The new cop series Cold Case has a visual style and storytelling structure similar to ”CSI” and ”Without a Trace,” other TV hits from its exec producer, Jerry Bruckheimer. All three shows are about the process of crime solving and are generally shaded in dark hues (sooty city streets, low-lit offices); they feature fancy camera work for the re-creation of crimes and center on brooding-loner stars. But where ”CSI”’s William Petersen and ”Trace”’s Anthony LaPaglia are stolid, thick-necked and -waisted, hard-boiled guy’s guys, ”Cold Case” offers a twist in the Bruckheimer formula. That would be Kathryn Morris, playing Philadelphia homicide detective Lilly Rush.
Morris gets a lot of close-ups in ”Cold Case” — she may have earned the lines in her face from the strain of holding back her acting chops to allow Tom Cruise to shine when she played his wife in ”Minority Report” — and the producers let her visage do a lot of their work for them. As the only woman in her division, Lilly arrives on our screens looking appropriately wary, and she seems more drained as the pilot goes on. But her exhaustion is also a kind of radiance — the soft, urgent glow of a martyr to her cause, which she states all too bluntly in the premiere: ”People shouldn’t be forgotten,” she says, having reopened a 27-year-old murder case that sets up the series’ hook. ”They should get justice too.”
Lilly’s first cold case is so TV predictable, there’s no way to watch it other than as just an excuse to showcase Morris — to establish her as an indelible presence we’ll want to return to every Sunday night. The episode is about the 1976 murder of a well-to-do teenage girl (reminiscent of the Martha Moxley murder, I presume), and how one of two brothers who vied for her affection let love curdle into murderous hate. But the hour is really about the way the camera moves in, again and again, on Lilly’s face. The colors on this show are intentionally washed-out — a metaphor for the themes of hopelessness and despair of an unsolved crime. However, this visual palette also gives Morris’ pale face a white translucence, her blue eyes a spectral stare. To emphasize this, her lipstick is a crimson slash — a garish tone you can easily imagine that a cop on a low budget might use. Her mussed dirty-blond hair is, in this context, the ‘do of a professional woman who cannot care what she looks like on the job, but to TV viewers, it also comes across as casually sexy.
”Cold Case” has a solid supporting cast headed up by John Finn as Lilly’s immediate superior in the station house (his coif is also a visual cue to his temperament — a stiff buzz cut signals brusque authority), and I’m sure we’ll get to know Lilly’s fellow officers over the coming weeks. But in the premiere, the plot builds to one scene so extravagantly corny, it works like a cross between film noir and the soap operatics of director Douglas Sirk: As Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ”Have You Ever Seen the Rain” swells in the background, there’s a slo-mo shot of Lilly, drenched in — you guessed it — pouring rain, leading the guilty party into police headquarters. She looks heavenward, and you suddenly realize that television has just created another star.