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Tuned In: 'Cold Case' follows trail of crime hits

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

HOLLYWOOD -- The television clone factory is thriving. When it's not popping out reality shows, there are plenty of procedural dramas that roll off the assembly line.

NBC's "Law & Order" has existed for years, flying under the radar. It was the success of CBS's "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" that revved into high gear the production of closed-ended dramas. Not only do these shows fare well in the ratings on the initial broadcast, but their reruns do much better than repeats of serialized shows. That's why "The West Wing" reruns aren't on NBC this summer.

Action movie maker Jerry Bruckheimer ("Bad Boys II," "Pirates of the Caribbean") executive produced the stylized "CSI," and that show's success led to its spin-off, "CSI: Miami," and Bruckheimer's "Without a Trace," which also has its own unique visual style.

For Sundays at 8 p.m. on CBS this fall, Bruckheimer cribs from his past shows for the look of "Cold Case," which tells the story of long-dormant cases in the Philadelphia police homicide division.

"It's very cinematic," said executive producer Jonathan Littman. "The theory has always been in our company that people watch television with their thumbs and they click very quickly around the dial. You have to capture them with a look that's really distinctive. And then get them to stay with the story. We've really tried to work within those boundaries."

"Cold Case" stars Kathryn Morris as Det. Lilly Rush. That alone makes this series stand out from its procedural predecessors, according to CBS chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves.

"It's less of a team and more of a female lead piece, which is different," Moonves said. "And the public is still responding to [procedural shows]. When you look at the end of the week and you see among the Top 10 shows three 'Law & Orders' and two 'CSIs,' there's obviously an appetite for these shows."

Meredith Stiehm wrote for testosterone-heavy "NYPD Blue" for four years before writing the "Cold Case" pilot.

"One of the things I focused on in creating this was a female detective that was our lead and not just the partner of a male detective, which there's a lot of," Stiehm said. "It's just something that's been overlooked."

Although it's unlikely to stray too far from the Bruckheimer formula, Stiehm said she expects the series to hew closer to "Blue" than to "Law & Order."

"The emphasis is the work. We may get little windows into her life, but especially in the beginning it's really about the cases she's working," she said. "It's dangerous when you do too much character stuff too quickly because you start running out of stories and your credibility starts faltering when you give someone four tragedies in a season. But character is one of the main elements of drama, so I don't want to do a show that doesn't have any character."

Stiehm said the soapier elements of drama series rise in frequency as a show ages and writers run out of ideas.

"Often the crutch you use is, let's have them have an affair or let's have her get pregnant. That happens on a lot of shows just because of time. I'd like to avoid it. It may be inevitable. But I always think it's sort of a bad turn when that happens."

Investigating 'CSI'

Executive producers of the hit drama "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" said the hearing crisis Grissom (William Petersen) faced last season will be resolved in the first episode.

"It will play a subtext, but it won't be a major story line next year," explained series creator Anthony Zuiker. Executive producer Carol Mendelsohn said the story was suggested after the show's technical adviser mentioned her need to use all five senses at a crime scene. Giving Grissom a hearing problem was an attempt to explore the character's personality.

"It really goes to who a CSI is and what they have to do when they walk into a crime scene," Mendelsohn said.

More subtext in the new season: The show will further explore the relationship between Grissom and Sarah (Jorja Fox) that's been hinted at in the past.

"I think as Grissom re-engages into the world this year as a character, we have to sort of play it by ear," Zuiker said. "We're not a melodrama."

Mendelsohn said the show's mantra for the upcoming season is "assume nothing," which is also the title for the Sept. 25 season premiere.

"All I can say is, no one should leave their La-Z-Boy during the last five minutes of that episode," she teased.

End of 'Raymond'?

"Friends" won't be there for us after May 2004, "Frasier" will stop listening and "Sex and the City" will soon go celibate. Now there is another show that may be added to the list of long-running series saying goodbye.

"Everybody Loves Raymond" star Ray Romano and executive producer Phil Rosenthal are signed only through the upcoming 2003-04 season, and they've made rumblings that this might be it.

"Obviously, we hope this is not the final year of the show," said CBS chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves. "The rest of the cast is dying to come back."

Moonves acknowledged that this could be the end of "Raymond," but he refused "to do the same as certain shows and try to fake you out a couple years in a row before we finally call it the end. We're working on them. We're doing everything we can."

Should CBS and Romano not come to terms, Moonves said, the network is looking at "different permutations" that could include a spin-off.

"We have an unbelievable supporting cast. It's a wealth of riches, and they all want to stay there," he said. "It's going to be my job to work on Phil and Ray for the next six months, and I may not be successful."

Moonves hopes money talks.

"I would think money should have an effect when you look at those kinds of numbers. It's very hard to walk away from that," he said before joking, "We're working on Ray's wife and kids as well."

Spies like them

A&E premieres "MI-5," a British import, tonight at 9. Currently in its second season in England, the show's first season, plus two second-season episodes, will air on A&E.

The program depicts the spy work of a British homeland security agency, and, unlike so many shows that walk a safe line, "MI-5" offers enough surprises that there are no guarantees that series regulars will survive from episode to episode.

"This is a fast-moving, kinetic show," said David Wolstencroft, series creator. The death of a character early on was an intentional attempt to dispel expectations. "The jobs these people really do are full of dread and danger and mortal fear, and we wanted to dramatize the real sense of visceral fear these people would go through. By ending someone's life in a spectacular way, I think we made the point that anything can happen in the show from now on."

"MI-5" also attempts to humanize the genre, somewhere between James Bond fantasy and John LeCarre grubbiness.

"All of us wanted to humanize these people in these positions of extreme stress who are literally lying for a living, and seeing how that would impact on their psyches in the long term, as well as telling thrilling, narratively satisfying stories over an hour," Wolstencroft said. "Espionage seemed to be a slightly dusty genre, and we wanted just to really reinvigorate it and make it feel as real as possible."

That includes using jargon that will be unfamiliar to American viewers.

"I don't think a lot of people in England understand it either," said series star Keeley Hawes. "A lot of it is quite dense because it's so technical a lot of the time."

"It's one of those 'chem 7' moments in 'ER,'" Wolstencroft added, comparing the technical terminology in "MI-5" to that in the hit medical drama.

Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association summer press tour. You can reach him at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com .

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