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John Doyle: Cop shows that struggle to overcome genre conventions

Man, there are a lot of cop shows. Over the coming week, two cop dramas start their third seasons. Let's assess.

Murder in the First (Bravo, June 27, 9 p.m.) was created by an old hand, multiple-Emmy-winner Steven Bochco, with Eric Lodal, and it's done for cable – TNT airs it in the United States. Primarily, it's about a pair of San Francisco detectives – Terry English (played by Taye Diggs) and Hildy Mulligan (Canadian Kathleen Robertson) who handle the sort of crimes that are classified as "major" and have reverberations into the larger community.

The season-three opener next Monday is typical of the series. The detectives are thrown into a lividly strange world, that of sports and celebrity, when a pro-football player is murdered. There are hints that the storyline is based on real cases of NFL players being entangled in criminality. But, for the most part, this is a conventional drama.

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Were it not for the sheer force of Robertson's performance, the series would be forgettable. It's an instance of television having grown and matured since Bochco was at his best, with Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. It's now more than 20 years since he won his last Emmy for NYPD Blue. Things change and then, in this genre, they don't.

There is a substantial amount of melodrama in Murder in the First that doesn't really amount to substance. There is tension, but it doesn't add a sense of the truly sinister. Tonally and structurally, the series sticks to the kind of cop drama that flourished in the 1980s and 1990s. Character development involves personal problems with a spouse, partner or family, or an old history of drug or alcohol abuse. The characters are put under stress when outsiders fail to understand the code of police work, or worse, when there are people inside the police establishment who want to undermine them.

There is nothing especially bad about Murder in the First. What some viewers expect these days, however, is a more emphatic sense of the darkness that cops enter when cases become complex. The first season of True Detective set the bar high for cop shows, and such British fare as Happy Valley have made the genre stronger.

19-2 (Bravo, tonight, 10 p.m.) returns for a third season, too. Much praised in the Canadian TV business, it looks strangely like Murder in the First in terms of structure and tone. Set mainly inside one Montreal police district (though you'd hardly know that), it is partly about internal police politics and partly about investigating and stopping crime.

As this season opens, there are major reverberations from the death of Sergeant Julien Houle, a tortured character involved with things a cop should never go near. There is backroom manoeuvring and backstabbing about inaction on the matter, and much tension about how the police division moves forward.

The series seems to follow a very rigid structure. The internal machinations are contrasted with spectacular scenes that require the cops to be brave and decisive. In tonight's opener, that function is fulfilled by a breathtaking and horrific car accident that creates chaos and horror. It is brilliantly staged but, after that, the shift to police politics and the private lives of the main characters, Nick Barron (Adrian Holmes) and Ben Chartier (Jared Keeso), is jarring.

19-2 aims for nuance but delivers little. After two seasons, it remains an orthodox show. Yes, there is great craft shown in the writing and acting, as the masks of various characters fall away to reveal their true selves and motivations. But it lacks true emotional heft.

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The makers of both shows can take pride in the craft. It's not easy to make a cop show that rises above the formula of network TV. In both shows, there is great chemistry between the main characters, but both still boil down to nailing the bad people. In Murder in the First, it is criminals, and in 19-2, it is police officers and the bosses who undermine each other.

The payoff for viewers is that tangled plots become untangled and evil is revealed, if not brought to justice. If you like your cop shows to not burden your brain too much, these two are for you.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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