The 90s: Is the Truth Really Out There?
So far, three of the finest crime series of all time have been the linchpins of the Nineties: Law & Order (1990-), NYPD Blue (1993-), Homicide: Life on the Streets (1993-). All three are tough, hard-hitting cop shows and if their success paints any clear trend for the future, it might be that writers and producers should start thinking about something other than the police procedural in planning the Next Big Thing. Been there, done that.
Earlier in the decade, fleeting cult hit Twin Peaks (1990-1991)– once you cut through the uncomfortable feeling that even creator David Lynch didn’t have a clue what was going on–was essentially about FBI agent Dale Cooper, who was searching for the murderer of a teenage girl and a “damned fine cup of coffee,” not necessarily in that order. Life in Rome, Wisconsin, never got quite so strange as it did in Twin Peaks, but it was still, as depicted in Picket Fences (1992-1995), far from commonplace. And less realistic every year. In the end, both shows collapsed under the weight of their own desperate weirdness.
A lot of programs in the Nineties came and went quickly, although one, The Commish (1991-1995), enjoyed a decent enough run without ever seeming to get very much attention. Nowhere Man (1995-1996) was a brief cult hit, combining The Fugitive with a touch of The Prisoner, but only for a single season. The Client (1995-1996) failed to bring that Grisham magic touch to the small screen and American Gothic (1995-1996) proved just a bit too noir for the mass audience.
Two new shows, Millennium (1996-) and The Profiler (1996-), are built around the concept of an empath who can get inside the criminal mind and help lawmen track down the bad guys; one or both may have been successful enough to survive for a second go-around. Indeed, such shows may be an early warning signal that the next trend in TV mysteries will be tales about the investigation of paranormal events and unexplained phenomena. Consider the success of The X-Files (1993-)– which is, after all, about two FBI agents. Or even Alien Nation (1989-1990), a cop buddy show in which one of the lawmen just happened to be a bald, spotted alien with a thirst for sour milk.
In the season just past, we unfortunately saw the last of High Incident (1996-1997), an often quite good cop show that spotlighted uniformed officers on the street rather than cynical plainclothes detectives, which was cancelled at season’s end. Another notable casualty was the dark and challenging EZ Streets (1996-1997), which quickly attracted an deservedly avid following, but not one large enough to allow it to survive. And Murder One (1995-1997) showed that the public– or network executives– didn’t have the attention span for a single storyline spanning an entire season, no matter how well done. It hastened its own demise by replacing interesting and offbeat lead actor Daniel Benzali with another cookie cutter TV attorney for season two.
Among the survivors, Diagnosis Murder (1993- ) is the longest running. It stars Dick Van Dyke as Dr. Mark Sloan, who is basically Jessica Fletcher with a stethoscope. New York Undercover (1994- ) has built an audience for its gritty NY crime-busting and is noteworthy for spotlighting black and Hispanic characters in the lead roles. And Nash Bridges (1996- ) is Don Johnson trying to recapture that old Miami Vice magic, apparently coming close enough to warrant another season. Happily, mid-season replacement The Practice (1997- ), a lawyer show with lots of promise, made the ABC cut and will return in the fall.