Cold Case

As mastermind of some of the biggest films of the last 20 years, producer Jerry Bruckheimer has, perhaps unfairly, been accused of contributing to the dumbing down of cinema. Megahits such as Top Gun (1986) and Pearl Harbor (2001) made gazillions of dollars, but were ripped by critics who said they were typical of the Bruckheimer hit factory: long on razzle-dazzle and short on substance.

In 2000, Bruckheimer turned his attention to the small screen, striking gold as executive producer of the CSI twins, Without a Trace, and The Amazing Race, four stalwarts of the powerful CBS lineup. And unlike his films, Bruckheimer’s television shows consistently offer intelligent stories and compelling characters.

Cold Case features the same jittery visual style and “ripped-from-the-headlines” story lines of CSI and Without a Trace, but also offers something new in the Bruckheimer blueprint: a strong female lead. Philadelphia homicide detective Lilly Rush (Kathryn Morris) is assigned to “cold cases,” murder investigations from the past that have never been solved and whose victims have faded into obscurity. She’s the type of TV cop who never seems to sleep and has no social life.

At first glance, Morris hardly looks like the hardened detective who doesn’t flinch at the sight of bodies lying in pools of blood. With her soft blue eyes and and pale complexion, it would be easy to dismiss her as another Barbie doll actress “stretching” as the tough broad. But Morris brings a smoky passion to Lilly, the only woman on her team, making you believe that she is stronger, smarter, and more determined than her counterparts. Pursuing justice for the forgotten like a well-coiffed pit bull, Lilly is both tough and tender, unafraid to ask harsh questions or get in people’s faces. “I’m just the kind of girl who pisses you off,” she snarls at a suspect in the second episode. Morris’ is a star-making performance, enough to draw viewers, at least at first.

It’s too bad the show built around her is so derivative. From the washed-out, grainy hues of its flashback sequences to the relentlessly moving cameras, Cold Case employs all of the familiar Bruckheimer tricks. Also like the other series, this one has a “signature” effect: the victims, suspects, and witnesses appear as they looked at the time of the murders and morph to how they look now. While this technique creates an abstract sort of poignancy, the show uses it so often that it’s already grown tiresome.

Worse, in the first two episodes, at least, the effects seemed to be covering up a glaring dearth of invention. Both featured predictable murder cases in which the guilty parties were obvious within the first 10 minutes. The pilot episode, about the 1976 murder of a well-to-do teenage girl, so closely resembled Martha Moxley’s 1975 murder that anyone familiar with that case would have guessed the outcome. This lack of originality is all the more baffling, because series creator Meredith Steihm, who wrote the pilot, knows a thing or two about crafting a convincing cop drama, having written for NYPD Blue for four years.

While it might be argued that Cold Case is, for the moment, focused on developing Rush rather than complex scripts, it compares badly with CSI and Trace, which manage both intriguing characters and plots. Her primary trait is that she feels a sense of mission: “People shouldn’t be forgotten. They should get justice, too.” Which leads me to the pilot’s hokey concluding scene: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain” plays in the background, the camera follows in slow motion as Rush leads the culprit to the police station through a driving rainstorm. She gazes skyward, the rain pelting her face, and she throws an expression like she’s found her calling. It doesn’t help that her mussed-up hairdo and perky smile recall Meg Ryan at her most treacly.

Such overstatement suggests that Rush brings special talent to solving cold cases. But, like tv detectives past and present, she conducts interviews and interrogations, pores through boxes of dusty files, and comes to conclusions. Equally dull are the scripts, which include none of the roadblocks likely inherent in investigating old crimes, such as witnesses who have died or who can’t recall past events.

Offering by-the-numbers crime stories, Cold Case doesn’t show how its “unsolved crimes” concept or its detective is compelling. It’s going to need more than Morris’ full-throttle performance to elevate it above such formula.