Culture & Conversation

Unwatched People’s History

On paper, Cold Case sounds like a run-of-the-mill cop show. Set in Philadelphia, it follows a small team of detectives investigating unsolved, sometimes decades-old crimes. First aired by CBS in 2003, this unassuming, far-from-the-headlines Sunday night drama will probably end its seven-year run this May. You probably didn’t watch it, and can’t catch up with it unless you get TNT. Sadly, you may never have a chance to discover it on DVD.

Yet Cold Case is an impressive historical drama, one of a kind. The team’s central character is Lilly Rush, an attractive and wary thirty-something cop who, in the pilot, was taken off a triple murder scene to investigate the 1976 murder of a teenager. After the initial half dozen episodes, the show took a drastic turn when Rush and her colleagues went on to solve the 1964 murder of a college baseball player in a dark alley behind a closeted gay bar.

This episode (“A time to hate”) set the pace and tone for what became, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful dramas ever produced. Each week for seven consecutive seasons, CC‘s executive producers Meredith Stiehm, the show’s creator, and Veena Sud, helming a team of fine writers including Liz Garcia, Greg Plageman, Christopher Silber and many others, gave the audience a string of poignant and moving stories dealing with love and hate, race and gender, politics and injustice.

For Cold Case‘s subjects are men and, more often, women who were haunting victims of the times: a housewife who found her independence in a factory during WWII; a boy found dead in a box at a time when orphans were subjected to grim government experiments; a 70’s young woman searching for her gender identity; a teacher killed during the McCarthy Witch Hunt. Many of the victims also appear to be pioneers in their own right: a 60’s couple who helped women get then-illegal abortions; a 1950’s pin-up model who decided to become a freelance photographer; a 1919 passionate advocate for women’s right to vote.

Beautifully written, very intelligently cast and shot each week in a style true to the period it depicts, the show has revisited numerous American cultural and historical landmarks, including JFK’s assassination, the Disco Era, the Vietnam war and even Orson Welles’ 1938 War of the Worlds radio program. It also aptly used cult faves such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Cabaret as backdrops for some of its characters’ fateful stories.

Last but not least, CC has consistently made a sensible and moving use of popular songs connected to each story’s period: Johnny Cash’s Folsom concert in an episode about a prison break; John Lennon’s songs in an episode about a murdered psychiatrist; a handful of Sinatra favourites in the story of a 1950’s flight attendant.

This last specificity of the show – its imaginative and careful soundtrack – is the reason why Cold Case DVDs have not yet hit the stands, and might never be available. Negotiating the musical rights for DVD has always given producers gigantic headaches, and often resulted in the original music being replaced in the DVD box sets. In this instance, the task seems much too difficult to achieve, as many of the show’s music borrows from very popular hits.

What Cold Case kept telling CBS’s audience for seven years is, you don’t really know America. Well, take a look at its recent history through the personal stories of ordinary people.

So hurry up and watch as many episodes as you can. It would be a crime to ignore this scandalously underestimated show – TV’s own People’s History of America.

CBS and CTV, Sunday at 10 pm. The last two episodes of the seventh season (and, probably, ever) will be aired in late April or early May, but expect CTV to rerun the show in the summer. (In French : “Victimes du passé”, on Séries +). Michael Levine’s thoughtful score and some of the songs from the first season have been issued on a Cold Case CD by Lakeshore records.

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