TV mysteries


CROSSING JORDAN. “Pilot Episode.” NBC. 24 September 2001 (Season 1, Episode 1). Jill Hennessy, Miguel Ferrer, Ken Howard, Lois Nettleton, plus a large ensemble cast. Creator/screenwriter: Tim Kring. Director: Allan Arkush.

   Please forgive the lack of screen credits. This is the only episode of Crossing Jordan I’ve seen so far, and I haven’t yet placed names with faces, nor do I know how long some of the faces will last. I didn’t include any names in the guest cast, either, since most of this first episode was devoted to introducing the characters, not the story itself.

   Which was OK, or maybe even more than that, but if you’ll allow me, I’ll get to that in a minute. The series was on for six years, and I won’t lie to you: I’d barely heard of it before buying a box set of DVDs of the first season. I can’t tell you why it’s been under my radar all this time.

   Or maybe I can. (A) A lack of time to follow everything that’s on TV, even crime-solving shows, and (B) an assumption that new shows won’t last, so why start watching them, but missing one like this one that does catch on, and it’s too late to catch up with the story line, or so I think.

   Dr. Jordan Cavanaugh (Jill Hennessy) is a medical examiner who insists on helping the police solve the cases her dead bodies involve her in, against all of their wishes. She’s beautiful, smart-talking, feisty, has a problem with anger management, and as a direct result, she has run out of places to work until her former boss, Dr. Garret Macy (Miguel Ferrer), convinces his superiorss to hire her back at the Massachusetts Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

   I gather her father (Ken Howard) doesn’t stick around for the entire series, but at least during the first season he’s an ex-homicide detective who helps Jordan solve her cases by playing a version of killer/victim to re-enact the crime given the facts as she has them. He’s glad to see her again, but Jordan has problems, in the pilot, at least, with the fact that there is a new woman in his life, Jordan’s mother having been murdered when she was a child. This may explain some of the chips on her shoulder.

   There are quite few others in the ensemble cast, as I said earlier, all of whom get a brief introduction and some exposure in this first episode. The story itself is interesting without being overly memorable. It turns out that a young prostitute, found dead in an alley and suspected of dying of a drug overdose, is actually a virgin. It is then discovered that she came to Boston looking for her father, and — well, I needn’t tell you everything, need I?

   I do like the characters, and so did the general viewing public, given that the series lasted for so long. It’s one I’ll keep watching, at least through the first season, which is all that’s been officially released on DVD. (The problem being rights to the music played in the back ground.)

WHY DIDN’T THEY ASK EVANS? ITV, UK, 30 March 1980. PBS: Mobil Showcase, US, 21 May 1981, Three hours. Francesca Annis, John Gielgud, Bernard Miles, Eric Porter,Leigh Lawson, James Warwick, Madeline Smith, Connie Booth, Robert Longden. Based on the novel by Agatha Christie (also known as The Boomerang Clue). Directors: John Davies & Tony Wharmby.

   I read and reviewed The Boomerang Clue, the US title of the novel this long three-hour British TV movie was based on not too long ago. And since the TV version so closely follows the book version, I’m going to make it easy on myself and simply summarize the plot by repeating four paragraphs from that earlier review:

    “This one begins with a young Bobby Jones (not the famous one) hitting a golf ball and doing dreadfully at it, trying mightily several swings in succession, but hearing a cry, discovers a dying man lying at the bottom of cliff. He had fallen perhaps, as Bobby and his golfing partner believe, not to mention the police and the coroner’s jury, but we the reader know better.

    “Before he dies, though, the man utters a dying question: ‘Why didn’t they ask Evans?’ We are at page 9 and the end of Chapter One, and anyone who can stop here is a better person than I.

    “Assisting Bobby in his quest for the truth, especially after surviving being poisoned by eight grains of morphia, is his childhood friend, Lady Frances Derwent, whom he calls Frankie. Together they make a great pair of amateur detectives, continuing to investigate the case even after the authorities have written the man’s death off as an accident.

    “The tone is light and witty, as if investigating a murder is a lark, but this intrepid pair of detectives do an excellent job of it, even to the extent of faking an automobile accident and inserting an “invalid” Frankie into their primary suspect’s home.”

   There are a couple of changes that where made in translating the book into film, but only one maybe matters. It is as good as a direct scene-for-scene production as you could ever hope for. (A later British telecast in 2011 wrote Miss Marple into the story and changed all kinds of other things around. From what I’ve read about it, it sounds horrible.)

