Revisiting Cold Case (2003-2010) – Writing structure, common tropes / Thoughts & Review

Cold Case was the only police-crime drama series that I idealised, growing up. It was my window to a world of emotions that I wanted to experience but couldn’t. So I devoured each season through the years, and closed my eyes on the occasional flaws I noticed to maintain the image the show had in my mind.

What I idealised the most was the idea of humanity the show wanted to portray. Sometimes handled clumsily, the series tried to incarnate an ideal of compassion and understanding towards almost everyone, victims and perpetrators alike, which resonated a lot with me at the time.

One aspect of the series I specifically enjoyed: most cop shows of the time had that “we’re the holy branch of justice here to smite thee in the name of Our Government God Bless Our Justice System™” sort of vibe. Which I couldn’t find more infuriating: the idea that a group of human beings posed as superior to others because of a man-made establishment conferring itself authority over others, was beyond annoying, and the fact that the writing in these shows presented characters who adhered to this mindset, and presented it as a good and recommendable thing, was even more irritating. The cops there seemed mindless instead of just, brainwashed instead of compassionate.

Cold Case vacillated between both: sometimes, the detectives allowed their temper to take over in a few instances of police brutality, as long as it didn’t go too far, of course. But most often, they stayed in their lines and humbly carried out their work, with, usually, a modicum of humanity. Refreshing, compared to the mentality I described above.

Writing

Regarding the show’s writing, I’ve noticed a bunch of recurring patterns that the writers consistently used to shape and structure the storytelling. I don’t know really realize to what extent other crime shows or TV series use these tropes and so how common and to be expected they are or were.

Recurring patterns/tropes
  • Subverting the viewers’ expectations: Cold Case loves to do that, the writing relied on this trick across all seasons.

Social stereotypes used: presenting the under-privileged one, or the one from a different ethnicity (i.e a non-white character) as the obvious culprit.

Most common pattern: presenting the audience with the most obvious suspect, then flipping that on its head by making the doer the most innocent-looking one of the bunch. Often used with social stereotypes.

This is the model the series followed to subvert expectations:

  1. Introduction of suspect #1: The first hint, the most glaring, transparent suspect, they’re so stereotypical it’s hard not to automatically pin the murder on them. Lily and team
    • personality archetype: cheating husband, greedy ex, jilted lover, etc, someone with a visible grudge towards the victim (to fit the basic form of suspect recognition). Someone stereotypical, sometimes carrying a social stigma.
    • Lily and team flock to that suspect and question them first, usually with a bit of cop bravado and some aggressivity to demonstrate authority and cop-power (=emotional factor, characteristic of a crime show). It’s been 10 minutes into the episode, however, and suspect #1 points the team to someone whose intentions seem even shadier, suspect #2. -> We’ll be seeing that guy again however: suspect #1 will help weave the story, and sometime will point out at the final culprit.
  2. Story progression: the story progresses, more involved parties are interrogated. Emotional factor: to add tension, some suspects are brought over “downtown”. Some characters will also reveal more than others, and I remembered them in particular because they were tied to a revelation -> to an emotionally tense moment.
  3. Closing in on the actual suspect: the pool is narrowed down, and suspect #1 returns. It’s either him, or suspect #2. Suspect #1 hid key pieces (=plot point essential to story progression) of information to the team, and is now forced to reveal more as the list of suspects grows shorter (emotional factor: threatened with jail, forced into a revelation). If it’s suspect #2, they are also forced into a confession: Lily and team take turn intimidating either one or both of these suspects, mixing the good cop/bad cop trick occasionally mixed with a touch of discreetly tolerated police brutality (characteristic of a crime show, I could never understand why it was tolerated). Either way, both of these suspects point their finger towards…
  4. Resolution: suspect #3, the doer. It’s the inconspicuous character. Their veneer was smooth, their character was pristine, their social status irreproachable (no stereotype could be applied = expectations subverted). They were there all along, seemingly innocent, but evidence continued to point out inexorably at them. At the end, they either break down in tears or in anger and confesses to the murder, sometimes helped along by the show’s own emotional factor: Lily’s compassion.
    • other writing element: for convenience’s sake, suspect #3 will often accidentally betray themselves in a prior interrogation, and when new elements come to light in stage 3, the seemingly unimportant detail they shared reveals them.
  5. End: Suspect #3 is sent behind bars as a depressing song plays in the background (a constant opening track – a different track at the end of each episode to send it off).
  • Other patterns
    1. Sometimes, suspect #1 was the suspect all along.
    2. There is no culprit, as the death was an accident, or the doer is long dead. Both are rare.

