Solving a Murder in 42 Minutes Each Week

Media Reviews for Media People: CBS Procedural Dramas

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It's been a week of high culture here at Chez Uncle Larry. I looked up some Tom Petty song lyrics online. I read a magazine story about a baseball player. I even solved the TV Guide crossword puzzle, scuffling my way through clues like "NBC hospital drama 'E._.'"

'The Mentalist,' the lone breakout hit of the 2008-2009 season, stars Simon Baker and his dimple as, respectively, an observant, police-y guy and a dimple.
'The Mentalist,' the lone breakout hit of the 2008-2009 season, stars Simon Baker and his dimple as, respectively, an observant, police-y guy and a dimple. Credit: CBS
Needing a respite from this heavy intellectual lifting, I decided to go to the one place where I knew I wouldn't be challenged. To the most welcoming place for individuals who can't abide realism and continuity in their dramatic fare, the place where those who appreciate intricate, nuanced plotting are treated like lepers with a persistent sniffle. I went to CBS.

Specifically, I checked out a handful of the hourlong procedural dramas that have vaulted the network ahead of the competition. "Numb3rs," "Cold Case," "Criminal Minds," "Ghost Whisperer," every "CSI"-stamped knockoff -- CBS is to self-contained crime piffle as Lifetime is to vagina monologues. If you like shows where people get killed and where the people whose job it is to find the people who killed the people who got killed talk with other people about the people who got killed, plus forensics, CBS is your salve and your salvation.

The shows follow an identical creative blueprint, sharing the same dramatic rhythm and 90-seconds-tops-per-scene pacing. The same low-register synthesizers pulse like a heartbeat whenever an evildoer is shown in the act of evildoing. Somebody is inevitably offed in the opening moments. If CBS ran an episode of "Criminal Minds" after the "Numb3rs" credits, nobody would notice.

On the plus side, these shows sure make me want to trade in my thesaurus for a government-issued, shiny-sleek pantsuit. Sure, you can't work in the field unless you've sustained some kind of life-changing trauma in the recent past, usually the unsolved fetishistic mystery death of a loved one at the hands of a serial killer. Otherwise, the gig looks fab-u.

Everybody in your professional circle is great-looking, even the perps; on CBS, overweight, minority bureaucrats do not exist. The offices are bright, airy and teeming with widescreen monitors; "The Wire" was way off target, as usual, with its depiction of subterranean cubicle caverns. The saucy repartee between your colleagues may well be poached from the Bogart/Bacall canon ("I had a good weekend." / "Oh, 'Golden Girls' marathon?").

With the exception of the "CSI" mothership, "The Mentalist" boasts the most buzz of any of the CBS dramas. The lone breakout hit of the 2008-2009 season stars Simon Baker and his dimple as, respectively, an observant, police-y guy and a dimple. Alongside his by-the-book partner -- who tolerates his unconventional methodology because he notices details that other detectives miss, like flop sweat -- he solves murders in precisely 42 minutes. Then he smiles that super-dimply smile and, ostensibly, gets his amber waves of hair re-coiffed.

Forget that the clever-dude-with-a-scammy-psychic-past-who-solves-crimes-just-by-paying-close-attention bit was lifted from USA's "Psych." The obviousness of the whodunit plots make me want to scream at the screen: JESUS HOW CAN YOU NOT KNOW THAT IT'S THE SUAVE SOCIETY DUDE WITH WELL-MANICURED STUBBLE AND AN ARROGANT SMIRK ON HIS FACE? IT HAS TO BE HIM BECAUSE IT'S ALWAYS HIM. I'm no cultural snob -- I favor pursuits that involve swinging, punting and cross-checking -- but it pains me that many, many people watch "The Mentalist" and actually think, "Boy, them's was a nifty bit o' misdirection!"

I'd segue into my discussion of the long-running "NCIS" by comparing it to the "The Mentalist," but I can't tell the difference between the two shows. One of the male protagonists may be slightly dreamier than the other, but really, who am I to quantify dreaminess?

In recent months, "NCIS" has been accorded the respect that comes with having been around for a while and sustained a certain level of popularity. While I congratulate the producers on their survival skills, the show remains as simple-minded and rage-inducingly punny in season six as it was in season one.

It's as if somebody decided that the best way to attract more viewers was to pelt them with quirk. Thus, we're treated to the aggressively quirky forensic-lab chick (we know she's quirky because she wears her hair in pigtails) and the slightly less quirky British investigator dude (we know he's quirky because he wears a bow tie and corrects his colleagues' grammar). Chuck in a wealth of nods to "Weird Science" and Angelina Jolie, and you've got a show that's as exasperating as it is trite.

By the way, an "NCIS" soundtrack was released earlier this month and sold thousands of copies. Bob Dylan is on it. Insert your own joke here, because I'm fresh out.

In conclusion, I want to punch every CBS procedural crime drama in the throat. No, not everybody wants to come home from the office and cue up "Masterpiece Theatre Presents Zbigniew Brzezinski and the Camp David Accords: A Symphony in Four Movements," but it still amazes me how far the bar has been lowered for mainstream prime-time entertainment. "NCIS" and "The Mentalist" each draw an audience of 16 million to 18 million viewers per week. This is clearly what people want to see. I give up.

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