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Review: Solving the unsolvable on TNT's 'Cold Justice'

TNT is positioning the real-life investigative procedural "Cold Justice" as reality TV's version of "Rizzoli & Isles." But the first and perhaps most significant thing Dick Wolf's new true-crime show does is remind us how overly groomed, politically correct and inevitably romantic most scripted crime dramas are, even the good ones, even the gritty ones.

Unsolved killings have provided the hook for hours of scripted television, but none have been able to capture the pathos and squalor of a small town homicide quite like "Cold Justice" does. These are not stories of elaborately covered up crimes of byzantine motive and high-voltage back stories peopled by an array of canny and colorful characters. These deaths are tragically and brutally mundane. Likewise, their re-investigations are not modern miracles of DNA testing or cleverly provoked confessions but diligent examinations of witnesses and evidence to assemble a case of probable cause.

And it's precisely the lack of traditional stage-managed drama that makes early episodes of the show so fascinating.

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"Cold Justice" follows attorney and former Texas prosecutor Kelly Siegler and former crime scene investigator Yolanda McClary as they visit small towns across the country to help solve unsolved homicides. Both women are attractive, intelligent and articulate. Siegler, who has appeared on several shows on the Investigative Discovery cable channel, has been in and out of the media eye since her dramatic courtroom re-enactment a decade ago of how Susan Wright stabbed her husband 193 times led to Wright's conviction. (At the time, People magazine reported that an ABC series on her life was in the works.)

Described by Pamela Colloff in Texas Monthly as "one of the most aggressive prosecutors in Harris County, which has sent more people to the death chamber than any other county," Siegler here describes herself as having never lost a case. She was also instrumental in finding proof to overturn the capital murder conviction of Anthony Graves, who was freed after 18 years in prison.

So she's not, you know, just any former prosecutor with great hair. Not surprisingly, it is Siegler who frames the narrative and the action, describing the cases as they stand, explaining the factors leading to their unsolved status (most usually a lack of resources) and assembling a team that includes former homicide detective turned private investigator Johnny Bonds (with a name like that, he surely deserves his own show).

In the first episode, they are brought to the small town of Cuero, Texas, at the behest of a young woman who has always believed that her mother's suicide was really murder.

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And so it would certainly seem. Pam Shelly was in the middle of leaving a volatile relationship with her boyfriend — she had her clothes and her kids packed up — when, according to him, she just up and shot herself. Because she was still alive when the authorities arrived, evidence was not preserved, so Siegler and McClary carefully reconstruct everyone's movements; in one moving sequence, the daughter is brought to the house where one potential version of the crime is re-enacted.

The second episode involves the equally tragic killing of a beloved mother, grandmother and community fixture for the small amount of cash she had in her home.

Both investigations are relentlessly straightforward and matter-of-fact, with none of the genre's tendency to overplay or manipulate a moment. Siegler's single-mindedness can seem a little chilling — she is not happy when evidence seems to suggest that her suspect might not be guilty — but then that's what you want in a prosecutor.

Although one can be fairly certain, if only for legal reasons, that any suspect shown on television is going to turn out to be guilty of something, the lies that are told, the twists of the legal system and the simple horrible stupidity of the crimes provide drama enough.

More important, most important, Siegler, McClary, Bonds and the various local authorities remind us that real crime fighters do exist and that this is what they and their jobs look like.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Cold Justice'

Where: TNT

When: 10 p.m. Tuesday

Rating: TV-14-DLV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and violence)

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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