This television season, police dramas seemed restless. Maybe it's the competition from reality TV or the desire to try something new but I would argue that all the crazy narrative twists - time travel, autobiographical memory, dueling realities, fairytale characters - have done little to turn viewers away from dancers and singers and bachelors. Perhaps it's time to return to what works: the salt-of-the-Earth senior officers who need a shave, the lieutenants beat down by bureaucracy, the detectives teetering on the edge of right and wrong. Audiences don't seem to be responding to gimmicky narrative additions or nothing at stake stories that detract from what should be challenging and gritty crime drama. "Alcatraz," "Unforgettable," "NYC 22," and "Awake" were all canceled. Is it a sign that audiences want to go old school with their cops and robbers?
I gave "Alcatraz" a good review at the start of the season, but I can admit that the chemistry between its main characters never got off the ground. If you don't care about their relationships, you're not going to care that they're fighting time jumping criminals. "Unforgettable" had a detective character whose super memory creates a sort of out of body experience she uses to find clues. Maybe viewers had an out of body experience where they were watching another, more interesting show? I know I did.
"Awake" had an unusual premise where a detective lives in two realities. In one, his wife survives a car crash. In the other, his son lives. This took away the possibility of grief and left us with the possibility of crazy but it wasn't enough to elevate the show. While working on his cases in each reality, the detective would discover strange overlapping clues. But two versions of a crime did not equal twice the intrigue and his sessions with psychiatrists in each world turned into dull exposition. The doctors usually said "how interesting" at least once an episode. It quickly became clear that it actually wasn't.
"NYC 22" was a show about rookie cops learning lessons on the job. No gimmicks here but little to make you care about who they were or who they were supposed to become.
The shows that are returning this fall are "Grimm" and "Person of Interest." Maybe "Grimm" is benefiting from the fairytale goodwill of "Once Upon a Time." The crimes on Grimm are definitely dark and the chemistry between the main characters is enjoyable but I wonder how far its 'fairytale creatures as criminals' plot will take it before viewers want reality over fantasy.
"Person of Interest's" technological premise of a machine that predicts crime has done a good job of tapping into our cultural preoccupation with privacy and security. With its odd couple dynamic, it overcomes what would otherwise be rather unlikeable main characters. Its version of crime drama is perhaps the closest to traditional police shows.
Page 2 of 2 - Still, I can't help but wish for the days of series like "Hill Street Blues" and "Homicide: Life on the Street." Where's the 2012 version of "The Wire"? These crime dramas relied on complex characters and cases with moral gray areas that challenged the audience. Realism is not a bad word. Is it too late to bring back the guys from "NYPD Blue?"
Melissa Crawley is the author of "Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television's 'The West Wing.'" She has a PhD in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.