Sunday, December 5, 2021
Dec. 5, 2021

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Cops can do no wrong in CBS procedurals

Predictability a feature of network’s ongoing franchises

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You may have not noticed but the fall television season has arrived, that time of the year the broadcast networks still make a production out of rolling out the new makes and models. CBS, which likes its new season to look a lot like its last, has added programs to its three ongoing lines of what I think of as Acronym Procedurals: “NCIS: Hawai’i,” which premiered Sept. 20; “FBI International” which bowed the following day; and “CSI: Vegas,” which is more or less a relaunch of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” the first of that brood (also including “CSI: NY,” “CSI: Miami” and “CSI: Cyber”) and debuted Wednesday.

The new shows offer some novel twists while coloring within the lines of the franchise. “NCIS: Hawai’i,” which announces its intention to be culturally proactive with an apostrophe, makes much use of the tropical beauty and local customs of the 50th state — already being exploited by the network’s reboots of “Magnum P.I.” and “Hawaii Five-0” — with a complement of “mahalos” and shaka signs, soju and lemongrass to keep things mellow between the chase scenes and firefights. And in Vanessa Lachey it has the first “NCIS” team leader who isn’t a white dude. In “FBI International,” the scenery is European — Hungary, that bastion of creeping autocracy, is where our heroes camp, but they’re a rapid response team that goes wherever they’re needed when Americans or “American interests” are involved. (There is a dog in it, who functions as a team member as well as a pet, which I think is new for any of these shows.)

And “CSI: Vegas,” though erected on old ground, does provide a fresh cast for returning players Jorja Fox, William Petersen, Paul Guilfoyle and Wallace Langham to join — under the command of another woman of color, Paula Newsome — in its upgraded laboratory full of cutting-edge gizmos that end in “oscope” or “ograph.” (Cops haven’t really struggled with budgets since, like, “Kojak.” Even the cotton swab budget on “CSI” must be substantial.)

Crossover episodes

Besides the basic business plan of taking something that has worked in the past and doing it again and again — the very definition of CBS, some would say, but certainly not unique to that network — franchising adds a sort of third dimension. It allows for crossover episodes, which brings these fictional worlds a hair closer to our own, breaking not the fourth wall, as it were, but the third: the one with a door in it, through which characters can travel into an entirely different show. Most of these series come into the world through “backdoor pilots,” where an episode of an established series introduces a coming spinoff; indeed, the opening episode of “FBI: International” concludes a sort of triple play that began on “FBI,” and ran through “FBI: Most Wanted.”

Each franchise does have its own character. Produced by Dick Wolf, better known for his “Law & Order” and “Chicago” series on NBC, the “FBI” shows split the difference between “L&O” naturalism, headline-ripping and Dickensian social drama and the action-oriented antics of the other brands; at times, especially when Zeeko Zaki and Missy Peregrym are onscreen in “FBI,” it can feel only a chunk-chunk away from Jerry Orbach and Jesse L. Martin out gathering facts. (As if to prove a point, the original “Law & Order” is reported to be returning for a 21st season, a dozen or so years after it was canceled.) The characters in this franchise are perhaps the most self-tortured, or perhaps just more convincing at it.

The “CSI” series likes visual gimmicks, arty framing and pans and dissolves, returning features to a desiccated corpse, or bringing a crime scene retrospectively to life. It’s the ickiest of these franchises, the most liable to show you a body opened up mid-autopsy — the sort of thing once restricted to second features on drive-in double bills. The “NCIS” series, meanwhile, tend to be stylistically neutral, which is to say they look like television shows, made on a budget, with an emphasis on adventure and team dynamics; it is also the jokiest of the brands.

These procedurals are the meat to the potatoes provided by CBS multicamera sitcoms. (You can measure just how conservative the network is, or its image is, by the fact that whenever someone over there mounts a single-camera comedy it feels crazily radical.) They are essentially critic-proof — critics rarely cover them anyway — and so successful that even a stack of bad reviews can do them no harm. They do what they’re made to do; criticizing them would be like criticizing a stepladder for its color. Does it hold your weight? Good.

These shows play to our desire to believe in, or confirm our belief in, law enforcement as capable, reliable, idealistic, free from corruption and outside of politics or prejudice. Where bad apples threaten to ruin the barrel they are typically cored and turned to applesauce by hour’s end, unless it’s a two-part story or a seasonal arc. (The real-world news appears to be split between stories about local, state and federal officers doing their jobs, sometimes in the face of pressure, or not doing their jobs, sometimes because of outside pressure, from without or within the department.)

Indeed, their predictability is a feature not a bug; these are shows for people who don’t like surprises, other than the usual jumping-from-behind-the-door and it-was-that-guy-all-along. At bottom, they are all about reassurance and victory over evil; the three-series storyline that launched “FBI: International” was a riff on Jeffrey Epstein as easy to read as the top line of an eye chart, with the signal difference that here the cops also got the goods on the “politicians, businessmen [and] dot-com millionaires” that filled out his, or his stand-in’s, circle of sex trafficking and pedophilia. You go get ‘em, fictional wish fulfillers.

Diversity

Diversity is on every producer’s mind nowadays, for reasons considered or craven, but these sorts of shows also want to deliver a vision of an ideal America — like the multiethnic squad in an old World War II movie, but with people of color and women added. As a sort of corollary, the local constabularies in “FBI: International” are always mucking things up with their claims of jurisdiction, their incompetence or corruption, instead of just letting the Americans get on with doing their own thing in Budapest or Zagreb or wherever. (Asked by Europol liaison Christiane Paul whether his team is being accompanied on a raid by the local police, clench-jawed leader Luke Kleintank replies, “No, but they’re in our thoughts.”) Arguments over jurisdiction are common to procedural stories, of course, but it’s a bit of a fault nonetheless.

All find room for domestic drama, and the workplace drama that spills over into domestic drama, and is its own sort of domestic drama in any case. As with any television show with an ensemble cast that lasts a while, viewers become part of the team themselves, invested in its dynamics if not able to participate in them. (Like a ghost!) Fans come to cherish certain relationships and rhythms between the actors — Petersen and Marge Helgenberg sharing a pair of reading glasses back and forth as they walked through a casino reading a file on the original “CSI” is one of the sweetest things I’ve seen on television. But the format is superior to the characters, who tend to represent a relatively few well defined types: the cool-headed pro, the ambitious newcomer, the eccentric pathologist, the quirky but often kind of cute tech genius. (Nobody is less than great at their job, and evidence is developed with lightning speed.) For variation you could just grab extra adjectives out of a hat, or assign them Mad Libs-style: stubborn, troubled, high-spirited, laid-back, really whatever comes to mind.

And really, there’s no reason these brands should ever run dry.

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