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A Very Forensic Christmas

Only during the holiday season, breaking away from the hurry and hassle, can we appreciate all the ever-expanding bounty the good folks behind cable TV maintain for us. For my sister and I, it was a time to bond over the current wealth of forensic murder investigation shows. Anyone who's been roped into your average digital-cable "bundle" rip-off service plan should have access to enough of these procedurals to supply a whole channel of their own. But whether it's the holidays or an obscenely idle long weekend, no TV murderthon is complete without the following.

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CSI: MIAMI
It's often easier to transition into this with some fluffier fare. Start with few episodes of CSI: Miami. Behold the sense of wonder with which these investigative technicians explain their findings and methods to each other, because pretty soon you'll need to settle in with a cast of detectives who are often overweight, have bad skin, sport weird facial hair, and use phrases like "feasibility study" and "medium-velocity splatter pattern" with maximum dryness. Of course, what makes CSI: Miami greater than plain-old CSI is leading man David Caruso, and how he seems to be insinuating something with every goddamn syllable he speaks:

OUTLAWS AND LAWMEN
And, because you're also about to get a stark view of the criminals - in blurry interrogation footage and unflattering mugshots - the Discovery Times channel's Outlaws And Lawmen series keeps alive the myths that arose around post-Civil War criminals, with just a dash of reality. The show's portrait of WIld Bill makes the whole homicide thing seem reasonable. Instead of a crime analysis, we get mythologized character studies. No such thing as a psychopath here - just dudes with "demons."

COMMERCIAL BREAK: An ad for Las Vegas' Tahiti Village resort puts a subtly predatory spin on the whole vacation-gambling thing: "What happens in Vegas should be happening to YOU!"

MOST EVIL
A reminder that even the most sophisticated show is, at heart, an excuse for marveling at "unspeakable" crimes, Discovery Times' Most Evil finds forensic psychiatrist Michael Stone rating assorted killers (especially sadistic-rapist killers) on his ostensibly scientific scale of evil. Needless to say, most of the folks featured here are really, really evil. Are they ever. Stone's scale is intriguing, but I suspect there's some leftover grant money in his sock drawer.

48 HOURS: HARD EVIDENCE
Getting us more to the real-live-procedural end of things, another Discovery Times series brings, among others, the story of Sheila Bryan, a Georgia family woman accused of torching her car with her elderly mother inside it. After she's convicted, bespectacled and besuspendered Texan Jerry Hurst comes to her aid with expert testimony on fire, melting plastic, and faulty ignition switches. You'll want to believe Hurst, but his gangly, bug-eyed manner isn't tailored for the stolid air of a courtroom. We also hear from members the two different juries who tried Bryan - the first set is utterly convinced by the prosecution's fire experts - who provide a sense that jurors operate in a terrible murk of new and confusing concepts, yet seem more interested in finding certainty than in reasonable doubts.

COMMERCIAL BREAK: The Hoveround!

FORENSIC FILES
Forensic Files isn't the best or the worst, and at times the re-enactments are a tad schlocky. Each episode's entertainment value really just depends on how weird and depraved the crime was. But it's generally reliable.

COMMERCIAL BREAK: Just so you know, Golden Corral was open 11 a.m. - 8 p.m. on Christmas Day.

MURDER BY THE BOOK
Supposedly linking crime novelists to the true stories that inspired them, Murder By The Book just gives said writers a chance to cheapen themselves and the very real victims. Here, Faye Kellerman adds her unconvincing commentary to an otherwise straight-up procedural about the murder of Gerald and Vera Woodman, a rich L.A. couple gunned down in their condo's parking garage in 1985. On Yom Kippur, no less, or, as Kellerman puts it: "When God decides who shall live and who shall die . . . Reading about the crime, I felt violated."

Kellerman's narration sounds stiff and dry, and she looks nervous in front of the camera. In fact, her delivery resembles that of a crappy audiobook. She actually uses the phrase "bloodlust for vengeance," which seems a bit redundant. "As I followed the case, I felt as frustrated as the cops." Oh, shut your yap, Faye.

THE INVESTIGATORS
As far as methodical investigation shows go, this one might have the most narrative patience. In one episode, an investigation team goes through a county landfill in hot weather, looking for the bodies of a mother and her small child. This results in one of the ghastliest - and most effective - shots I've ever seen on one of these shows: a dead leg hanging out of a crane bucket.

COMMERCIAL BREAK: Alex Trebek shills for some life-insurance company, noting the importance of life insurance: "I have it myself." Also, the super-handy knife-sharpening tool, Samurai Shark.

THE NEW DETECTIVES
If you don't see at least a half-dozen Florida killings, it ain't a murderthon at all. That's because the state's homicides have a way of being batshit crazy. This episode of The New Detectives concerns a man killed for making unwanted advances on a teenager who rented a room from him. But it's not just a crime of passion. It's a premeditated plan carried out by three people, who beat him, burned him, and "purchased a meat cleaver at a discount store to finish him off."

Surveillance video shows the killers returning cleaver for a refund later that evening. An inventory check links the cleaver purchase to a fucking credit card. How fucking dumb are these people? This show also gives you two murders per episode, without feeling too rushed.

COMMERCIAL BREAK: The Perfect Pushup. Invented by a Navy Seal.

COLD CASE FILES
The Investigators' equal in craft and, um, class, Cold Case Files has a knack for starting each episode with a quick, sharp hook. Plus, the narrator has a more contemplative voice than you'd expect in a show of this stripe - it's aged, educated, and a bit fluttery. Like a dude pleading for a second date, or like the Smoking Man's timid little brother.



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Posted on January 3, 2008


MUSIC - Bric-a-Brac's Rocking Weekend.
TV - John Oliver's Brilliant Case For Impeachment.
POLITICS - The Importance Of Chief Justice John Roberts.
SPORTS - Lucas Giolito's Changeup.

BOOKS - Germans In Illinois.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - Inventor's Enhanced Doorknob.


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