Whose bright idea was it to make a cop drama that's one part murder mystery, two parts The Hague?
- By Michael WeissMichael Weiss is the editor in chief of the Interpreter, an online journal that translates and analyzes Russian media. Follow him on Twitter: @michaeldweiss.
There are two conceivable premises for a television series based on global multilateralism: forcing obnoxious foreign ministers to live together in the same beachfront property for a summer, or allowing an elite team of forensic investigators to solve violent crimes in different countries. Unfortunately, a fist-pumping, shot-pounding Sergei Lavrov will have to wait — as we’ve now been treated to the second, less satisfying option. If not quite in the Sharknado realm of implausibility, the new NBC drama Crossing Lines, which debuted on June 14, really isn’t all that far from it.
The premise is that at a time when overly guarded jurisdictions and national sovereignties have got in the way of solid police work in Europe, the International Criminal Court (ICC) assembles a cosmopolitan cracker-jack cop squad, headquartered in a church-like basement at The Hague and tasked with tracking baddies across the continent as a kind of CSI: Rome Statute. (Suffice to say, no such force exists; ICC cops remain a thing of Fetou Bensouda‘s imagination.)
As in any good ensemble crime series, each member of the team is equipped with his or her own unique — but complementary — skill set, ranging from psychological profiling to computer hacking to state-of-the-art weapons expertise. Helping keep the forensic work to a cool 40 minutes-plus-commercials is a dedicated helicopter (which I doubt the real ICC can afford), and a remarkable device that holographically recreates crime scenes using laser beams. (If one of these has already been invented, then it’d shave a few decades off the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s fact-finding mission.) The team’s true superpower, however, is their transnational legal authority that trumps anything that local gendarmeries or interior ministries can throw at them.
That sounds exciting at first, until one consults Article 5 of the actual statute establishing the court, which stipulates that the ICC’s jurisdiction encompasses only genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. Needless to say, these apply to state or para-state institutions. Yet the targets of Crossing Lines, at least five episodes in, have included an American serial killer, a mobbed-up Irish vixen offing wealthy gentlemen of leisure with polonium-210 (ripped from the headlines!), and a roving fleet of anonymous truck drivers keen on staging couples’ fight clubs. While it’s true that our radioactive colleen owes a cryptic "debt" to a mysterious Russian who is being set up as the series super-villain — no doubt with an organized crime and/or FSB connection — she’s still not quite Ratko Mladic or Omar al-Bashir material.
Indeed, not one of Crossing Lines’s perps would ever be hauled before the real ICC. "It is a crime of aggression that is ongoing, systematic and cross-border," says Detective Major Louis Daniel (played by Marc Lavoine), a Gallic Nick Fury to this incipient band of eurozone Avengers. He’s referring to his first case involving pretty women who are abducted in one city and then ritualistically slaughtered in another. "This is exactly what the ICC does." Except that it isn’t. It’s what Interpol does, or more precisely what normal police agencies under Interpol supervision do.
Of course, this is a midsummer NBC series, not a documentary — and if Crossing Lines’s only problem were its ham-fisted remit, then this might be excused in favor of other dramatic attributes. As it happens, the narrative arc of the show is banal, the cultural and sexual stereotypes sprinkled throughout are both silly and vulgar, and the dialogue seems written in varying dialects of eurotrash. Consider the origin story unveiled in the two-part pilot which involves both the team’s formation and its first assignment tracking a serial killer. All it takes to shake Michel Dorn, a nationally indeterminate senior ICC inspector played by a sententious, Auden-quoting Donald Sutherland, of his quite reasonable skepticism about the legitimacy of a transnational FBI is to have a few poignant lines of an old report he authored on Kosovo quoted back to him by a yummy Italian anti-mafia cop named Eva Vittoria. She’s there to make the moral case for an ICC police force, and boy does she make it.
"What man doesn’t like a woman to tell him how brilliant he is?" says Daniel, as he assures Vittoria of her powers of persuasion. For some reason, series creator Edward Allen Bernero, himself a former Chicago cop, seems to think that feminine wiles are sufficient at speeding the wheels of international justice in the Netherlands. "A woman’s mind is … quite extraordinary," Sutherland’s homme serieux relays to Daniel about the impression Vittoria has made on him, this as he he hands over the nifty ICC badges that make the team’s authority official. Let’s just hope these guys never have to prosecute Asma al-Assad.