   On the other hand, while scene-for-scene may sound ideal, it does make for a long production, three hours worth, and viewing it on DVD, I found that watching it over the course of two evening was possible but making it very difficult to remember by the end what had happened at the beginning. Luckily I had read the book only a few months earlier.

   Before pointing out the biggest change, I’d like to say that in the movie version I didn’t get the same light-hearted “let’s solve a murder” feeling the two young sleuths seemed to have in the opening half of the book. They tried, but it just didn’t seem to be there. But many scenes were just as I’d imagined them, especially the opening one, with a body being found on the rocks beneath a tall cliff along the shoreline of Wales.

   The major difference between the book and the movie comes at the end, when the killer (in the book) writes a long letter to Frankie explaining how the murder was carried out and tying up the loose ends.

   In the movie, the two — the killer and Frankie — have a direct confrontation in an empty house. The set-up for this didn’t make sense while I was watching it, but later on I realized that doing it as it was done in the book, reading a letter aloud on a TV screen would have bored everyone, including me.

   I believe but am not positive that this movie was shown in its entirety in one evening. (The video above is only Part 1 of 3.) If it did, the attention span necessary would have to have been even greater, but commercials (in the UK) would have helped considerably in terms of snacks, bathroom breaks and whatever else that would have been needed to get through what was, all-in-all, a very nicely done piece of entertainment.

PROFILER. Pilot Episode. NBC, 21 September 1996. (Season 1, Episode 1.) Ally Walker, Robert Davi, Julian McMahon, Roma Maffia, Michael Whaley, Peter Frechette, Erica Gimpel, Caitlin Wachs. Creator/screenplay: Cynthia Saunders. Director: John Patterson.

   I came by the DVD box for this series in part by accident. I saw a large lot of DVDs up for bids on eBay, and not only in the lot were all four seasons of this series, but three seasons of another NBC series that ran at the same time, The Pretender.

   I’d never heard of either series — I wasn’t watching much network TV at the time — but the opening bid was cheap enough ($99 for 65 DVDs) — and lo and behold, no one bid against me. Of the other DVDs in the the lot I kept another 15 or 20. The rest, mostly movies — romantic comedies — from the same time period, I’ll soon be donating to the Local Library.

   What I didn’t realize at the time, but I soon found out, was that basic premise of Profiler is catching another serial criminal every week, not always a killer, but arsonists and other assorted low life. Over and above that, and how it plays out over the entire length of the season I don’t know, is the presence of Ally Walker’s character’s nemesis, a serial killer dubbed “Jack of All Trades,” who notices that Dr. Samantha “Sam” Waters, is back in action again after a three years’ leave of absence.

   Whew. Sorry for that last sentence. I know it’s a long one. Sam is forensic psychologist with the unique ability to personalize crime scenes and “see” the killer, not with extrasensory perception, but by picking up clues that others miss. She’s called into action as this episode begins by her former mentor, Bailey Malone (Robert Davi) when the police in Atlanta run into a brick wall trying to catch a killer who has been killing another beautiful woman every Saturday night.

   I should also mention that “Jack of All Trades,” whom Sam was never able to catch, murdered her husband three years ago, and is one of those serial killers who loves to taunt the police — and Sam in particular — about their ineffectiveness in nabbing him?

   I don’t know how many more in this set I will watch, but I do have four seasons’ worth, so I may. There seems to be a good chemistry between the leading players (see above), which is always a help. On the negative side, a recognized the killer as soon as the character appeared on the screen. Maybe I ought to be a profiler. Either that, or Sam ought to have listened to her own deductions to that point. They were right on target.

“HOLLYWOOD.” An episode of Law & Order: LA, 29 September 2010. (Season 1, Episode 1.) Skeet Ulrich, Corey Stoll, Regina Hall, Wanda De Jesus, Alfred Molina. Guest Cast: Shawnee Smith, John Patrick Amedori, Danielle Panabaker, Wyatt Russell, Jessica Lu.
Created by Dick Wolf; developed by Blake Masters. Director: Allen Coulter.

   Actually there was only one season. The series was a mess, and half the cast disappeared before it was over, to be replaced partway through by an entirely new group of attorneys and police detectives. It was a spinoff of the original Law & Order, which had just finished its 20-year run the previous spring.

   I will let anyone who knows more about the problems the series had go ahead and talk about them in the comments. I’ve not seen any more of the series than this first episode, and I confess that I simply wasn’t paying much attention to what was happening back then. (All I know is what I read online using Google.)

   The setting of the first episode was of course a natural, that being Hollywood, which is probably the first place people think of when they think of L.A. They didn’t have to think too hard to come up with a plot, even though it turns out to be a complicated one. The essence, though, is the convoluted relationship a young female actress slash party girl has with her mother, who has been guiding her and mentoring her and (no surprise) trading in on her daughter’s notoriety and fame for quite some time.

