Mon, May

From Pop Art to Great Art:  The Legacy of Walter Kerr and the Intersection of TV Detective Shows


GELFAND’S WORLD - Back when I wrote a weekly column for American-Reporter, my byline was called On Media. I was mostly concerned with the way the right wing had taken over talk radio, but the editors let me slip in a little something about modern culture every now and then. This seems to be the case with CityWatch, which is willing to consider news and comments about high culture (LA Opera, the Pacific Chorale) and attempts at culture among the up and coming (the Hollywood Fringe and other small theaters). 

But the major cultural nutrition for most of us on most nights is television. I will leave the cable networks and streaming services to other commenters, but broadcast television still plays a central role for many of us. 

Among the adventure and crime shows, CBS has carried the heavy freight for the past decade, what with the CSI franchise, all the NCIS shows and spinoffs, Blue Bloods, the FBI shows, Seal Team, and the latest attempt at a hit franchise, Tracker. 

We have to go further and say that there is a point about such popular arts. Borrowing from the late Walter Kerr (American writer and Broadway theater critic), we need to point out something that comes across as surprising. Kerr, in his seminal exercise in criticism called How Not to Write a Play, pointed out that it is popular culture, churning out entertainment for the masses, that is likely to bring forth the great works. His most convincing example was the era of Shakespeare: There was a whole academic tradition up in Oxford and Cambridge, but we have largely forgotten whatever it was that they produced. Meanwhile, Shakespeare (or whoever she was) was cranking out shows that could be (and were) enjoyed by the masses and are the greatest works in English. 

Kerr seemed to be implying that before one achieves greatness, there is a certain level of craft that is required to achieve entertainment. We the audience will ask that there be characters who we want to look at and listen to, and that they are working through entertaining lines and moving plots that keep our attention. These are just the prerequisites.

Walter and Jean Kerr

And, given the everyday (or, in this case, every week) workings of such shows, it is possible that every once in a while, every now and then, something superior comes about. Some plot point or real-world instance inspires or demands greatness. Here is one example: The detective show Rizzoli and Isles is set in Boston and features Detective Jane Rizzoli and her best friend and the state's chief medical examiner, Maura Isles. It doesn't hurt that they are both eye candy in a grown-up sort of way, or that the homicides they solve are complicated enough -- while being believable -- that our interest is maintained. And then Frost came on the show. Frost is a young Black detective who teaches the older fogies on the squad a bit about using computers to solve crimes, or at least how to explore crime questions. More to the point, -- and I can imagine the writers whispering this to each other -- if you were going to have a son in law, this is the one you would want to have. I'm trying to say, in my own fumbling way here, that in a city as notoriously racist as Boston has been known to be, Frost's character was Kerr's idea of good writing. 

And then, without warning and at the very end of an episode, Frost is dead. The squad assembles at the scene of a highway accident to learn the grim truth. 

We might take an aside and recognize that killing off characters has become more and more acceptable in recent decades. It has become something that writers employ to move the arc along. But here's the thing. Frost was really dead because the actor who played Frost had taken his own life. It turns out that he had mental issues, and the writers and cast were forced to bring a real-life loss into their imaginary storyline. 

And here is where Walter Kerr has it exactly right, because the show already existed in terms of the cast of characters, the internal relations and tensions among those characters, and central to the existence of that show was that we, the audience, knew a lot about the characters themselves. So it was possible to build a show based around Frost's funeral which took what we could already expect -- the characters would speculate and even quarrel over things like who would choose the flowers and centrally, who would give the eulogy. 

Greatness sometimes comes in elements that the audience members would never have imagined on their own. In this case, the characters are constantly being told that they just need to have one good cry and they will feel better, yet they neither feel better nor manage to cry. Still, Jane comes through with a masterful eulogy wrapped around Frost's effect on people, which was to make them laugh, and the police officers and Frost's relatives seem to understand. 

And then, as the characters are on their own, going home, they run into little things that really remind them of Frost and, one by one but in each case quite alone, they lose it. In Jane's case, she arrives home and absentmindedly glances through her mail. And there is a postcard from Frost saying something silly like Wish You Were Here, and she slides down a wall, collapsing to the floor and sobbing. 

Why belabor this one little episode that may have been copied or adapted from Mary Tyler Moore's grief over Chuckles the Clown, or even Richard Feynman's account of the death of his wife during the atomic bomb program? Well, because they made it work. It was effective as drama and tragedy -- more so than the other examples. It was one great creation built around a popular entertainment. This was Walter Kerr's great art arising out of popular entertainment. 

So we need to ask a connected question: Why have detective shows been so crummy of late? Why are they so bad that CBS is cancelling so many of them? NCIS Hawaii? CSI Las Vegas? And on and on . . . 

I have two guesses. They go to the Covid pandemic and then to the writers' strike. 

The pandemic forced a change in shooting stye, one in which characters kept a distance from each other. Outdoor action scenes were severely cut. We may even guess that writerly interactions were reduced, as the usual practice of getting a dozen writers in close proximity in the same room would have been curtailed. These were limitations on creating shows, and they had their effects. 

Speculative, admittedly, but not unreasonable. 

And then there was the writers' strike, which had similar effects, although coming from a different source. The result is that shows were rushed into production with inadequate scripts and habits brought over from the Covid era. 

For whatever reasons, NCIS Hawaii has been a disappointment. There are lots of interactions among the characters, but not the kinds of interactions that occur on a stakeout or chasing down crooks. Instead, we've gotten soap opera interactions pasted near to the standard cliches of the crime fighting genre, but not as critical elements of the crime solving. 

CSI Las Vegas has been another disappointment with similar symptoms. The crimes are not all that interesting, and even when partially so (the plastic-embedded nervous system of a human is discovered) they are not made to seem interesting. 

Perhaps one problem in all these shows is the lack of the classic partnerships of the great detective shows. NCIS LA put several pairs of detectives together, and the partnerships made the whole thing work. 

But however you squeeze it, the final diagnosis is going to be bad writing. Sometimes the writing is combined with inadequate directing, but we should remember that it is up to the director to demand decent lines.


A Miracle of Not-So-Modern Art


A Caravaggio has been rediscovered. There are only about 60 of his paintings in the whole world, so this is something of a miracle. You can read about it here.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].)