Film and Television Features

Test Screens and Static Dreams #1

I love my computer, I really do. Even the humble screensaver, which in past lives always tended to consist of swirls of pixellated graphics, is occasionally useful. Mine tries to teach me new words; as you may have noticed, amateur critics love squeezing obscure new words into their writings, so you can imagine how much this excites me. Today, however, my trusty old friend missed the mark, offering up this uncharacteristically tame suggestion: ‘alibi’.

‘Alibi’ doesn’t crop up in everyday conversation much, but in crime dramas ‒ and particularly those of a predictable, formulaic nature ‒ it is a disturbingly regular fixture. For this very reason, the appearance of this humble word on my monitor screen immediately triggered thoughts of the recent CBS crime drama Blue Bloods (UK viewers may have caught it on Sky Atlantic). Before I could control my imagination, Donnie Wahlberg’s ‘hard-nosed detective’ Danny Reagan was rushing down the avenues of my mind, roughing up criminals and somehow solving every single murder ever committed in an oddly naïve version of New York City.

It’s a strange show, which has never really broken into so much of a casual jog since its pedestrian pilot aired in September 2010. The shortcomings of Blue Bloods have never been too far from my mind, but something has encouraged me to plough on regardless, and I finally caught the final episode of the first season last week.

The most frustrating thing about Blue Bloods is that it really shouldn’t have been this way. The series was created by the acclaimed husband and wife writing team, Mitchell Burgess and Robin Green. Having contributed extensively to Northern Exposure and The Sopranos, Burgess and Green are experienced writers who doubtlessly require a dedicated room for their impressive collection of Emmy, Golden Globe, and Peabody awards. Throw in a seasoned cast ‒ Wahlberg is joined by Tom Selleck, Bridget Moynahan, and NYPD veteran Nicholas Turturro ‒ an iconic location, and an intriguing police corruption subplot, and you could be looking square in the face of a modern crime classic. Sadly, Blue Bloods is anything but.

The pilot’s unbelievably awkward opening scene should have alerted me to the wasted hours ahead. Oddly reminiscent of the scene in a business meeting, when the delegates are invited to introduce themselves in turn to the rest of the room, it was so contrived that I had to check the synopsis to make sure Blue Bloods wasn’t a spoof of the cop show genre. Five minutes in, we already know pretty much everything we need to know about the Reagan family. They fight crime; one of the sons was killed on duty; another has quit Harvard to pursue a career fighting crime; Wahlberg’s character doesn’t always see eye to eye with Moynahan’s, but they love each other really. You get the idea.

If the role of a pilot episode is to provide a taster of an upcoming series, they really could have called it a day after scene one. And they probably should have, because the ensuing case ‒ every episode has a central case, which Wahlberg invariably solves, usually with the minimum of fuss ‒ is built around a piece of abysmally poor research.

To summarise, a young diabetic girl has been kidnapped and she hasn’t got her insulin; if Donnie Wahlberg doesn’t find her within 24 hours, she will surely die of ‘insulin shock’. I was literally screaming at the scream by this point. If all type one diabetics died after just 24 hours without insulin, none of them would survive long enough to be diagnosed in the first place. It’s a crazy plot device. Thankfully it only takes thirty minutes for Wahlberg’s character to crack the case ‒ and the criminals jaw, because he’s a tough, uncompromising NYC cop, you know ‒ and in doing so, kickstart a seemingly untouchable 100% winning streak that continues throughout the whole season.

Poor writing and a distinct lack of realism aside, Blue Bloods’ gravest error is surely its failure to incorporate the crucial corruption subplot into the fabric of the season. Think of a classic show like The Sopranos ‒ the vast majority of its episodes are entertaining in isolation, but they all add something worthwhile to the season’s story arc. There’s a depth there, an overriding sense of the bigger picture. In contrast, far too many episodes of Blue Bloods are completely isolated from their surroundings.

The early tension created by the mention of the Blue Templar, a mythical secret society of corrupt NYPD officers, dissipates as the series progresses, because the Templar is barely even referred to. It’s almost as if the show’s creators forgot to tell the rest of the writing team about their very existence, then remembered at the last minute and decided to shoehorn all of the action into the season finale. It really is a masterclass in how not to approach pacing in a television series.

Predictably, when the long-awaited payoff finally arrives it is handled in the most disastrously clichéd fashion. And you know what? It’s a fitting end for this most amateur of big budget crime dramas.