I got hooked on this show completely by accident last year.
After I read on a Bruce Springsteen website that an episode of the CBS crime drama Cold Case would be featuring several of Springsteen's songs from albums like Born In The USA, I decided to check it out. After all, The Boss doesn't lend his approval or the use of his music to just any movie or TV production.
So I came, I watched, and I got hooked. I've been a loyal viewer every Sunday night since. Thank God for DVRs, otherwise the choice would've been a tough one with competition from HBO's Deadwood and The Sopranos earlier this year, and now opposite my favorite guilty pleasure Desperate Housewives.
As the series name indicates, Cold Case is a tight little cop drama about detectives reopening unsolved cases that have been "cold" for years and years. The ensemble cast headed up by Kathryn Morris and Danny Pino is a great one, and the characters they play come straight from the cookie cutter school of cop drama.
Morris' character is your typically conflicted female detective with all the usual baggage — from guy problems to a wayward sister who occasionally shows up to muck up her already complicated life (not at all unlike another wayward sister on USA's The 4400).
Pino's character is the handsome no-nonsense detective who occasionally manifests a dark side — like on an episode last season where he basically kicked the crap out of a guy he merely suspected of being a child molester.
What sets Cold Case apart, however, is the way it uses music to enhance the story. Not since Miami Vice has a television cop drama made such effective use of music as this one does and maybe that's why Springsteen approved. But where Miami Vice used quick MTV style cuts and edits to accent the frenetic action and pace of the show, Cold Case will key in on the music of the period its story focuses on to evoke a specific time.
A typical episode of Cold Case will cut between the present day efforts of the detectives attempting to solve the often forgotten crime and flashbacks to the year it took place. It also almost always uses more than one actor playing the role of the witnesses and suspects, in both present day and when they were younger. The stories will often blur these timelines, occasionally within the confines of a single scene. So the 30-year-old suspect being interrogated will morph into the teenager he may have been at the time of the crime. In this way, the suspect characters become less one dimensional than on a lot of other cop dramas.
Likewise, the crime victims who have died will often appear as ghosts, usually after the crime has been solved and they have gotten their long overdue justice. These scenes, again augmented by music from the particular time period can be real tear jerkers. I personally confess to getting a little weepy at scenes like these.
So for the flashback scenes in particular, the use of music becomes essential in creating and setting the tone. For example, in the Springsteen episode from last year, the story revolved around a group of friends in the Eighties who were into cars, girls, and most of the other stuff you'd find in a Bruce song from that period. The use of Bruce's songs perfectly augmented the storyline and effectively placed you in that very time period.
In Sunday's season opener the cold case is placed in the year 1995; several songs from the mid-Nineties were used in a storyline revolving around a Columbine-type assault on a shopping mall by a couple of misfit teenagers. The names of the artists they used escape me, but I distinctly remember the songs as being minor Nineties grunge hits. Nothing as obvious as Nirvana or Pearl Jam, and thankfully nothing as crass as Marilyn Manson would have been. Still, it effectively put you in the period they were going for. The producers of Cold Case do know how to pick em'.
As the episode played, I found myself wondering just how they would work the usual ghosts into the closing frames — a trademark of this show — with a plot that did not contain a lot of sympathetic characters. But sure enough, in the closing scene the ghosts of the misfit mall murdering teens are there to haunt their parents at the dinner table. Not missing a trick, it is the parents who are made the obligatory sympatheticos.
With its always interesting, if somewhat nostalgic storylines augmented by the clever use of things like music to evoke specific snapshots in time, Cold Case is about as smart as TV cop dramas get. It also makes its point without being too over the top in the same way something like The Shield can be.
For those looking for an alternative to those Desperate Housewives over on ABC (or have a DVR like me), I suggest parking your remote at the couch Sunday nights on CBS at 9:00 PM for Cold Case.