The taming of the gumshoe TV's macho heroes yield to a more melancholy breed


Jeffrey Meek, who plays the title character of CBS' "Raven," was struggling to explain how Jonathan Raven differs from the action heroes of the past.

"He's not like a Bond character who enjoys how cool he is. This character has tons of angst over the destruction he's wreaked."

When did Raven stop wreaking destruction?

Mr. Meek hesitated: "I guess when the show started."

TV is so powerful, it can reform the most macho hero. The hairy-chested, two-fisted crime-stopper show, in which a handsome leading man (once a cowboy, now a cop or private eye) beats up several members of the criminal element per hour, is a TV staple. But lately, as definitions of manhood have changed, these shows have been domesticated. It's the taming of the gumshoe.

In the current climate, when being male means having to say you're sorry, it's not enough for a man to be manly; he's got to be melancholy, too. It's not enough for a man to be the cure for the disease of crime; he has to be in recovery himself. It's not enough for a man to overwhelm three armed opponents with a single martial arts move; he has to feel terrible while he does it.

The Raven, a remorseful graduate of an elite Japanese killing school, feels terrible. Mr. Meek: "He's making a spiritual transition. In the truest sense of the samurai, he's trying to become a gardener. . . . Every time he is forced into a battle, he fails as a warrior."

Hard to imagine Telly Savalas talking like this. If anybody had challenged Kojak karmatically, I hate to think what the guy's face would have looked like later. But times change. "Jake & the Fatman" is finally going off the air this fall. The newcomer "Raven" represents the sensitive Zen crime-stopper of the '90s, the man of steel with feet of clay and a soft underbelly that is usually turned toward the camera.

Three crime shows have recently emerged from the TV bog: "Raven" (Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on WBAL, Channel 11, moving to Saturdays in the fall); ABC's "The Commish" (WJZ, Channel 13, Saturdays at 10 p.m.) and CBS' "Bodies of Evidence" (Thursdays at 10 p.m.). All show signs of change.

"Commish" is a cornball portrait of a small-city police commissioner. The character, Tony Scalia (Michael Chiklis), is a rotund bundle of tics and giggles with no dark side (hence no sex appeal). He couldn't scare a 6-year-old in a fun house. But he always gets his criminal, by using his brain. Then his wife (Theresa Saldana) gets the best of him.

"Bodies of Evidence" features the dependable Lee Horsley as an embattled homicide chief. Unlike "Matt Houston," the hairy-chested crime-stopper who made Horsley famous, this hero has an inner life. Alone in a hotel room with an attractive female detective, he delivers a soliloquy in which he compares his failed marriage to a car with bad brakes. Moved, the female detective pounces. Horsley blinks with lust.

Handsome screen heroes have been blinking with lust since Cary Grant; being baffled by the weaker sex was how the stronger sex handicapped itself, a way to make the field level for the war between them. By the time women won the war, being baffled was second nature.

Jim Rockford and Thomas Magnum were baffled by everything. Steve Cannell, creator of 30 dramas, among them "The Rockford Files," "The Commish" and "The A-Team": "When I'd write a scene for Rockford, I'd just write what I'd do in the same situation. Say a guy pulled a gun on me. I'd say, 'Look, don't hurt me. Take the car.' "

This was crime-stopper vulnerability, and it was funny. Strictly human, and manly in comical ways, the heroes of "The Rockford Files" and "Magnum PI" were the transitional males between "Hawaii Five-O's" stone-faced Det. Steve McGarrett and today's heroes, who rush to share their psyches before you're ready to shake their hands.

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