Thursday, December 21, 2006


December 20, 2006
The Surefire TV Formula: Ape the Boss
All the top CBS dramas are alike.

They showcase an omniscient, workaholic and male boss on the dark side of 50 who is surrounded by young, eager-to-please acolytes.

The template is so unvarying that Bill Carter of The New York Times and other television writers subscribe to a man-in-the-Moonves theory of programming: Leslie Moonves, the 57-year-old chief executive of CBS, has an Ozymandian hold on his network that ensures that its top shows pay subliminal homage to his leadership.

But the generation-spanning formula behind CBS’s three iterations of “CSI” as well as “Shark,” “Without a Trace,” “Criminal Minds” and “NCIS” also casts a broad demographic net. That may contribute to its success: “Criminal Minds” and “NCIS” are among the top-rated series on television, and the popularity of “Criminal Minds” is growing so steadily that CBS decided to show it immediately after the Super Bowl on Feb. 4.

Still it is a little puzzling that in the era of HBO, Showtime and serialized dramas like “24,” “Lost” and “Heroes,” these by-the-numbers whodunits (and “Numb3rs” is another one of them, though the father figure played by Judd Hirsch is actually the father and not quite as godly) still have such strong — and apparently growing — appeal. They don’t receive many critical accolades or industry awards, but they rake in the ratings.

Networks, like serial killers, tend to develop patterns. At the moment ABC is the estrogen-pumping network, fixated on sex and swoony romance from “Desperate Housewives” to “Grey’s Anatomy” to “Men in Trees.”

But it turns out that blood, guts and sexual perversion also can be soothing and downright cozy.

CBS offers viewers gruesome murders and revolting autopsies that are softened by familiar, endearing protagonists who wrap up the mystery by episode’s end, without cliffhangers or unexpected twists. It’s “Silence of the Lambs” by way of “Murder, She Wrote.”

“Criminal Minds” and “NCIS” stand out as the two extremes of the template. “Criminal Minds,” in which Jason Gideon (Mandy Patinkin) and a team of elite F.B.I. profilers channel the psychoses of serial killers, is the most disturbing. “NCIS,” on the other hand, is almost disturbingly goofy.

Led by Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon), the crack members of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service confront terrorism, murder and espionage with a loosey-goosey insouciance. When a colleague is inexplicably late for work, the team’s lithe and lethal Mossad-trained agent Ziva David (Cote de Pablo), warns that it could mean trouble. “When I was framed by the Iranians for murder,” she says perkily, “I was late for many hours before anyone even noticed.”

Humor on the forensic trail is provided by kooky characters in lab coats. On “NCIS” Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette) is a wisecracking science geek in Goth clothing, while David McCallum plays a leering, know-it-all medical examiner, Dr. Donald (Ducky) Mallard.

Almost all CBS crime shows have at least one pet eccentric: “Criminal Minds” leavens the gravity with its own crazy lab lady, Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness), a computer wizard in oversized glasses and kooky earrings, and a cute, socially backward boy genius, Special Agent Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler).

On “NCIS” even the front-line investigators are laid-back and comical. Special Agent Tony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly) is a handsome, ex-homicide detective with the sensibility and speaking style of a frat boy on spring break. “You have the right to remain silent,” Tony says as he arrests a homicidal cheerleader. “You have the right to do splits. You have the right to wear a short skirt.”

Partly the show’s levity comes from one of its creators, Donald P. Bellisario, who also was responsible for “JAG.” Jerry Bruckheimer, who is the executive producer of “CSI” and “Without a Trace,” takes crime much more seriously. But Mr. Moonves, a former actor who played mostly villains on series like “Cannon” and made a cameo appearance as himself in an episode of “The Practice” on ABC, still exercises his expertise in selecting and developing series and also casting the leads. And the tone of each CBS drama seems to adapt to the stars chosen by Mr. Moonves.

Mr. Harmon is the older, wiser leader of “NCIS,” but he is still a boyishly handsome actor who is best when playing lighthearted heroes. Mr. Patinkin, whose résumé includes “Chicago Hope” and “Dead Like Me,” is more lugubrious, and “Criminal Minds” is accordingly grim and self-serious. (Team members agonize over the horrors they have seen, and they quote Milan Kundera.)