   What I really wanted to bring up again, following Michael Shonk’s recent article about 30-minute TV dramas, is that this first episode of Law & Order: LA is only 40 minutes long, after the commercials have been removed. In this case, forty minutes was simply not long enough, especially for a first episode.

   With both cops and later on lawyers involved, not to mention a story to tell, plus a lot of people who are interviewed by the police or otherwise connected to the case, there is little chance for any of them to get more than two minutes at a time of screen time. When the show was over, I knew who did it and why, but of the primary players, I couldn’t even have told you their characters’ names (or the stars’ names either, for that matter; I didn’t recognize any but one of them). One of the leading suspects was on screen for his two minutes early on, and when his character was brought back into it again toward the end, I barely remembered seeing him before.

   The actors have to talk fast to get all of the story in, too fast for me most of the time, and the locations are switched so quickly they have to identified by the equivalent of silent film insert cards. It’s an approach that works fine when viewers have been watching a series for many years, but not for a very first episode of a spinoff, already cramped for time. Not for me, anyway.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          


FATHER BROWN. BBC, UK, 2013 to date. 35 episodes. Mark Williams, Sorcha Cusack, Nancy Carroll, Alex Price, Hugo Speer, Tom Chambers. Created by Rachel Flowerday and Tahin Guner. Inspired by the stories of G. K. Chesterton.

   So, Father Dowling — no, wait, this one is British and there is no cute nun — Father Brown, that’s right Father Brown, is watching this couple making out; Father Brown is climbing over a fence; Father Brown has been poisoned; Father Brown has a broken leg and is being held hostage by a killer policeman; Father Brown pretends madness to go undercover in an asylum; Father Brown is trapped beneath a castle in a dungeon; Father Brown has to stop a bomb …

   Father Brown (Mark Williams) has a nosy housekeeper (Sorcha Cusack), a randy aristocrat friend (Nancy Carroll), her semi-honest roguish chauffer (Alex Price), a full time parish in Kembleford in the Cotswolds (where there are more murders than Chicago and Miss Marple’s St. Mary’s Mead combined) at St. Mary’s, and two policeman whose lives he is the bane of (Hugo Speer and Tom Chambers who replaced him).

   Father Brown is tall, hardy, and about as meek as a truck driver.

   Father Brown wouldn’t know a paradox if it hit him with a lorry.

   They have actually adapted a few stories by Chesterton. Not that you would know it unless you looked at the title, the only thing vaguely resembling Chesterton.

   That awful television movie with Barnard Hughes was better than this. Walter Connally’s wholly miscast Father Brown was better. Kenneth More, seemingly miscast, was brilliant as was Alec Guiness, also seemingly miscast. Mark Williams is just miscast. It is difficult for a man his size to appear to be a meek, blinking, slightly pudgy, and unassuming priest with the power of an Old Testament prophet. This Father Brown has the power of a Jessica Fletcher.

   The time is the 1950’s, God knows why since the stories end twenty years before that. Father Brown, who traveled extensively in the stories, is a parish priest and served in WWII. He deals with ex-Nazis and refugees and once with radiation poisoning. He seldom leaves Kembleford and his church, St. Mary’s. No one much respects him. Flambeau has a British accent, they couldn’t be bothered to hire an actor who could at least fake a French accent.

   You know it isn’t Chesterton because communist and atheists tend to turn out to be innocent. You know it isn’t Agatha Christie because the young lovers almost never turn out to be the murderers.

   This Father Brown never rises to the occasion. He never blinks behind his spectacles while transformed into a figure of Biblical strength. He never simply observes because he knows human nature and intuits the truth. He is never for one instant of film Chesterton’s priest in anything but name.

   It’s an attractive enough series, and I might like it if it wasn’t the only Father Brown we will get. The actors are personable, and the mysteries no worse than usual, but of course it could be so much more, and instead it is, as I said, “Murder, He Prayed.”

   If you are not an admirer of Chesterton’s stories you may not get why I feel such rancor for this unassuming little series. Try to imagine though they made a situation comedy out of The Great Gatsby. Try imagining they cast Pee Wee Herman as Sherlock Holmes. Try to imagine that the only Shakespeare there was to read was the Lamb’s version.

   You are not going to get good television from people incapable of respecting their source. You are going to get this, a series that disappoints week after week, hints at Chesterton (admittedly not easy to film though the More series did it), but never fulfills the promise. You get what seldom happens on series shown on PBS, the lowest common denominator, just like network television.