The Main Cast

Cold Case | Jerry Bruckheimer Television – CBS Productions

Lily Rush as a character was trying to be rather revolutionary. She expresses more sensitivity than the average cop, and goes about her job from a personal place rather than being all business and Justice™. I did prefer that approach rather than the ones other cops, male or female, used in other crime shows. In earlier seasons and episodes, the show tried rather poorly to present her as this “strong, independent woman who don’t need no man”, as if there was a stereotype she needed to rise above. That part of her writing was unnecessary. The very idea that she had to be established as someone you can’t fit into a stereotype is what irks me, because it implies the stereotype for her to be put into exists. It created a bunch scenes where a male character tries to put her down, and she retaliates to prove super transparently to us that, she may be female, but you can’t apply your cliches on her. It’d have been easier to present Rush as just herself: a character looking for catharsis in the cases she solves. Fortunately, once the idea of “hey she’s a tough one EVEN if she’s female” had been established, the series quit trying to remind us we shouldn’t disrespect her for that reason.

One of the show’s flaws when it came to the team of detectives was the stagnancy. Not knowing when the show would stop airing or wanting to remain focused on the cases themselves, exploration of the detectives’ private lives never went very far. I was especially frustrated at Lily Rush’s personal life, because there’s no progression in her personal journey at all: through the course of the show, we see her go through three different relationships, yet none of them seem to change her or make her evolve as a person. She gets shot twice on the job, and yet through it all, she never moves to a happier or more fulfilled or even just slightly different place in life. The most she’s done was get a new haircut mid-series for a bit of a change. Seeing different moments of her past, meeting her sister, father, hearing of her mother, none of these elements progress her storyline forward. In season 1, she was a wounded loner who drowns her feelings in work. In season 6, she was a wounded loner who drowns her feelings in work. Her character did not progress, even if she had good premises.

It was also especially infuriating to see her go through so many upheavals, such as getting shot, or get into a car accident, without any follow-up on it. These intense scenes were reserved for season finales yet their consequences were barely explored in the next season’s premiere. It almost might as well not have happened for the insignificant impact it seemed to have on Lily.

Lily Rush experiences flashbacks in the elevator on her to work.
Lily has a flashback of being shot. That event will otherwise never be mentioned again. | Cold Case – Jerry Bruckheimer Television – CBS Productions

Her relationships also frustrated me. Romantic relationships push you from point A to point B, they cause drastic expansion in your life, and in the case of someone wounded like Lily, they make you confront your issues. Yet these partners come and go and her character is written the same way before, (kind of) during, and after. She shared more of her past at gunpoint in season’s 3 finale than she did in any of the short, sporadic conversations she’s had with any partner she dated. Those conversations are kept thin to keep the romantic tension up and not fill the atmosphere with too many words (after all, words are very unnecessary), but at some point there’s simply… nothing happening, even if she’s shown to be compatible with her partners. That, to me, is just plain bad writing, unless there are people out there who genuinely communicate that little with their partner – which would explain why she ultimately broke up with all of them.

It’d have made for a more fluid result if, through the seasons, Lily had evolved and changed as a character. The same goes for the rest of the team.

Episode recommendation:

These are episodes I strongly idolized or resonated with in my angst-filled teenage years.

Season 1, Episode 22 | The Plan

My goodness, I certainly used to be one angsty teen when I watched that one.

Season 3, Episode 2 | The Promise

What is life without frat boys? A calm life.

Season 3, Episode 12 | Detention

What would be life without teenage drama?
Season 3, Episode 14 | Dog Day Afternoons
God, that one just about broke my heart
Season 4, Episode 20 | Stand Up and Holler
What is life without frat girls? A peaceful one.

Season 5, Episode 8 | It Takes a Village

Each of these episodes were the epitome of an angst-fest, in my eyes, and I adored every single one of them for the subjects and emotions they fearlessly explored. I’m getting all emotional just thinking about it. I recommend all of them strongly if you’re interested in prejudices and abuse being exposed.

Fun fact: I got so used to this show, I could tell which episode is which by the sight of the victim’s corpse showed in the introduction. That was when I still watched the show on TV, and I would arrive mid-introduction and missed some of the beginning.

So this is about it on my exploration of Cold Case, I watched this show so many times I feel like I’ve gotten the most out of it and absorbed every bit of wisdom I could have from it. Fortunately for me, the times where I enjoyed this show and the reasons for which I enjoyed it are far behind me.

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