Dana Delaney stars as Megan Hunt in a heavily trailed new series on ABC, Body of Proof, set right here in Philadelphia. Delayed from an autumn launch because of her illness, Delany plays a medical examiner with more than a touch of the Dr House about her. But being female and maybe approaching 50, she is a very welcome addition to American TV’s crowded medical facility. She used to be a neurosurgeon until she lost her manual dexterity as the result of a car crash. She comes across as opinionated, stubborn and right; but troubled and insecure. She over-identifies with murder victims; buts into the bumbling police investigations; has no friends (this is mentioned several times) but is in one of those difficult post-divorce relationships with ex and daughter that any long-form series needs to keep its plots well fuelled. It should work; it might; but the first episode was a mess. It couldn’t be otherwise because the episode construction was overly constrained by the commercial breaks structure imposed by ABC [see my previous blog on this].
The initial episode had to combine a self-contained murder story with the initial establishment of characters and their backstories. It just couldn’t fit it all in. Some regular characters stood around with nothing to do. Sonja Sohn, the wonderful Kima Greggs from The Wire, was a silent accomplice to the old-school Detective Bud Morris (John Carroll Lynch) until she got to read the murderer her rights at the end of the show. Surely the most unrewarding part she has ever played. The episode story was also flawed. Hunt investigates the murder of a young woman who, she deduces, had been having an affair with her boss. It ended with a surprise twist: it was the boss’s wife wot did it, not the boss as we had thought. The denouement was perfunctory in the extreme. It has to be squeezed into a five minute segment. The husband’s reaction to the devastating revelation was not explored at all. He turned around and shut his front door even as Sonja Sohn’s recitation of suspect rights was being faded down. It was almost as though the series creators were making the case for a couple of extra minutes’ screen time.
They had done their best. They had maximized their dramatic real estate by reducing the title sequence to a mere card at the end of the first segment. This is now standard practice in commercial network TV in the US: the only way that writers can get any more space to tell their stories. By the time that Dana Delany played Katherine Mayfair on Desperate Housewives, the show had reduced its elaborate title sequence (with expensive Danny Elfman theme) to a four second sting. The title sequence is toast so far as the networks are concerned. However, the title sequence is still a feature of the few commissioned series which appear between the movies on premium channels like HBO and Showtime. HBO’s Treme has an elegant combination of archive footage and stills that emphasise post-Katrina damp and mould. The title sequence has become the TV equivalent of hardback book publication: a display of quality, a conspicuous deployment of enhanced sensual enjoyment. Hardbacks have better paper and are a more pleasing object; series with title sequences have music and graphics and the promise of no (or at least fewer) commercial breaks.
So what will become of Body of Proof? Will Megan Hunt empathise exclusively with white crime victims from the well-off suburbs, or will she get a steady stream of cases from Philly’s murder central districts like Kensington? 80% of the city’s murder victims are reputed to be black, and this is a city with one of the highest murder rates in the US (305 in 2009). But the rate is dropping and the police (maybe because of their ace medical examiner) have a 75% clear-up rate, well above the national average. Or am I asking for Body of Proof to turn into Prime Suspect?