So, I’m not a big fan of the television medium, but with a child in the business, I do watch more than my fair share. My regular shows generally include great writing, but I can be drawn into a brilliantly acted piece of work, as well (hello, Leverage!). It’s amazing what passes for “quality programming” and the writers can be all over the place with regards to clever dialogue v. a powerful narrative. Some of the writing, however, will be the show’s downfall. Whatever you may say about good acting, no actor can rise above a bad script.
For a positive example, take one show that I started watching when it launched last year: Blue Bloods. I absolutely love this show! From its intelligent portrayal of Catholicism (no need to shove it down our throats; I believe the Reagans are a family that comes together as much due to their religion as their long-standing history wearing blue) to the dynamic between the leads and their partners, I buy every minute of this show. Yeah, Tom Selleck is a bit too good to be true, but I’m fine with an uncorruptable hero, particularly when he’s so cleverly off-set by Donny Wahlberg’s character (you just know that Frank was a lot more Danny in his youth than the great Len Cariou – playing Selleck’s father – lets slip over those Sunday dinners and late-night runs to the fridge). Even the crimes are intriguing without being over-the-top. I give credit to the directors, too, for knowing how to make the most of the NYC location where they shoot Blue Bloods.
Now, let’s look at a new show from this season’s offerings: Prime Suspect. Since I never watched Helen Mirran in the original, I don’t have to follow the common line of complaint that the American import is vastly inferior to the British procedural on which it was based. I’ve no doubt that it is. However, what really bothers me is the writing on this program. It is so utterly preposterous that I haven’t been able to get more than two of these episodes out of my DVR queue. Let’s start with the horribly dated notion that women don’t belong in the detective squad. While that might have flown in the original (again, I didn’t watch it but I’m giving the writers the benefit of the doubt that they are borrowing this theme rather than concocting it for no reason whatsoever in 2011), it’s insanely ludicrous today. Aidan Quinn (a fine actor in his own right) would have been demoted a decade ago for allowing such blatant sexual harrassment to take place under his watch. Which leads to the main dick (and I use that word in all of its connotations) who runs up the all-men-save-Jane detectives: This guy is incompetant, a blow-hard, stupid, sexist and has no dimensional representation as currently written in the series.
Consider the great “bad” detectives of a couple other well-written shows. Steven Bochco is the king of bad detectives doing good. He had so many characters along various paths of alcoholism that interfered with their relationships and sometimes caused problems at work. However, these guys (culminating in the bravura performance of Dennis Franz playing Andy Sipowicz) were more than just dudes battling a bottle: They were great detectives. Even Andy’s brutality got the job done, and he always was the ideal “bad cop” to whatever good cop actor was paired along side him. On the comedy end of things, there was Randy Disher from Monk, who was not a bright bulb in anyone’s Christmas Tree but – as he pointed out with justifyable indignation in the Barry Bonds episode – was a good cop. He knew his stuff despite not being as smart as the other detectives around him. He may not have been San Francisco Chief of Police material, but you believe it when the series closes (slight spoiler alert) and he’s made CoP of Summit, NJ. He wasn’t gonna play the big time, but the writers made sure that the character wasn’t a caricature.
Finally, there is the whole nonsense of the location on Prime Suspect. Maria Bello (the lead in PS) took the role on the condition that it would shoot in her hometown of Los Angeles. I’m fine with that in general; I respect anyone who wants to remain closer to their kids. Many other shows have shot exteriors in NYC only to film in L.A. However, the NYC of Prime Suspect simply does not exist. What’s with all the spacious apartments? On cops’ salaries? What’s with Aidan Quinn being accosted by 100 reporters just because an Amber Alert went out (ummm, writers, do your homework… those things go out as text messages on Notify NYC for goodness’ sake!)? What’s with cops always chasing down perps with no back-up? I mean, this doesn’t just fly in the face of NYC reality, it flies in the face of the vast body of good police procedural writing upon which every viewer has a knowledge base. In other words, it’s just not believable. Any of it.
Which is too bad, because I like good scripted television, and many shows don’t get the prime placement of a Prime Suspect (you want good writing/acting/direction with an unbelievable premise, check out Friday night’s A Gifted Man where you see the best neurosurgeon on the planet living in a much smaller apartment; and I buy Jennifer Ehle’s ghost way more than I believe in Jane Timoney). It’s a waste of an hour when writing this bad gets a green light and makes it that much harder for well written shows to gain traction and get picked up for the season.