Bosch and the pleasures and pitfalls of novels for television
Homicide detectives are a dime novel a dozen on television, but Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch has more advantages than most: He comes with 17 bestselling books written by master mystery scribe Michael Connelly.
The newest Amazon Studios binge series, Bosch—exec produced by Connelly—makes use of this wealth of material. Instead of creating a new case for the LAPD detective to solve, the initial 10-episode download synthesizes elements from two titles, City of Bones and The Concrete Blonde. The result is nothing new, something we often colloquially call a “novel for television.” But we’re seeing that form in increasing abundance, whether as cable anthologies like American Horror Story, True Detective, and Fargo, or ongoing series like Justified—an older, better country cousin to Bosch. With Fox’s Gracepoint and NBC’s The Slap, even broadcast television this year has given us “event series”—basically, the old-fashioned long-form mini-series with a sexier, more urgent handle—that have a novelistic structure. Each episode serves as a chapter in a larger story that ramps to a conclusion, if not a terminus. (Gracepoint wrapped up its murder mystery but left its lead characters in limbo, a setup for second “event series” which is unlikely to happen.)
“Novel” forms are good business. They lend themselves well to the binge viewing that gives television studios an additional aftermarket for their product, via sites such as Netflix. They also entice movie stars to TV with the promise of a brief commitment. This is no small asset to the cause I care most about: creativity. Because they bring in an audience, big-name actors could help spur studios and networks to consider projects beyond easy-to-market genre fair or branded properties. Say what you will about The Slap—pretentious! Heavy-Handed! Irritating! – but its premise is admirably outside-the-box, and it probably wouldn’t exist at all if not for the tony cast of Uma Thurman, Zachary Quinto, Peter Sarsgaard, Thandie Newton, and Bryan Cox. Those names reek of quality; why wouldn’t you want to sample their collaboration? We need more risky moves like The Slap. We need fewer safe plays like Bosch.
Which is not to say Bosch is bad. Like any good novel, the show’s first chapter—its pilot—is a strong piece of work unto itself. We meet the middle-aged career cop while he’s hunting and ultimately shooting a suspected serial killer on a wet, dreary night. We then jump ahead, with Bosch and the department defending themselves in a civil suit brought by the dead man’s family.
This is not the first time Bosch has put a bad guy down. The trial is more than just a mechanism to generate tension and stakes (will Bosch keep his job if found liable?)—it’s a device designed to establish and explore Bosch’s personal, perhaps problematic motivations for crime-fighting and his relationship to violence. As this bit of business sorts itself out, Bosch becomes interested and then fixated with the murder of a young boy, whose bones are found scattered and poorly buried in the Hollywood Hills. His investigation leads him to another major character (played by Jason Gedrick), a certifiable creep who may or may not be the villain Bosch is seeking.
Titus Welliver is mesmerizing in a effortlessly minimal performance as Bosch. He lets his drawn face and dark, intense eyes do a lot of talking, which makes his deep voice all the more commanding when he uses it. He’s the incarnation of the indefatigable, obsessive, cop, and he suggests one of Michael Mann’s zen paladins as he moves between raindrops to stalk his quarry, doing what needs to be done with grim, dispassionate resolve. But his Bosch is more man than myth; he huffs and puffs while on the prowl. He’s a haunted soul, but isn’t ruled by his demons. He’s done the hard work of taming them—you can feel that, even though the show doesn’t quite name it—and the trick of his life is to never let them squirm out from under his foot. He’s a portrait of recovery, not addiction.
Bosch’s haters keep wanting to paint him as a kind of Dirty Harry, the reckless outlaw cop hooked on the very violence and chaos he’s trying to curb—devoted to serving his own catharsis, not the cause of justice. (Shades of Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan Givens on Justified.) The complaint is a little forced, especially when it’s prosecuted by self-serving, ball-busting lawyers like the one played sharply by Mimi Rogers.
In truth, Bosch is more like William Munny of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. He’s not anti-hero; he’s post anti-hero. One of the tweaks the writers of the series have made to the character is the idea that Bosch, a vet, re-upped for a tour of duty in Afghanistan after the World Trade Center fell and experienced harrowing combat as a tunnel rat warrior. This idea makes Bosch something of a comment on post-9/11 heroism, but the commentary is mostly subtext—a smart play. He’s a Rorschach blot for your attitudes about contemporary peacekeepers, though I guess that most any interpretation would skew toward grace because we’re inclined to like Welliver.
The first episode’s best moments come when it simply observes its hero alone in the urban wild of Los Angeles. There’s a scene that finds Bosch searching for bones on a lightly wooded hill in the dark and encountering a fox. The two solitary hunters lock eyes in the gloom and Bosch grins, pure delight lighting up his face. The careful attention to character is matched by—and enriches—the careful attention to police work, from the details of executing a grid search to the not-too-glib, not-too-wonky demeanor of pros in the field doing their work. The premiere also has a slow yet sure character-driven build, culminating with a beat that leaves Bosch struggling to regain his hard-earned composure.
The three episodes that follow push and twist the tale into unsettling, lurid territory—this is pulp fiction, after all—without ever becoming exploitative or lurid. Still, they aren’t the pilot’s equal. The storytelling moves away from the thing that elevated it for me, the portrayal of Bosch as a lone wolf. He’s always with either his partner, Detective Jerry Edgar (Jamie Hector), or his love interest, Officer Julia Brasher (Annie Werschling), a rookie cop coming to the profession late.
These characters are okay—but only “just okay,” and Bosch becomes a more familiar, conventional police cop drama when organized around these familiar, conventional relationships. More time is given to Gedrick’s creep, but to nil gain. The actor is clearly enjoying playing a shifty scuzzball, but he can’t generate genuine menace or seed; it’s generic-brand shifty scuzzball. Compounding the dulling is a novelistic structure that stretches the central mystery across the season, the investigation advancing and twisting by measured, deliberately paced degrees.
I’m glad Bosch isn’t another crime-time procedural, with their accelerated investigations, instant-gratification resolutions, shallow sensationalism and melodrama. The episodes that follow the pilot lack the opening hour’s compelling arc, and while the show is created for the binge-watching consumer, it doesn’t entice binging by being you-can’t-eat-just-one crackerjack. (See: Andy Greenwald’s Doritos theory of House of Cards.) Bosch forces you to binge to gain traction; it’s like you need to watch two episodes to get the entertainment value of one. The show could learn some tricks from Justified, my pick for the best episodic crime drama currently available to you—which knows how to scale a saga across a season while pleasing you with plot, character, language and mood each week. You’ll commit to Bosch because Welliver earns your interest, and maybe because the murdered kid plot manipulates it.
Bosch could add up to more than the sum of its parts. But it would be even better if the parts themselves had more pulp poetry to them—if each of its chapter were more like artful little dime novels unto themselves.
Amazon brings Michael Connelly's long-running Harry Bosch book series to the small screen, with Titus Welliver playing the titular LAPD detective.