With the cancellation of ABC's Life on Mars last week, it's official: The cop drama as we've known it since Hill Street Blues in 1981 is dead.
Twenty-eight years is an impressive run, but as a culture, we have moved well past thinking of urban America as a dark and threatening frontier that needs to be tamed by hard-edged, big-city detectives such as Mick Belker of Hill Street Blues and Andy Sipowicz of NYPD Blue.
As a nation, we have new fears, frustrations and nightmares. And so Hollywood is trying to give us new prime-time heroes that speak to our anxieties and send us off to bed feeling a little better about the world in which we live.
THE NEXT WAVE: Thanks to Jack Bauer of 24 (Fox) and Jonas Blaine of The Unit (CBS), fans began to embrace government-employed warriors who battled a slew of post-Sept. 11 worries. But as these series and heroes wind down, where will we turn next?
CRIMES BUT NO COPS: Three freshman series — The Mentalist (CBS), Lie To Me (Fox) and Eleventh Hour (CBS) — involve crimes and a team that solves them. But the new American prime-time heroes are a far cry from Sipowicz and Belker. None works out of a gritty downtown precinct house. And none relies on a gun to ultimately assert dominance over dangerous criminals.
THE NEW LEADING MAN: He's usually a cranky outsider with a checkered past and a female associate who more or less keeps him in line. And each has special talents, training or powers of intuition that allow him to ferret out deception, dishonesty and outright lies.
THE NEW VILLAIN: Forget the big-city drug lord and Osama bin Laden; the new American villain is the liar. "I think this period of time right now has a lot in common with the early '70s. There's a recession, and there's scandal after scandal after scandal. And we're constantly being lied to and being shown things that feel like they're completely out of our control," says Brendan Hines, 32, who plays Eli Loker, a truth-telling assistant to the lead character, Dr. Cal Lightman (Tim Roth), in Lie to Me.
We know it is make-believe, but seeing liars punished in prime-time dramas is still more satisfying than what happens in our real lives. It might not quite measure up to what the ancient Greeks experienced under the stars in their outdoor theaters carved into the sides of mountains. But everything is downsized these days in America — even our TV heroes and the catharsis they provide.