Start with a highly respected character actor from another series franchise or flagging film career. Throw in some other supporting players of a similar pedigree and you get the broth for the winning recipe CBS has held close to the vest for the past ten years. The main ingredient of course is a variation on a procedural plus some quirky method of solving the crime.
The granddaddy of this type of shows is of course CSI starring, William Peterson. Along with its sister shows, CSI Miami starring the titled-head and always coy, David Caruso and CSI New York with Gary ‘Lt. Dan’ Sinise. These series bring the gore into sharp focus and have made microscopic blood and fiber analysis part of the common vernacular. These shows have done exceedingly well for the network while not really elevating the level of writing or developing characters beyond their office roles. Basically the appeal of these shows lays in there ability to appeal to the biggest audience.
NCIS starring ,Mark Harmon, is only a slight variation from the CSI mold. Notice, if you will, how the ‘S’ comes after the ‘I’ in the title of the show. Plus they added the ‘N’ for Navy which makes it way different. Did they just add the Navy aspect because they thought they could combine CSI with JAG? Hmm, I think the answer is yes. Still this show has been very successful and a planned spin-off is in the works.
Without a Trace has a great premise with, Anthony LaPaglia, leading a very talented bunch of actors on the search for missing people. Like the rest of the shows they use some forensics and some good detective skills. What this show has that the CSI franchise lacks is solid acting work. They do a nice job of giving the actors time to develop personae without corny divergences.
The Ghost Whisperer diverges the most from the general path of these shows, but it remains solidly within the framework. Starring, Jennifer Love Hewitt, from Party of Five or how I like to think of her as Jackie Chan’s love interest from The Tuxedo. Yikes. She stars in this CBS cry fest as psychic investigator trying to make peace for the dead people that haunt her. Still at it’s heart it is an investigative show only with the dead people participating in their own forensic work.
Numbers uses the sexiest device of all to try to solve crime, math. When all else fails and the world is in danger, bring in the people you know will get the job done. Those who know the one thing that criminals can’t stop. Calculus. Rob Morrow, from Northern Exposure and David Krumholtz, star as brothers. The former an FBI agent, the latter a college mathematics professor. They team up in a brains and brawn setup so that when the math falls short, the brute gut-instincts of Rob Morrow can kick in and he can save the day. Man, when you have Rob Morrow as your muscle, your may be in big trouble. But what do I know? Casting Morrow against type is a bold move that you have to respect. The show has also been a hit for a few years now. Way to go CBS formula.
In the new series The Eleventh Hour, Rufus Sewell stars as a scientist hired by the government to investigate the misuses of science around the world. This is a clever use of the formula and in many ways it is a thinking man’s CSI. It is also produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, the same team that supplies CBS with CSI.
Cold Case moves only slightly away from the pattern in that there is no anchor star. The lead is played by the lesser known, but very capable Kathryn Morris. She exudes confidence and maturity in her role, with the depth of a more established actor. The premise here involves cases from a bygone era that have yet to be solved. The promotional ads for this show have started to include the year that the show focuses on. A lot of the same techniques like forensics and solid detective work are used as effectively as the other shows. This show focuses possibly too much on the flashbacks. While the flashbacks are part of its virtue and can be interesting they are also its crutch.
The only hour long drama on CBS that deviates fully from this formula is The Unit. The Unit is a special forces military show that is high adrenaline and does what Jag did when they weren’t in a court room or what NBC’s My Own Worst Enemy tried to accomplish but failed to. The action is great and the patriotic fervor is appealing even to this cynical viewer. But it certainly is the odd duck of the network.
The two shows that stand out as examples of the CBS Formula are Criminal Minds and The Mentalist and both for different reasons. Criminal Minds uses those elements that work on the others very precisely every week. The ensemble acting, like the crimes they solve, go together like pieces of a puzzle coming together. Thomas Gibson is the straight laced lead agent for the FBI’s BAU(Behvioral Analysis Unit) with Joe Mantegna as his more instinctual second. The other standout on this show is Matthew Gray Gubler as the overachieving super nerd Dr. Reid. Gubler’s approach and ability to inhabit his character’s intelligence make him very convincing. In fact the writing is so superb that you truly feel like you are seeing into the minds of the people they are pursuing. The writing, direction and execution of the editing are seamless and I have enjoyed every episode.
Both Criminal Minds and The Mentalist feel like perfected experiments in the CBS formula that has been developing over the past 8 years since CSI came on the air. Both shows are comfortable in the heavy and light moments between the characters and have capitalized on the charisma of their stars on top of the quality writing.
Simon Baker stars as Patrick Jane, a former TV psychic who exploited his talents of observation and deduction to make people believe he could make contact with the dead. He also used that ability in assisting on real criminal cases. That is where his arrogance came to bite him. When Jane publicly mocked the serial killer he was helping to investigate, the killer made things personal. This plot arc is fascinating and leads to a crisis of ethical motivation for Jane. After that incident he began working full time for the CBI, the California Bureau of Investigation, where he is still hunting down the serial killer. Baker uses his charisma to remarkable effect each week.
Really this show rides on the shoulders of Simon Baker, who is a magnetic star. The show does have a better than average supporting cast that includes Robin Tunney, who avoids many cliches as Jane’s supervisor. Another subtly engaging turn comes from character-actor, Tim Kang, as a wry and effective agent. The creativity of the scripts bely the unbelievability of the scenarios that arise on each episode, which is something that CSI is lacking.
The use of this formula has been extremely effective for the network and delivers solid ratings on a weekly basis, even in reruns. CBS has cornered the market on this type of programming, but I worry that interest in this format will start to to wain. They may be stuck without a creative backup plan the way NBC wasn’t prepared for the decrease in popularity of the sitcom. Remember Must-See-TV? It was great and very reliable, but it is gone and NBC’s ratings are now consistently low.