Now that more TV than anyone could possibly consume is available with just a couple of clicks, the few shows that still elude the streaming platforms feel more valuable than ever. I’m chasing a few white whales, not necessarily because I think the series are particularly good, but simply because they’re currently impossible to watch. Would I spend my nights and weekends bingeing episodes of Oliver Beene were the short-lived Fox sitcom to suddenly appear on Netflix? Probably not. But because it’s never been available on a streaming service, I think about Oliver Beene every week of my life. You truly do want what you can’t have.
I’m still chasing that particular show, but otherwise, 2021 was a pretty good year for my streaming wish list. The Nanny finally hit HBO Max, allowing me and the rest of the internet to rejoice in Fran Drescher’s impeccable comic timing and stunning ‘90s fashion. Less heralded was the arrival of Cold Case to the same platform. (The show had only previously been available on Roku, which, let’s face it, doesn’t count.) Cold Case is a very bad, very binge-able show that I watched absently for hours this year and can now highly recommend to anyone who shares my unfortunate habit of filling life’s few quiet moments with disposable TV.
Like many classic network series, Cold Case was a long-running hit that left almost no discernible cultural impact. It ran on CBS from 2003 until 2010, and was very much your standard procedural crime show. Kathryn Morris starred as sensitive Philadelphia detective Lilly Rush, who, along with her colleagues on the cold case squad, investigated long unsolved murders, sensitively. Like Criminal Minds and CSI, the show was virtually identical to every other cop series, save its one gimmick—in this case, its heavy reliance on flashbacks and classic pop songs. The reason I find it so watchable is that, despite Cold Case’s very glaring flaws, that’s a pretty good gimmick.
Much of each episode unfolds in witness recollections, as the detectives interview suspects and hear their accounts of the circumstances surrounding the murder of the week. For cases that take place long in the past, this generally means that each character aside from the victim is played by two actors—a younger version for the flashback scenes, and an older version talking to Detective Rush and spilling their sepia-toned (or, in the oldest crimes, black and white) memories. The show didn’t strain itself to make its costumes or set designs period authentic, but it did seem to invest in its music. Most flashbacks feature a hit song from the year in which the crime took place, and over its seven seasons, the series really piled on the classics: “Leather and Lace” by Stevie Nicks and Don Henley, “Save Me” by Aimee Man, “I Say a Little Prayer” by Aretha Franklin. Almost every episode ends in exactly the same way, with a classic tune playing over a montage of the baddie getting hauled off to jail, the victim’s loved ones reminiscing bittersweetly, and the dead person themselves appearing to one of the detectives as a vision, ghostly and sad but RIP-ing at last. No matter how ridiculous the story is, this highly emotionally manipulative denouement always gets me teary-eyed.
Here’s a typical episode: In 1994, a teenage boy dies by falling from the roof of his high school in an apparent suicide after spending the afternoon in detention. Twelve years later, the good cops of the cold case squad stumble upon evidence suggesting that the case was actually a murder. They interview the boy’s parents and all the kids he was hanging out with in detention, getting snippets of the story—which eventually involves a secret teenage romance, childhood sexual abuse, a stolen gun, and a suicide pact that evolves into a murder pact, until it’s revealed that the kid accidentally fell off the roof while trying to keep his friend from jumping. It hits all the bases, featuring a scenario thinly ripped from either the headlines or the plot of a beloved movie (in this case, The Breakfast Club), and a convoluted and very silly plot. But did I cry over the ending montage, which features Smashing Pumpkins’ excellent “Landslide” cover? I certainly did.
There is a lot about this show that simply makes no sense at all. For one, even in cases that occurred 40 years ago, a shockingly convenient number of potential suspects are always still alive and in the Philadelphia area. Everyone’s happy to talk to the police, almost no one seems to consider asking for a lawyer, and in the end, the bad guy usually confesses. In a way, it’s more audaciously ridiculous than even the standard crime show, with its hero cops and villainous baddies. At least the Law and Order detectives do some detecting. The CSI folks are always at it in the lab, cooking up junk science. But Cold Case feels almost innocent in comparison, as every killer is willing to spill their darkest secrets after being asked exactly twice.
Cold Case also offers the delight of seeing the faces of hard-working TV actors of yesteryear. As a kid, I used to watch Twilight Zone episodes with my mom, and she’d periodically point to the screen and say something along the lines of, “Oh! She used to be on TV all the time.” She couldn’t name the actors or their other credits, but she still seemed to take satisfaction in recognizing them. Now I understand why. Cold Case is full of oh-him guest stars, ubiquitous TV performers of the 2000s whose names remain unknown to me but whose familiar faces spark a tiny flash of joy. Didn’t she star in a five-episode arc of Supernatural? Didn’t he have a really sad death on ER? Hey, isn’t that Brandon Routh?
But I like to think that there’s just something so moving about memory, and about people looking at their pasts and trying to take a clear-eyed view of their younger selves and their regrets, that it slightly elevates Cold Case’s otherwise pure-spun pablum. Combine that with the magic of a good song, and for me, it’s instant tears. Sometimes a good cry that only costs 40 minutes of half-hearted investment is exactly what I’m looking for. So if Cold Case happens to have been among your streaming white whales, I highly recommend checking it out. After all, there’s truly no better time to cry than the holidays.