Alas, other characters in the show are no less prone to kicking the viewer in the shin with cliche. Our protagonist, Carl Hickman (William Fichtner, who really does deserve better), is a brilliant criminal profiler formerly with the NYPD but now forsaken by the department after his hand was horribly mangled in the line of duty. When we meet him, Hickman is employed as a trash collector at a carnival in Amsterdam, yet one seemingly able to divine the life story of a bullying philanderer at a mere glance. What he’s doing in sanitation will be illuminated in due course, but lest we have to figure out all by ourselves that Hickman’s your gritty, tortured kind of lawman, he tells us in a voice-over: "The only thing keeping me alive was anger and morphine." What’s the Dutch for "I’m getting too old for this shit"?
Then there is the miniature Good Friday Agreement brewing in the form of a thwarted romance between Tommy McConnel, an Irish Traveller with a specialty in tactical weapons, and Sienna Pride, a well-bred English rose whose Oxbridge education has made her one of Scotland Yard’s ablest interrogators. I’ve watched enough Downton Abbey to accept Sienna and Tommy’s upstairs/downstairs chemistry, but I couldn’t contain my laughter at this tossed-off exchange:
Tommy: "Do you even have a gun?"
Sienna: "Never really needed one."
Now, Tommy is described earlier as having served on the police force in Northern Ireland, a place where British authority is not really synonymous with grinning unarmed Bobbies on the beat. But then, the fact that he refuses the offer of a stiff drink from Hickman is enough to prompt the show’s only American representative to goggle in disbelief and recall a notorious characteristic of the Irish. (Luckily for us, Tommy’s got impossible-to-miss scars from all his "bare-knuckle clan fighting," so there’s at least one satisfied stereotype for you.)
Why did I say the romance between Tommy and Sienna is thwarted? Because she gets killed off in episode one, providing everyone else with an inaugural tragedy to bind them together and underscore the very personalized nature of their work. Not that they need it. Monsieur Daniel’s backstory, for instance, involves the murder of his young son via a car bomb planted by an ex-Russian army colonel, Alexander Dimitrov, the spooky offstage Russian I alluded to above, whom Sutherland’s character has taken it upon himself to chase around the globe. And have I mentioned the German computer whiz, Sebastian, who’s got both an illegitimate child by an old girlfriend and a gambling problem?
Crime series aren’t meant to be George Eliot, I grant you, but the crimes at least have to be interesting and compelling. There is no excuse for why the culprit behind the first spate of serial killings turns out to be a nebbishy U.S. embassy official in Paris with questionable diplomatic immunity, easy access to State Department residences abroad, and some very serious mommy issues. A real Portnoy the Ripper, he is, since he buys women’s apparel under the cunning handle of "John Smith," which, as Hickman helpfully explains to Pride, is "about as anonymous a name as you could use. But in America." Good to have that cleared up, then.
So far, my favorite guilty pleasure plotline features a gang of faceless long-haul truckers whose idea of a good time is forcing couples with children on the autobahn to battle each other to the death using sticks and pipes. The winners have to live with the guilt of their murders; the losers get to be buried in a mass grave (which is at least war crime-like), and their orphans handed off to the wicked car mechanic whose clientele furnishes the unwilling combatants to the psychotic teamsters. The motive? The mechanic’s childless wife always wanted a family of her own, and I guess the procedure for adoption in Germany involves too much bureaucracy.
Not everything about Crossing Lines is the fault of poor execution or lousy exegesis of international law. There’s also an intrinsic reason as to why a show about eurozone dragnets can’t work, which happens to be the same reason that a show like the original Law & Order worked so well for so long. The latter was set in a single city, extraordinary enough in snapshot form, but also in a state of cultural transformation: the New York of David Dinkins, Rudy Giuliani, and Michael Bloomberg.
Gotham itself was the lead in an ever-changing ensemble cast of interracially-partnered detectives, tough but politically-interesting district attorneys, smarmy defense counsels, insightful shrinks, and perp after glorious perp, ranging from misunderstood crackheads to conniving society wives. Crossing Lines fails because, apart from everything else, it crosses too many lines all at once and never stays put long enough to give even one of its many intriguing world capitals a chance to become part of the action.
My advice: stick the team in Cyprus for the rest of the season and have them investigate Dimitrov’s banks accounts.