overthinking the idiot box

June 27, 2005

In the world of television, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the writers and producers of hour-long crime dramas, and the viewers, who watch said dramas. These are their stories.

Be Careful Out There
Summer With the Serial Killers

by Andreanna Ditton

Contrary to popular belief, neither I, nor this column, can really subsist on SVU reruns for the entire duration of the summer. So it was with great joy that I noted the debut of two new shows that at least marginally fall within the purvey of my "Police Procedurals" beat. Both The Inside and The Closer center around a blond with a talent, exploiting and exploring that talent for the gratification of the audience.

Unfortunately, neither show has yet to really grab me, although they both have interesting potential. The Inside comes to us from the copious talents of Tim Minear, who has on his team Jane Espenson and David Fury, both also Joss Whedon alums from Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel days. Minear did the fabulous, if failed, Wonderfalls last year and he's something of a legend in TV geek circles. However, it takes more than a legend to make the profiler/serial killer genre a success. Just ask Chris Carter. He had the talents of Lance Henriksen at his disposal, and Millennium still barely made it through three seasons.

Summer Blonde Number 1:
Rachel Nichols
The conceit of the The Inside is that the slightly shady, slightly smarmy Virgil "Web" Webster (Peter Coyote) is in charge of a group of serial killer hunters at the FBI, but he is far more puppet master than Zen master. His team includes the innocent and idealistic Paul (Jay Harrington), perky, brassy red-haired Melody (Katie Finneran, formerly of Wonderfalls), and Danny (Adam Baldwin playing the older, smarter cousin of Jayne Cobb, from Minear and Whedon's even more fabulous but equally failed Firefly). Add to that mix wunderkind Rebecca Locke (Rachel Nichols), formerly known as Becky George, who as a child had been abducted and tortured before escaping and fleeing to safety. It's an intriguing premise, taking the old trope of the protégé, of the wounded soul finding killers in return, the Fox Mulder approach to heroism. The title, I'm assuming, comes from Rebecca's ability to get inside the killer's mind, and her colleagues ability to profile and investigate based on less... intuitive reactions.

Here's the problem: the show is smart, but it may be too subtle for its own good (or it may not actually be as smart as I want it to be, having given it projected credence based on Minear's previous work). Peter Coyote is masterful in his role, just this edge of unlikable with an edge of creepily intriguing. Paul, on the other hand, is simply annoying in his earnest "I want to save 'em all" mentality, and Danny and Melody are both punchlines so far, only there to keep things light. I trust that Minear and Co. will do more with these talented actors, but I want to see it now, before Fox cancels this show in an untimely manner.

At least now she has started to convey a singularity of focus and an eye towards the ultimate end. Her compassion isn't front and center, which in some ways is intriguing.
All of slow character development is acceptable in the context of the stories they've told so far, which are pretty standard serial killer fare with some neat, precise twists that elevate the show beyond Lifetime movie fare. However, for me, the problem is Rebecca. I don't know if it's the actress herself (who is sadly lacking in oomph), or the character, or the way the combination of things is working together. I like the idea that Rebecca is an empty vessel, having purged her childhood trauma so cleanly that she's dissociated her identity from the little girl who was abducted, and I certainly hope that's the point, but it took until episode three before I found her at all interesting. At least now she has started to convey a singularity of focus and an eye towards the ultimate end. Her compassion isn't front and center, which in some ways is intriguing. In a recent episode, she honed in on the possibility of a victim actually being a killer himself, someone capable of enacting great harm, and was ruthless in seeking out evidence of his actions, despite the trauma it brought to his family. It made her more interesting, if not terribly appealing. I like the flat affect, but the actress really needs to have a little more charisma in order for us to watch a show centered around an empty cipher, a woman who was broken and built back up to be a tool.

Summer Blonde Number 2:
Kyra Sedgwick
The Closer takes us to the opposite extreme. Deputy Police Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) was hired by Will Pope (her former lover and former boss) to come head up a team of detectives in Los Angeles. Brenda is a Southern belle with a reputation for closing the deal during interrogations that precedes her, and an accent to belie what I'm assuming is a core of steel. In a room full of ambitious men, her appointment does not sit well. Let the games begin.

Brenda's strength is in the interview, in the way that she charms suspects and witnesses into talking to her, lulling them with a false compassion, a thick accent and a keen insight until they tell her what she wants to know. Her mind is quick and clever, and she jumps light years ahead of her fellow detectives when it comes to drawing conclusions from the evidence, looking past the obvious to the greater truths beyond.

That's a lot to live up to, and so far, the show is a little slow, a little uneven, and Brenda (despite my admiration for Kyra Sedgewick) is more than a little annoying. She's sort of grating, with her accent and her quirks and tics and big smile. I sort of understand why her fellow detectives are whining like little old women on fixed bingo night. The mysteries are relatively interesting though. Philandering husband loses his wife when the hairdresser he promised to marry murders her by washing her hair with nicotine laced shampoo. Woman kills potential lover when she finds out that said lover is also a woman. But so far, we're meant to focus more on the characters, and I'm not sure they are enough of a draw to keep the average viewer interested.

Now, I whine a lot about the lack of characterization in procedurals, the way that these people are caricatures not characters. However, I'm not sure that starting with a character and building a procedural around them is the answer, unless the momentum and intrigue of the show match the vision of said character. The Inside is shinier and flashier and far more bloody. It's full of moody lighting, roughly written scene markers and an eerie opening theme, but I very much want more sense of how the character and the story will interact and unfold. I want Minear to push the boundaries of my understanding of the genre. In fact I expect so much from Minear that I'm afraid that disappointment is inevitable. I'm thrilled that he's turned his hand to the genre and I'll trust that he's got a plan.

The Closer, well, first I need to get past my annoyance with Brenda, because I do find the concept interesting. The woman gets lost on her way to the grocery store, talks to her dad on the phone, and has enough attitude to make the sweet southern honey bite and sting like a bee. Still, I want a little darkness with my procedurals, and I hope we see development on a grander scope.

I love my city, and I'm pleased to see these two shows following in the foosteps of Numb3rs and making [Los Angeles] the interesting, complex, messy, crazy place that it really is.
One thing both shows have in their favor is Los Angeles as a character. In Angel, Minear was often able to reference different places in the city, but generally they were interchangeable. So far, The Inside has attempted to point out different, lesser known locales, as has The Closer. I love my city, and I'm pleased to see these two shows following in the foosteps of Numb3rs and making it the interesting, complex, messy, crazy place that it really is.

On a final note, Minear and co. Yes, we're getting your inside jokes. Yes, I noticed that the movie was called Once More With Feeling and the cat was named Angel and that Melody is the flip side of Harmony. But folks, I already love and appreciate your other work. Enough with the meta. It's distracting, and it's really just tempting Fox to add you to its roster of other failed shows that bear your stamp. Focus more on making this worth watching, and less on sticking your tongue out at the studio execs. They have bullet proof glass. They simply don't care.

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