   This one wasn’t even designed to be shown at night in England. It was an afternoon series according to Wikipedia.

   This might have worked despite all that if they respected the original in any way, if they understood what made Chesterton’s stories work, what made Father Brown a rival of Sherlock Holmes — the rival of Sherlock Holmes.

   This Father Brown isn’t even a rival of Jessica Fletcher.

   If you like it despite all that, fine. But don’t kid yourself that anyone connected to this ever read a single Father Brown story and understood it or what gave it power. Father Brown the comic book would be better.

“RABBIT FOOT.” An episode of Schlitz Playhouse, CBS, 9 July 1954 (Season 3, Episode 45). Stephen McNally, Paul Langton, Harry Shannon. Screenplay: Lawrence L. Goldman. Director: Christian Nyby.

   When the series went into syndication, the Schlitz had to go, so they called it Herald Playhouse, under which guise this episode ended up on a DVD of old television mysteries from Alpha Video.

   What’s remarkable, something that I didn’t realize before, is that Schlitz Playhouse was on CBS for eight years, first at 60 minutes, then 30, then alternating with Lux Playhouse for its final season. If I added up the numbers correctly, there were nearly 350 episodes in all.

   I wonder where that puts it in the ranking of longest-running anthology series? It’s a lot of different sets, different actors, and a brand new script from scratch every week. I know there had to be some comedies and straight dramas in the mix, but I imagine a good percentage of the episodes were crime-oriented, such as this one.

   Everyone involved with this episode had long careers in movies and on TV, with the star, Stephen McNally, probably the most recognizable name today. But Harry Stanton has the almost unique distinction of being the only person involved in the making of both Citizen Kane and High Noon, being in the cast of each. (The other is William H. O’Brien, but he almost doesn’t count, since he was an uncredited member of the cast of each; in fact, almost his entire career was uncredited.)

   I’ll leave you to check out the careers of the others in this particular cast. What caught my eye was the name of the scriptwriter, Lawrence L. Goldman, whose name came up on this blog as the author of Black Fire, one half of an Ace Double paperback that I reviewed here not too long ago.

   I should say something about the story, which has only three sets, the couple of storefronts along the main street of a small southern town, inside the local police station, and a swamp somewhere outside of town, filled with bubbling quagmires and alligators, and when you see that at the beginning, I think you know immediately what the ending is going to be.

   And you’d be right. A bedraggled stranger comes into town with a satchel of stolen bank loot, claiming to be a detective from a couple of towns over who has killed the real robber in the swamp. We the viewer sense something is wrong with the story right away, and with less than 30 minutes of running time, it doesn’t take the police chief and his second-in-command to catch on either. But they need proof, and by means of a lucky rabbit’s foot, prove it they do.

   Not so lucky for the rabbit, of course. As the old saying goes, it never is.

“POSSESSION.” An episode of Thriller, ATV, England, 21 April 1973. (Series 1, Episode 2.) John Carson, Joanna Dunham, Hilary Hardiman, Athol Coats, James Cossins, Richard Aylen. Story: Brian Clemens. Director: John Cooper.

   An all-British cast this time — recall that Barbara Feldon co-starred in the first episode, “Lady Killer,” reviewed here — and instead of being an out-and-out Alfred Hitchcockian crime story, this one borders on the supernatural.

   But of course, it’s a crime story as well, with a newly married couple in their new home — an isolated manor, of course — with the body of the previous owner found cemented over in the basement. When the female half of the married couple starts hearing whistling in the house at odd hours, mostly during the night, and the rooms ransacked while the two of them are in bed and the doors tightly locked, that’s when they call in a mystic, who helps them hold a seance, with even more deadly consequences.

   I’m sorry that that last sentence was such a long one, but it happens sometimes. I’m not overly fond of ghost stories, but if I’m going to watch one, the British do them best. I’m not sure why, but England is a country that for some reason, ghosts seem to find a likelier place to not find a final resting place than the US.

   Adding to general overall spookiness of the proceedings is the lighting, very effectively done, plus a very minimal musical score, often non-existent while the camera work focuses on a rack of knives in the kitchen, a set of rickety stairs leading to the dimly lit basement, and of course the whistling coming from seemingly nowhere.

   It is the male half of the couple who is seemingly possessed (John Carson, who sounds a lot like James Mason), while it is left to his wife (the beautiful Joanna Dunham) to look concerned, then worried, then out-and-out frightened. Not everyone leaves this story alive, nor is the ending convincing that all things supernatural in the tale have been entirely explained away (deliberately so).

   Nicely done.

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