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The Case for Cold Case

CBS’s haunting hit is TV’s best cop show, with a grandeur and grace that approach the operatic.

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Although philadelphia homicide detective Lilly Rush sees ghosts, she doesn’t talk to them. This is because Rush—played to a frazzled perfection by Kathryn Morris, as if Edith Piaf were called upon to sing a song every Sunday night in one of Ross MacDonald’s psychoanalytic mystery novels—knows she is only imagining things. It would be swell if the souls of the sinned-against, having at last got justice and thus an exit visa out of purgatory, wanted to wave goodbye to the cop who cared so much about their unsolved case. But what the skeptical Rush really visualizes at the conclusion of each episode is one of the victim’s loving memories—the opposite of Rush’s own demons.

And boy, does she have demons. We have glimpsed them in fitful shadows for two seasons now (absent father, alcoholic mother, addicted sister, child abuse, foster care, twelve-step programs) to explain her solitude, underline her implacability, and establish her street cred as a Freudian (family secrets) and a cynic (everybody lies, no one can be trusted). So, besides seeing double—with the victim’s past impersonated by one set of young characters and the present embodied in another batch of coarsened look-alikes—Rush is also seeing parallels and antecedents in her own closet. No wonder her torn blonde hair needs another pin or two, her lipstick often bleeds, her eyes are wet with furious motes, and the steel ribbon of her composure, under too many pounds of stress per square inch, seems always on the verge of snap.

Cold Case is not only operatic, with a different bloody libretto and a different leitmotif each week, but has ambitions on the grander scale of Gesamtkunstwerk, of total Wagnerian theater—including a jukebox time machine. So while investigating past crimes, Lily will have to listen to the Doors and Jethro Tull, or Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, or Bruce Springsteen and Hootie and the Blowfish, or Elvis Costello and the Ramones. It could drive a girl to drink, except that Rush can’t. Renunciation is as much a subtext to this series as is revenge. And this season, as if all those Philadelphia dead crying out for satisfaction weren’t enough, we are promised we will meet Lilly’s mom.

We are also promised that her detective partner (Danny Pino) will find out if his bipolar ex-fiancée drowned herself or was killed. And that an episode will be built around the first Halloween horror movie, with Jamie Lee Curtis invited to participate, just as Barry Bostwick played a serial killer in last spring’s homage to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Already there’s a new woman in the station house (Sarah Joy Brown), transferred after a sex scandal in a different precinct. So far she mis-fits, but so did Rush for an hour back in the fall of 2003.

But then Cold Case decided to be different. Rush cares about the unsolved cases in the archives/library/morgue, and now so does the strong ensemble around her: her lieutenant (John Finn) and her colleagues (Thom Barry and Jeremy Ratchford). Instead of veteran resentment and sexist sniping, we suddenly saw teamwork, camaraderie, and a committee intelligence unique among crime shows.

Moreover, the crimes they solve are historical almost as often as they are personal. In Cold Case, as in Faulkner, the past isn’t over; it keeps on happening. In 1939, a black woman dies because the milkman wants her. In 1953, a teacher’s Red-baiting coincides with the execution of the Rosenbergs. In 1964, a college athlete is beaten to death outside a gay bar. In 1969, the draft and Vietnam leave behind a body. In 1983, someone murders an AIDS activist. All this plus orphanages, abortion clinics, disco fires, cross-dressing, cult deprogramming, and Johnny Cash in Folsom Prison. In just a few new episodes this fall, we’ve already spent time with surrogate mothers, piggy frat boys, abused fat girls, and fundamentalist nutbags.

Count on Lilly & Co. to go occasionally over the top, embarrassing themselves and those of us who urge our friends to watch. But to embarrass themselves, the actors and writers have to take chances, and they can also be counted on for nuance, fatigue, regret, and grief, as well as a sinus-clearing class animus. On Cold Case, the richer you are, the more you have to lie about. But these legionnaires will not permit privilege to escape punishment.

Cold Case
CBS. Sundays, 8 p.m.


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