discs (episode number four, “I’ll Be Missing You,” is not included, and the first features separate commentaries by the entertainingly bright Walker [“My hair looked particularly good during this pilot!”] and Robert Davi, who played her complicated boss, Bailey Malone), plus “Profiles of Evil: Inside the Criminal Mind,” from A&E’s American Justice series, the set offers a welcome return to the series’ strongest point, before it resorted more or less regularly to gimmicks.
Sam and the team assembled around her—the Violent Crimes Task Force (VCTF)—are brainy, sympathetic, and engagingly quirky. Originally presented as part of NBC’s Saturday night “thrillogy” (which also included The Pretender and Dark Skies, briefly), Profiler featured psycho killers, skewed camera angles and ooky point of view shots (Sam’s and her opponents’), sophisticated shot compositions, and great character relations. Many shows boast that they are “character-driven,” but few sustain any intriguing ambiguity and flexibility among said characters. Profiler‘s ensemble was often surprising, even when the cases they solved (and they always solved them) started to seem routine.
Sam’s personal situation sets her up as an evident compromise between kick-ass chick and vulnerable girl. A retired FBI profiler, she’s only convinced to come back to work in the series pilot, “Insight,” by Bailey’s earnest entreaties that she help track down a serial killer in Atlanta. Sam’s an outsider from jump, living on a farm with horses, her best friend Angel (Erica Gimpel), and her daughter Chloe (Caitlin Wachs, described by Walker on the pilot’s commentary track as “scary good”; two seasons later, Chloe would be played by Evan Rachel Wood, now starring in Thirteen).
Bailey knows her past—that her husband was murdered by a serial killer deemed “Jack of All Trades,” a serial killer so devious and heartless that he remains on the loose as the series begins, and spends the first season stalking Sam and her friends. (And, though he’s played by Dennis Christopher, Jack remains uncredited, so you might feel as unnerved by his slobbery, fragmented appearances as his stalkees—during the third season, he turned increasingly tedious and picked up a protégé, Jill, adeptly played by Tracy Lords.)
Even before her own victimization, Sam supposedly has an “uncanny” capacity to visualize victims’ situations, and, as Walker makes clear in her commentary track, “knowing” the victim is the profilers’ primary tool. (She conferred with former FBI profiler Robert Ressler (founder and former director of the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program and author of Whoever Fights Monsters, among other true crime texts). Walker also states, more than once, that she didn’t see Sam’s ability as “extraordinary,” though the show often depicted it that way, a combination narrative shortcut and X-Files-y effect, cutting between a crime reenactment (during the first season, these were never graphic, though they were surely unsettling) and Sam’s cocked head, as she was working to see past the scene to the pain and through that, to the purpose and perpetrator.
However you read Sam’s “visions,” her instincts were right and her behavior was “moral,” in the sense that she insisted on being responsible and assigning responsibility, and she didn’t take shit (from coworkers or would-be supervisors). One of my favorite moments comes in the first episode, when she meets her cocky teammate John (Julian McMahon, currently appearing on nip/tuck); he challenges her to come up with a “theory” of the crime at hand. She doesn’t miss a beat: “You want a theory? You’ve got Chinese food in your refrigerator, you like your women in heels, your scotch straight, and yourself definitely on top. But it’s just a theory.”
This shuts him up. And a couple of scenes later, you see John alone at home, watching a game on tv and eating Chinese food from the carton he had in his fridge. Bailey arrives and gives him a hard time for probing into Sam’s record—as he’s trying to keep her safe from Jack. (This leads to an awkward, oddly soundtracked flashback by way of Bailey’s explanation, showing Jack’s “sick little cat and mouse game,” and the husband’s murder). Sam takes her work seriously while acknowledging its nasty peculiarities; when John asks, by way of making up with her, “These guys never quit do they?” she sighs and says simply, “No, they just get better at it.”
For all her understandable rage and appealing edge, Sam’s empathy with victims made her more compelling than today’s forensics show detectives, who—quite reasonably—tend to maintain their professional distance and self-preserving reserve. Sam, by contrast, leaps right in to all kinds of emotionally fraught situations—teary, twitchy, angry, and bold, sometimes in jeopardy but most always admirable. Even Bailey has his demons, namely, alcohol and the troubling relationship he has with his daughter Franny (the excellent Heather McComb).
Sam is aided in her efforts to cut through the by her refreshingly nonstereotypical teammates, including forensics expert and unexpectedly pregnant Grace Alvarez (the wonderful Roma Maffia, also currently starring in nip/tuck); Detective Nathan Brubaker (Michael Whaley, now starring in CSI: Miami), who played everything very straight for the brief time he was on the show; and computer geek George (Peter Frechette), whose gay partner shows up at the office partway through the season and no one blinks an eye. And when Sam begins a romance with munitions expert Coop (A Martinez), the only issue is Jack’s (and, sort of, John’s) jealousy: the fact they form an interracial couple never comes up in conversation or plot turns.
Such details mark Profiler‘s difference from most cop shows, then and now. Even as the series focuses on the science and business of catching villains—arsonists, murderers, vigilantes, a cultish guy with a cleanliness hang-up (who develops a crush on Grace, the “sterile brunette”), and other terrorists imagined somewhat ahead of their time (meaning, they’d suit storylines on 24 or Alias, as well as the upcoming fall season’s crop of anti-terrorism unit shows)—it treats characters and viewers respectfully, as if you can keep up with plots that don’t obviously teach lessons or cohere—plots that get messy.
Some plots are certainly less than inspired. In “Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” Jack sneaks into Bailey’s house to steal his ID while the task force head is singing in the shower—how corny is that? Or, “Shadow Of Angels,” parts one and two, features James Coburn as father to genetically engineered and decidedly un-mothered kids who start killing off people who offend them—the evil flipside of Twins. Other episodes push generic limits, weighing in against social or political structures, as when, in “Film at 11,” a New York City vigilante starts playing Unabomber games, with a critical eye turned on tabloidism.
And still others bend narrative expectations to the point of craziness. In “Modus Operandi,” Sam discovers that Jack, in his frothy loony-tunesness, is killing people even vaguely connected to her, like the doctor who delivered her, a childhood neighbor who used to fix her toys. And initially, she responds as you might, astonished at just how creepy and inexplicable this plot has turned, and frustrated that there seems no end to it.
Of course, there is an end to it, as the next few seasons became increasingly less fresh, in attitude, storylines, and energy. For the most part though, the first season of Profiler avoids explaining every little thing and carries over a few story arcs that don’t work out the way you might expect. And still, it delivers those idiosyncrasies you do remember: Bailey’s cowboy hat, Coop’s gum cracking, Grace’s game intelligence, and of course, Sam’s cocked head.