As angst-ridden Jack Malone, Anthony LaPaglia darkens the mood on “Without a Trace,” while on “Shark,” James Woods, playing Sebastian Stark, a defense attorney turned prosecutor, infuses his show with snappy sarcasm.

There are not many laughs on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” or its spinoffs, though there are some inadvertently funny moments on “CSI: Miami,” which stars David Caruso as the smug, sulfurous Horatio Caine. (A recent episode featured a female Islamic terrorist who appeared in court wearing a slinky, low-cut little black dress. Chador, schmador. )

None of these older bosses are bald. (“3 Lbs,” which starred a shiny-pated Stanley Tucci, was canceled after three shows.) CBS’s older men have luxuriant heads of hair and are single and married to their work, which allows young, beautiful women to fall in love with them without tainting the sexual tension with the stain of adultery.

Mr. Moonves recently married Julie Chen, an anchor of CBS’s “Early Show.” Several CBS dramas deal with the issue of nepotism, perhaps signaling concerns buried deep in the network’s unconscious.

On “Criminal Minds” Paget Brewster plays Emily Prentiss, the daughter of well-connected government officials who has to try harder to prove herself to her boss. She always does. On “NCIS” Ziva regularly demonstrates that her dedication and natural abilities, not her high-ranking relatives in Tel Aviv, won her the team’s trust. And on “Shark,” Sebastian is constantly hazing Casey Woodland (Sam Page), a rich, handsome assistant district attorney with friends and family in high places. Despite all his advantages, it turns out Casey has real flair in court.

CBS also has some crime dramas with women in the lead roles, notably “Cold Case” and “Close to Home,” but in those, the formula falls off: the heroines are wiser but invariably young and pretty and mostly blond. “Bones” is similar, but Fox left out the older male authority figure.

At CBS that kind of omission would be considered lèse-Moonves.


Anonymous said...

I think the concept of an older mentor is very appealing.

Anonymous said...

I liked this article. I think the theme and formula for tv dramas has changed. No longer are the young hunks the main draw.

Anonymous said...

great article. thanks.

Anonymous said...

The article is sarcastic but rings true.

Criminal Minds Fan said...

I agree with major parts of this article. I do agree with you that there is a touch of true sarcasm here but we love our show. :)

Anonymous said...

I agree with much of what this article says, but the tone is definitely snarky. He assumes that we have this mentor-in-charge because the writers are kissing up to the network exec. I don't think viewers much care who runs the studio; we just know what we like. Kissing up may get your show made, but it won't get you to the top of the ratings.

Maybe it's that what viewers want right now is reassurance, even fictional, that there are real, wise, caring, intelligent adults running the important parts of our world.

Or -- gasp! -- maybe we've grown tired of pretty, shallow boy actors (cough, Tom Cruise, cough) and want to see someone with some character and depth in our living room instead. (No, I'm not including MGG in that comment because a) he's good-looking, but not conventionally 'pretty' and b) the character he plays is not shallow.)

Anonymous said...

Lin, I agree that the premise of the article - writers are "subliminally" kissing up to the head of CBS (so many Freudian issues in that sentence. LOL) is silly. Maybe the "older male father figure" or whatever is currently saleable, but that format has been around for a very long time.

Pointing out how diff. CM is from NCIS, WaT, CSI, etc. just DISproves their point. The shows are very different, despite similarities in their structure. There's also a quality difference, which is the main thing that I, discerning viewer that I am, picked up on. There are plenty of criminal justice shows on TV. I'm not going to waste my time on any low-quality crap, no matter who's starring (sorry Mandy). CM is good stuff, it's different, and it has great characters, and that's why I watch.

Boy genius? There's a cute boy genius? Gee, I hadn't noticed....

Anonymous said...

The article is great, thanks for posting

Jemma #90

JJ said...

What an amazing article thanks for the post.
Jessica # 82

Anonymous said...

and this is exactly the kind of thing that keeps me from reading the New York Times. seriously, do they have nothing better to do with their time over there?

jacqui #99