Body Of Proof

Body Of Proof debuts tonight on ABC at 10 p.m. Eastern.

Sooner or later, everybody’s got to confront the fact that not every piece of entertainment is made with him or her specifically in mind. There are a lot of different kinds of people, and they all like different things. So when bumping up against something that is clearly directed at people other than myself—something like, say, ABC’s new detective drama Body Of Proof—I have always resolved to consider just how well it might work for those it’s actually aimed at.

Body Of Proof falls into a wide variety of shows I like to call “mom TV.” They’re shows for your mom to have on while she’s folding laundry or preparing a late supper or just looking for something to pass the time. These shows can run the gamut from the awful and treacly—Lifetime’s Army Wives—to the actually pretty great—CBS’ The Good Wife, which has transcended its mom TV roots this season to become one of the best shows on TV, bar none. My criteria for this has always been simple: If I called home and my mom was watching this show, would I recoil in horror (as I do when it’s Criminal Minds), or would I shrug, say it wasn’t for me, and be pleased she was watching something that wasn’t absolutely awful?

With Body Of Proof, the response is somewhere in the middle. The show itself is about as paint-by-numbers a crime procedural as you could ever possibly dream up, a show seemingly custom designed by ABC to hold on to the older, female-r audience that watches Dancing With The Stars by any means necessary. As such, it contains all of the elements you’d expect from a crime procedural, starting with the crime, leading on to the quirky professionals who try to solve it, and concluding with the variety of suspects who are hiding the true culprit, who’s been hiding in plain sight this whole time. The detective story is centuries old, of course, and this particular TV iteration of it traces its roots back to C.S.I. (which found its roots in ‘70s cop dramas and The X-Files). But there’s nothing wrong with this, per se. It can be done skillfully.

Body Of Proof’s chief good point comes from its leading lady, the always-going-to-be-a-TV-star Dana Delany. Delany’s bombed around a variety of series since her breakthrough role on China Beach all those many years ago, including a recent stint on Desperate Housewives, and it’s surprising how few of those shows made Delany the sole, central attraction. Well, she is here, as Dr. Megan Hunt, a medical examiner with a tortured past as a top neurosurgeon who lost her touch after a car accident, leading to her killing a patient on the operating table. (This results in one of the most hilariously over-the-top cut-to-credits moments I’ve seen in a while, when Megan reveals almost all of this dark past in a single line before taking us to the title screen.) Now, she works as an M.E., benefiting the good people of both her department and the detectives she’s often partnered up with. Said detectives often invite her to investigations, telling her she’s only there as an observer and can’t ask questions. Does she listen to this advice? Have you seen Bones? Do you KNOW how much ABC would like a slightly older-skewing version of Bones?

If Megan were a character in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, she’d have the full fleet of stereotypical skills for a middle-aged female professional on television down. (Surprisingly, the apparently ageless Delany is 55, making her JUST FOUR YEARS YOUNGER than Angela Lansbury was when the latter began her run on Murder, She Wrote. I’m as baffled as you are.) She’s got a strained relationship with her 12-year-old daughter Lacey, and she keeps trying to buy said daughter’s affections. She’s got a combative relationship with her ex-husband, who cut her out of his life entirely after the accident (something which is still shadowy in the show’s backstory but mostly just makes him seem like a dick, for the benefit of the viewers at home, I guess). She’s got a lack of FEELINGS and FRIENDSHIPS and way too much in the way of CAREERISM.

There are a few sops here and there to the idea that working women can have both families and friends and a career in creator Chris Murphey’s pilot script, but the series mostly just aims for awkward bumbling as the hilarious professional woman tries to talk to all of these “people” she has been forced to “work with.” Oh, career women! Will you ever learn?

But damned if Delany doesn’t make all of this at least palatable, if not actively enjoyable. She’s given a ridiculous monologue in the episode airing April 12 about how she deals in body parts and tries to draw stories of who they belonged to solely from those parts. She asks her daughter to consider her own hand, to consider what it would say about her were it separated from her somehow. The monologue is hokey and silly, but Delany makes it seem like some of the most profound stuff ever said, to the point where I sort of wished I was watching THAT version of the show, the one about the ridiculously empathetic career woman making wild guesses about dead people based on their finger lengths.

Similarly, Delany nails the Sherlock Holmes-y scenes where Megan stands around a corpse and babbles at length about the tiny, simple things everybody but her would miss, the things that point out just who this person was and where they came from.

The rest of the cast surrounding Delany is also very good, but they don’t really get anything to do. John Carroll Lynch (of Fargo and Zodiac) and Sonja Sohm (of The Wire) are the two detectives Megan proves a constant pain in the ass to, but they don’t really get anything to do beyond bark at Megan about how she’s messing up their investigation until she’s not. (Lynch’s character is given some personal business in a later episode, but it’s mostly a pretext for Megan to have a deeper realization about her connection to the murder victim—yeah, this is the kind of show where every victim has a weird connection to Megan’s life, either literally or thematically.)

Geoffrey Arend and Windell Middlebrooks are here because… well, I’m not sure what they’re meant to be doing exactly, but I think they’re the comic relief. (He needs better lines—or any lines at all—if this is the case.) And Jeri Ryan is Megan’s taskmaster of a boss, in a part that mostly seems like a way for ABC to keep Jeri Ryan around until they can toss her into some sort of quirky procedural.

The only actor who doesn’t work is Nicholas Bishop as Megan’s partner, Peter, and that’s mostly because the show keeps trying to make him the “empathetic” guy who “feels” things and has “connections” to people. (What was that I was saying about Bones earlier?) He’s just too gruff for that, and his chemistry with Delany is nil.

But Delany’s star power is so great that she makes all of this seem almost watchable. Tonight’s pilot is hilariously awful in spots—the resolution to the case comes out of left field and seems to rely entirely on Megan making wild accusations at random until one sticks—but it gains a weird power from moments where Megan reflects on all she’s lost, almost entirely thanks to Delany’s performance.

The next two episodes of the show are more solid, even if the attempts to infuse things with something of a personal life storyline sometimes feel like the show’s writers believe all career women need to learn to FEEL. In particular, I didn’t mind the April 12 episode, which brings Lacey into Megan’s workplace and builds this into a storyline about her realizing how what her mother does is cool and important. When the final montage of her showing off her video played, it was sappy, sure, but in a way that felt earned.

Yes, the show is horribly lazy—every time a clue is found, it might as well be highlighted by a blue pawprint and a chorus of children yelling, “A CLUE!”—but there’s something vaguely appealing about it nonetheless. If you call up your mom and she’s watching Body Of Proof, well, you should tell her to switch over to The Good Wife, but you needn’t be horrified.

More TV Club