You know me. Since starting the mystery/writing blog thingy I feel obligated to test the wheels on every new crime show drama thing out there. This is probably a big mistake on my part but someone has to do it. I’m a pretty critical guy and I hate talking about things I don’t like – even though I seem to be doing a lot of that lately. But here’s another one. Golden Boy on CBS Created by Nicholas Wooten who apparently has a long and distinguished career in writing crime dramas; which is why it’s so irritating that in all that time he has yet to do a good one. (By the way, Nicholas Wooten – I loved Chuck. More like that please!)
I’m going to be up front with y’all. I only managed to get through 15-20 minutes of this which is pretty bad when it’s only an hour-long show. Something about the main character just made me want to punch him in the face. From what I gathered of those 15-20 minutes the show is about a junior detective on a homicide squad in some city. I don’t know which city. Maybe they explained that at some other point after I’d stopped watching but who cares? He’s 20 something: boyish good looks, the personality of a clean diaper with ambitions of becoming a filthy dirty stinky diaper. We’re informed that he’s ‘the youngest homicide officer in history’ or something and is destined (through flash forwards) to become the youngest police commissioner seven years down the line. Gee, that’s original. Which means that even in the flash forwards where the same boyish clean diaper is allegedly older he’s STILL only been a cop for a grand total of ten years. And yet somehow he looks like a poorly aged, dippier version of the same kid. Only with a limp and played with an absurd amount of affected gravitas that we’re assuming is his acquired ‘wisdom’.
He’s partnered with the seriously underused Chi McBride who is STILL waiting patiently for a decent cop show to sink his teeth into. Someone give this guy a job. Please. Something with legs. That isn’t hobbled by lumbering plot. Something. Anything. FOR GOD’S SAKE USE THIS ACTOR!!!! I want to see Chi smile again! Remember Andre Braugher as Pembleton? That smile? How you just knew that whoever he was talking to was in trouble? Ahh… those were the days. Before they did the shark thing. Anyway – I digress. Chi was born to play a cop. He did a terrific job as a teacher in the briefly amazing Boston Public and you knew, even back then, that it was just a matter of time till someone pinned a TV Badge on the guy. You just hoped that when they did it would be something worth watching.
So what was so wrong with the 20 minutes that I watched? Well… I’m not an expert. I’ve never been a cop but it seems to me a bad idea to leave your partner at a diner to dash off to tackle a potential thief without so much as a radio call, or a “hey! That guy might be a thief!” Nope. You see someone climbing out a window carrying a backpack and wearing a hoodie and it’s off to the races. Naturally the 20 something detective with the dreamy eyes, wavy hair and that cute dimpled chin has no trouble chasing down the 15-year-old ‘cute but tough and street-smart’ thief. When he does they discover she has information! A Body!
You don’t say.
They go find the body that the girl found. It’s a girl! Have you ever noticed that crime drama’s really only have two victims? The average age of the drama victim is between 15 and 22 if it’s female and 28 to 45 if it’s a male. And aren’t they just always attractive? Do they have different cop shows that track down the suspects in ugly people’s homicides? They must. It must be on one of those cable channels I don’t get.
Naturally the girl is wrapped in a cloth. Cut to commercial. When we get back to commercial I really started to lose it. We have no idea how much time has passed between the scene in which the body is discovered and that one but it can’t be much as Chi and the Golden Boy are filling someone in on the details of what they found. The body hasn’t been moved yet. It’s about five feet away on a storage rack. And pretty much the whole world is standing there doing stuff. There has to be a word for this scene set up in TV Cop-land. I think I’ll call it the collective circle jerk: where idiots stand around telling people stuff. You see an uniformed cop standing next to the body talking to someone – who knows who? The whoever-she-is is taking notes about something. There are several other folks wandering around looking like they’re trying to find a purpose. There is Chi, the Golden Boy and some superior cop figure in front telling each other things that we already know from watching the stuff we’ve already seen. The only thing missing from this crime scene is a juggling clown. Oh yeah and evidence techs, or investigators or anyone doing anything constructive.
Something else happens. They go back to the squad room where one detective doesn’t like Chi and the Golden Boy and they have words. This guy is a jerk. He’s a hot head. We know because he looks like a cop hot head which we’ve seen a thousand times or more. He thinks he finds out something about the girl who found the body! Oh, she’s holding something back! I won’t tell my fellow investigators about this – I’ll interview her myself!
You can guess what happens next. Because he’s a hot head. He kicks the chair out. He slaps her in the face. We’re shocked. This is SO edgy! He’s out of control! He sure is. He just lost the case, the witness and one viewer who is now blogging about how stupid it is.
Yeah. I know. You have to crunch edgy drama into an hour. Interviews are hours long affairs. I get it. You’re trying to speed things along. But this is writing folks. It’s editing. Use your damned brains. If you’ve ever pulled your hair out over a script or a story – even if you’re a total noob about it – you know that things have to get cut, prodded, folded, molded, punched, beaten, sliced and diced. I admit I’m terrible at it myself. I hate doing it because i always find MORE to the story rather than less. But you have to do it. Particularly in script writing when one line of dialog must stand in for three different plot points. Unfortunately in crime shows you have people who use the interview and interrogation as a beat in an action sequence. They have no concept of how to write something engaging without the violence. And yet they’ve HAD examples of it! I refer you back to the Pembleton smile, how he watched his interviewees. He didn’t smack the crap out of them. He just smiled. And wasn’t that better? WAY more satisfying?
Golden Boy is dumb. That much shouldn’t be surprising. As much as I dislike the ‘consultant’ breed of detective shows I often find them entertaining because it’s about more than the investigation (sometimes TOO much more but that’s a different topic). The consultant shows, insulting as they are, can often lend insight into things: the way Castle just riffs off silly ideas, the way Patrick Jane reads people, the way Whatsisname from Psych or Monk observes things. They can be fun. They can add good stuff to your writing and let you think about things in a different way. But a procedural that is garbage is worse. It gives rise to the consultant shows because who wouldn’t need a consultant if your homicide squad was as hapless as these guys? I mean I presume you will be using that witness in prosecuting a suspect when you get one right? What do you think will happen in discovery when opposing counsel gets a hold of the taped interview? Why didn’t you frigging think about that before you wrote the damned scene?
I get it. Believe me. I’m still learning as much as I can about this whenever I can. It’s not easy. It’s complicated. It’s intimidating – especially if you aren’t now nor have you ever been a detective. It involves all sort of fact based stuff. Sometimes it doesn’t seem terribly dramatic and you really have to fight the old Raymond Chandler urge to bring in the guy with the gun. But go back and look at the scene. Find the drama. There’s a reason you wrote it to begin with. A reason you chose to include it. Maybe that reason doesn’t stand anymore and you can cut it or maybe there is something there that you can punch up but please try to keep it simple and focused. Look hard at the fact based stuff. You’ll find it can be fun and rewarding. Chains of evidence? How do I use that to make things go crappy. Juries? What the hell happened in the brain of Juror number 5 that made this whole thing go pear-shaped?
One way or another these shows all follow a similar pattern: they take something that is inherently dramatic already and then add drama to it. In my opinion, it’s one of the biggest sins you can make as a writer. It’s like Titanic or Pearl Harbor which I’ve written about before. You don’t need anything else. Tell the story well, tell it right and the drama should be right there – without heaping reality show antics on top of things. I’m not even saying i’m any good at this myself. But you really have to try it to get better or hang up the pen.