Those plucky detectives on ABC's Women's Murder Club sure do use some innovative crime-solving techniques.
Lifting a sheet in the autopsy room, medical examiner Claire Washburn (Paula Newsome) directs her gaze to a certain part of the female corpse's anatomy. "That's not your mama's bikini wax," she says.
From this observation, the heroines deduce that the victim was keeping up appearances for the special man in her life. Might he have killed her?
Cue the threatening music.
It doesn't matter whether such a scene seems plausible or even whether it's meant to be taken seriously. The real significance of the bikini-wax clue is that it sums up the presumed appeal of the entire show. In the no-sure-thing world of television drama, WMC follows what looks like a perfect formula. Premise: A quartet of attractive career women bypass the pillars of their male-oriented profession and solve grisly slayings on their own.
Here's the math: Women, who make up the majority of the networks' prime-time audience, can identify with all the female bonding over things like bikini waxes and jerk boyfriends. And guys who watch will get to wallow in plenty of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation-style forensics, while savoring the not inconsiderable charms of Angie Harmon, who plays eminently likable workaholic Detective Lindsay Boxer, and her co-stars.
Who wants to bet against that?
Not ABC, which liked the WMC concept so much it made a preemptive bid, ensuring that no other network would even get a whack at the pitch.
"Everyone has the hope it will be the next CSI," ABC Executive Vice President Jeff Bader said last week, clearly swinging for the fences.
Executive producer Sarah Fain, who formerly worked on FX's gritty cop drama The Shield, said, "We call the show a 'characteral' - not strictly a procedural, not strictly a character show."
The female detectives on WMC are trying to have it all - career and a personal life, too. But will modern audiences find their balancing act a touching reflection of career women's plight today? Or will a group of crime-solvers who fret over guy troubles at the scene of a horrific murder just seem like pop culture's latest setback for feminism?
WMC is set to land Friday, in the midst of a fall season that has so far failed to bowl over many viewers. The one breakthrough is Private Practice, a spinoff of the popular soap Grey's Anatomy. Most other new shows seem to be earning shrugs or thumbs-downs from the audience. In its second week, NBC's Bionic Woman - another attempt to dramatize today's post-feminism themes - lost nearly one-third of its young-adult audience compared with the premiere.
"The networks are paying a lot of money toward launching and advertising these big-ticket" shows, said Dana Walden, chairman of 20th Century Fox Television, which produces Women's Murder Club as well as NBC's Journeyman, a struggling new drama. "It's frustrating the audience is not responding in as excited a way as we'd hoped."
The WMC producers are counting on a built-in audience because the show is based on a series of bestselling books by James Patterson. And even viewers who never visit a bookstore, the thinking goes, will be captivated by the notion of a crime procedural with female leads.
The idea isn't exactly new, of course. Yes, there was Aaron Spelling's Charlie's Angels, nominally a crime show but really a breezy excuse to have Farrah Fawcett and Jaclyn Smith dash around in swimsuits and other skimpy attire. A better example is Cagney & Lacey, which 25 years ago advanced the notion that a pair of smart, career-minded female detectives could run circles around a geezer like Barnaby Jones.
Cagney was provocative enough to launch a debate about gender roles and femininity. After some viewers objected to what they saw as the show's lesbian undercurrents, CBS ordered the producers to ditch co-star Meg Foster, who'd been criticized as too "masculine." (She was replaced by Sharon Gless.) When CBS later canceled the program due to low ratings, the National Organization of Women was among the groups that demanded its return.
It's hard to imagine WMC igniting similar controversies, partly because it seems designed more as calculatedly high-concept fare than as groundbreaking drama. Cagney explored tough topics like alcoholism and marital woes. At WMC, the women are single and committed to topics such as the appropriate amount of time to wait before calling a guy back. It's a lot closer to Sex and the City than The Naked City.
WMC's 9 p.m. Friday time slot is not considered the sexiest of prime-time berths. But that could work to the show's advantage.
There's not much competition. Rivals include NBC's widely praised but little-watched Friday Night Lights.
"The smartest thing they did was put it on Friday nights," John Rash, senior vice president at ad firm Campbell Mithun, said of WMC. "It's the land of low TV expectations."
And that's precisely what ABC is praying for, of course: that the show will defy those low expectations and emerge as a surprise hit. Bader said that if the show proves successful, the network has every intention of moving it to a more heavily trafficked spot.
One possibility: 10 p.m. Thursdays, where Big Shots, the soap about rich guys behaving badly, is fizzling after Grey's Anatomy.
You can bet your next bikini wax, in fact, that if WMC has any model in its bid for prime-time hitdom, it's that other crime show that started on Fridays seven years ago this month.
That show, of course, was CSI.
Scott Collins writes for the Los Angeles Times.