Looking Again: ‘Cold Case’ at 20

Kathryn Morris in Cold Case

Warning: The following article will contain spoilers for some episodes.

The early 2000s saw an explosion in crime television programs. CSI debuted to immense popularity and would come to influence how society as a whole views forensic science. Law & Order began branching out with its Special Victims Unit spinoff living on to this day as the longest-running primetime series. And The Wire is regarded as one of (if not the) the finest ever made.

But there’s one show that, while not as renowned, approached the genre from a different angle and provided audiences with highly memorable episodes. Stories that demonstrated how it is never too late to do the right thing.

Created by Meredith Stiehm (current president of the WGA) after having worked on NYPD Blue and ER, and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, Cold Case debuted on CBS in 2003 and ran until 2010 for seven seasons. Kathryn Morris starred as Detective Lily Rush of the Philadelphia Police Department. Rush mainly works on present-day murders but is asked to look into an unsolved killing from the 1970s. With a newfound affinity for delivering justice long overdue, she leads a mini-division for cold jobs. She’ll be there to reopen and close the case whenever new evidence comes to light.

Justin Chambers initially filled the partner role but departed the show after the first few episodes. Danny Pino as Detective Scotty Valens took over and remained through the rest of the show’s run. As did the supporting cast, which consisted of Jeremy Ratchford and Thom Barry as an additional pair of detectives and John Finn as the commanding officer. In the third season, Tracie Thoms was added as another investigator who joined the team.

The show featured a unique format. Whether the crime occurred a week prior or nearly a century ago, flashbacks were always utilized. Thus, the characters would often be portrayed by two actors as past and present versions. Moreover, high attention to detail was paid in production design, costuming, music, and even filming stock to accurately capture the periods.

What this format truly excelled in, however, was humanizing the victims. Typically, in shows of this nature, such characters are either only given very limited screen time at the start of the story or just bodies. On Cold Case, as the flashbacks occur all through the episode, these figures can become as major a character as the detectives. As a result, their inevitable demises are made all the more impactful.

Several renowned directors worked on the series, including Peter Medak, Jeannot Szwarc, Agnieszka Holland, Michael Schultz, Emilio Estevez, Roxann Dawson, Allison Anders, Tim Matheson, Andy Garcia, Nicole Kassell, and Mark Pellington, who directed the pilot.

Then there are the guest stars who, befitting the show’s theme, spanned generations. Several actors were introduced to the world for the very first time (such as Tessa Thompson, Madeline Carroll, and Aimee Teagarden) while others took some of their final screen bows (like Harve Presnell, Diana Douglas, and Robert Symonds).

Notable guest stars also include Melissa Leo, Barry Bostwick, June Lockhart, Jeffrey Combs, Donna Mills, Chadwick Boseman, Scout Taylor-Compton, Roddy Piper, Jennifer Lawrence, Bobby Cannavale, Mare Winningham, Ken Howard, Lee Majors, Yara Shahidi, Veronica Cartwright, Jenna Fischer, Michael B. Jordan, Peter Graves, Shailene Woodley, Ernie Hudson, Jesse Plemons, Diane Ladd, Samantha Eggar, Nicholas Braun, Randall Park, Kate Mara as the pilot episode’s victim, and Meredith Baxter as Rush’s mother.

Despite the focus on the past, the show made it a point to address contemporary issues and was even prescient in warning viewers of the troubles ahead. Take, for instance, the 2008 episode “Spiders” which can be seen as uncannily predicting the rise of the alt-right. In that story, the ultimate villain was a Richard Spencer-type college professor who was contrasted against the two-bit punks that people might typically think neo-nazis are. “The War at Home,” made and released in 2006, was one of the first stories to address PTSD in soldiers returning from the war on terror. And in the fictionalized “Boy in the Box” episode, the team discovered the victim’s identity, preceding the same happening in real life.

A likely reason that this show has been overlooked is that, unlike its contemporaries, it has had no presence in the home video market. Presumably, licensing issues with the music prevented DVD releases. It could only live on in syndication, but even that would run its course. Fortunately, all seven seasons can currently be found on Max. 

But despite how under-the-radar the show may have been, some of its influence, however slight, can be seen in other programs that share its elements. The casting of multiple actors for different time periods is becoming a more common practice, employed by the likes of The Crown and Yellowjackets. Consider, too, successor procedural programs like Motive which also feature flashbacks fleshing out the victims in the episodes. Much more directly, non-fiction shows such as Cold Case Files and Cold Justice certainly owe a debt of gratitude to this on for their existence.

As time marches on and the television landscape fills with more crime shows, Cold Case remains one of a kind and continues to hold a special place in the hearts of its viewers. To this day, it remains an unusual entry into the genre that provides a template for others to build upon. But most of all, it serves as a needed reminder that one’s fellow human beings matter and should not be forgotten. Whether someone dies one week or one century ago, whatever their markers of identity may be, they deserve to see justice served and have their stories told.

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