Shooting for ratings, cop shows persist


By my count, there are 22 scripted crime or detective dramas on network television, and another nine on cable TV. There are more to come - TNT is readying two new cop shows, one of which makes its debut in June. This fall, no doubt, we'll see a dozen or more new crime dramas on the network TV schedule; pilots are being readied with stars ranging from Martin Landau to Donnie Wahlberg to Kristin Davis.

Add to that glut the dozens of unscripted cop programs and criminal-justice documentaries all over the dial, and it's clear we've got a crime-fighting epidemic on our hands.

Please, officer, lay off!

Why is TV so infested with cops, crime-scene types, undercover agents and detectives?

Because these shows are a scriptwriter's dream. You take your good guys, your bad guys, put the bad-guy-doing-bad-things plot in motion, have the good guys catch the bad guys, and then, bada-bing, you're done! And just look at the Nielsen top 20 - that formula sure can be successful.

Sure, the most imaginative and thoughtful variations on the standard cop-show themes can be incredibly entertaining, but it's getting hard to tell all the police and detective shows apart. Even TV producers have realized this and are trying to tweak the standard CSI and Law & Order formulas; new shows feature blind detectives and cops who wield calculators. What's next, ballerina detectives? Psychic spies?

Cop shows should take a page from the best mystery novels, which are studies in the darker reaches of the human heart, not just formulaic lock-'em-up-while-uttering-a-few-wisecracks fare.

Better yet, TV executives should realize that there are other human endeavors that are worth examining on the tube. Taxi was a classic TV show about the lives of cabdrivers. M*A*S*H and China Beach told great stories about war. Buffy and Angel proved supernatural drama could be anything but formulaic.

Current shows such as Everwood and Gilmore Girls are examples of how great (and quietly successful) TV shows about small-town life can be. And if it's mega-hits executives want, well, ABC created a smash out of a show about suburban moms.

Surely, that proves there's dramatic potential in just about anything.

Still a quick survey of the spring TV pilot season shows that cops and their compatriots should show up in full force this fall. Among the pilots in development now:

Orlando Jones and Martin Landau sort clues on ABC's The Evidence; David Boreanaz plays a forensic anthropologist on Fox's Bones; while Diedrich Bader is featured in a proposed Fox comedy set at a police station.

Three other cop shows in the works at Fox include Deviant Behavior, involving serial killers; Hollywood Vice; and Murder Book, starring Josh Brolin.

It's back to '70s-style police action in an untitled NBC drama with Donnie Wahlberg, Bobby Cannavale and Tony Lo Bianco.

Jennifer Finnigan is a prosecutor and new mother on CBS's American Crime; suburbanites play private eye on ABC's Soccer Moms, starring Kristin Davis.

With that, here's one woman's list of the five best and five worst cop dramas now on TV:

Five Best

The Shield (FX): Meaty character drama and twisted plots - not to mention great acting - set this show apart.

Waking the Dead (BBC America): A fiercely intelligent and complicated Brit version of Cold Case.

Without a Trace (CBS): Two words: Anthony LaPaglia. He makes this missing-person drama riveting.

24 (Fox): In four seasons, we haven't yet missed an episode, because for every dippy cougar incident, there are 10 terrific plot twists.

The Wire (HBO): Like a richly textured cop novel put on film.

Five Worst

CSI: Miami (CBS): Maybe David Caruso's bizarre speaking style wouldn't be so annoying if the rest of the show had any originality.

Law & Order: Criminal Intent (NBC): Maybe Vincent D'Onofrio's bizarre speaking style wouldn't be so annoying if the rest of the show had any originality.

Sue Thomas: F.B. Eye (Pax): Squeaky clean and deadeningly predictable.

Kojak (USA): This remake proves that you can't always improve on the original - in fact, you're more likely to mess it up.

Blind Justice (ABC): At least they tried for something slightly different - a blind detective. Too bad the rest of the show is a by-the-book chunk o' cliches.

The Hartford Courant contributed to this article. The Courant and the Chicago Tribune are Tribune Publishing newspapers.

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