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The Dead Zone

Let's face it. This is the season of overkill.

There's an alarmingly high body count on prime time these days, the result of a surging crime wave of formula “procedurals,” the more graphic the better. Depending on your threshold for such things, either we're in a golden age of crime drama or we've hit a grisly nadir. It's a nightly orgy of murder and mutilation, a forensic feast of splatter analysis and body-cavity voyeurism. On a recent CSI: NY, as the camera lingered on a charred corpse in which a bullet hole was discovered, the coroner remarked, “This murder wasn't about the triumph of minimalism.” When is it ever?

It may not be pretty, but it sure is popular. According to TV and Nielsen, the city morgue is our new national playground. Before long, those chats at the water cooler will leave you in a cold sweat as you rehash last night's prime-time carnage.

I can hear it now: “Did you see that lady coroner on CSI: Miami cut off the victim's head and boil it? Sick, dude!”

Some of us are still reeling from the recent CSI: NY episode that revealed a cult of wannabe amputees—the technical term is “body integrity identity disorder”—who injure themselves in hopes that doctors will remove their damaged limbs. This creepy situation brought out the latent jokester in our crime-lab heroes. (Sometimes I think the TV industry's underemployed comedy writers are moonlighting on these trendy shows to provide the gallows-humor one-liners that are de rigueur—or is that rigor?—at nearly every TV crime scene.)

Finding a severed finger in the freezer of a guy who died of a botched leg amputation, frizzy-haired detective Stella Bonasera (Melina Kanakaredes) quips, “This place gives a whole new meaning to the term chop shop.” And later, she surmises, “It only takes one print to finger someone.”

Stop. You're killing me. I mean it.

Not counting the frequent repeats of NBC's and CBS' franchise hits on Saturdays and the endless recycling on cable, there are roughly 14 hours a week—more than The WB's or UPN's entire prime time schedule—of these criminal, legal and medical procedurals. You're tempted to say enough is enough, except audiences don't seem to be able to get enough. For now.

Surely, this fetishistic absorption with death, dismemberment and DNA has its limits. Maybe by the time NBC presents its seventh nightly installment of Law & Order (a fourth is on its way at midseason) and CBS turns to Alaska to find a region that hasn't yet hosted a CSI, we'll have maxed out on mayhem. But I wouldn't count on it.

There has always been something satisfying about seeing justice administered in bite-sized episodic doses, whether it's Perry Mason in the courtroom or Gil Grissom at the microscope. A school of thought suggests this is especially true during a time of national unease, like during an extended overseas war. Osama may have eluded us so far, but we know that, within an hour, we'll see the cops get the fiend who's drugging women into comas to trap them inside their bodies until he kills them (the nightmare-inducing plot of the first episode of the relentlessly dark CSI: NY).

What's most troubling about this grim glut is the overall numbing effect of such extreme overexposure to society's most twisted criminals. After a while, it all becomes an abstract blur of bodies, and it's often hard to distinguish one cadaver from another.

Thankfully, there are exceptions to this rule, and I find myself gravitating toward the procedurals that place a greater emphasis on humanizing the victim than on the generic grind of detective and lab work. That's why NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, with its zealous squad's ferocious anger toward the pervs who target vulnerable women and children, is currently the most compelling of the L&O shows. That's also why the crown jewels of Jerry Bruckheimer's factory aren't the ubiquitous (and top-rated) CSI shows but the more emotionally resonant Without a Trace and Cold Case.

Recently, Cold Case has distinguished itself by digging up old mysteries from turbulent eras, including the McCarthy Communist witch hunt of the early '50s and the AIDS panic of the early '80s. The cases become even more tragic when you realize the subjects were basically victims of their times.

Without a Trace, which now draws more viewers many weeks than ER on Thursdays, has developed into one of TV's best shows, regardless of genre. As the FBI agents (led by the formidable Anthony LaPaglia) race the clock to track down missing persons, rarely knowing if they're still alive, they construct psychological profiles alongside the timeline. The more you learn about these lost souls, the more you care about the outcome.

And sometimes they're not even dead. These days, you could hardly ask for a more refreshing change of pace.