Fri
May 5 2017 3:00pm

Bosch: A Novel Approach to Mystery Television

Bosch has transformed television mystery. For the first time, viewers can experience the closest approximation to a mystery novel as is possible on screen. The pacing, development of the characters, complexity of the plot, simultaneous themes, and detailed touches make Bosch the template for 21st-century mystery television. 

One of the shortcomings of police procedural shows such as CSI, NCIS, and Castle (just to name a few) is that they are light on story outside of the main mystery. With roughly 42 minutes to tell a whodunit, they’re pressed for time. Developments with the characters are sparse, doled out in tidbits such as Grissom’s love of roller coasters, Gibbs’s need to build a boat in his basement, or Castle’s science fiction fandom. These all reveal something more about the characters, but there’s not a lot of exploration. Relationships, too, are drawn out and never dealt with in more than a few minutes of an episode to be pieced together over the course of the season(s). What really happened between Grissom and Lady Heather? Where did Castle and Beckett actually go on dates?

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love these characters and their stories, but they're always in the background unless the main plot of an episode puts it front and center. Lady Heather was never mentioned unless she was in the episode, usually under investigation. Characters were not allowed to have real depth because the murder took priority.

Bosch, on the other hand, is complex and layered. We know from the beginning that he is old-school, that he’ll bend and break certain rules. This information comes out in court when it’s revealed that he breaks LAPD policy, but it’s also shown as he’s investigating a woman found dead in a car. Impatient to wait on the coroner, he moves the body to investigate, needing to get at the truth. 

But we also get more development, finding out the history of his mother and his foster care. Nearly the entire first episode is spent getting to know Bosch and how he operates. The episode even ends with Bosch having flashbacks of the abuse he received at the hands of the foster system, revived by the coroner’s description of the abuse the murdered boy received.

Likewise, the suspects in most procedurals rarely get any development. They’re limited to an initial questioning, probably an interrogation scene, and then the final confrontation and arrest. Their motives and methods are explored not by the characters themselves, but by the detectives discussing them in summaries in the morgue with the body or on a murder board next to the detectives’ desks. Since (nearly) every case is solved by the end of the episode, we can’t witness these suspects as being clever and intelligent. We might be told that they are, but viewers never see it for themselves.

Bosch’s first season main villain Raynard Waits is well-developed and intelligent. We see examples of his intelligence in his planned escape from police custody. He has the presence of mind to steal Crate’s badge and gun and use it to commandeer a vehicle. Beyond intelligence, he’s given emotional complexity as he takes care of his mother who has lupus. Yes, he uses her house as his hideout and builds a lair, but there is a tenderness shown as he helps his mother sort out her pills.

Likewise, in Season 2, we see ex-cop Nash set up as a security guard, directing his corrupt ring of cops in a complex plan to collect millions from the death of Tony Allen. Nash and Veronica Allen come together to celebrate the plan right beneath the noses of the cops. Joey Marks’s mobsters are also looking for the money—because Tony stole it from Joey—going so far as to kidnap Bosch’s ex-wife Eleanor and his daughter Maddie.

These developments with the bad guys have huge payoffs, such as the long, drawn out bi-play between Waits and Bosch or the gun battle between Nash’s corrupt cops and Joey Marks’s mobsters. Never before have two different sets of bad guys been so developed in a mystery show, and viewers can feel the investment each side has in getting what they want because of Bosch’s pacing and story development.

Characters aren’t the only benefits of the longer story arcs. While many shows explore themes of politics, police culture, corruption, organized crime, and many others, these are mostly hyper-focused in one episode. Each theme gets its own case, but Bosch shows that one case has all of these themes simultaneously. Raynard Waits makes himself part of Bosch’s case by taking advantage of the DA, who wants a high-profile win as he has his eye on becoming mayor. 

Not only are there political offices involved, there are the politics within the police department. Bosch openly struggles with Captain Pounds, and Lt. Billets is trying to keep her division running and Bosch out of jail. Mank bridges the gap between the beat cops and the detectives, and even Bosch is “fishing off the company dock” with Julia Brasher—a “Boot”—which will have serious repercussions for him. Each theme is given the weight of the entire season instead of just an episode here and there. These themes are not isolated occurrences to be explored now and again, they’re police life. 

With other shows, we sometimes would get a story that needed two episodes to do it justice. I always loved those episodes because it made for a deeper story with more complexity for those involved. Who can forget episodes such as “Tick, Tick, Tick” and its follow-up “Boom,” where Castle and Beckett are after a serial killer targeting her? But those developments are small compared to the season-long arc that Bosch presents.

These episodes are also the exception, not the rule. Even when we got these two-part episodes—and they never ran more than two episodes—we got the dreaded “Previously on” montage at the beginning. Audiences required these montages to catch them up. If they happened to miss the previous week’s episode, they would be completely lost in the forthcoming episode. Even if they did see the episode, they’ve had no contact with the characters and storyline for seven days. Oh, and that’s only if the first part of the two-part episode isn't the mid-season cliffhanger, in which case, it’s a month or more wait before the second half (I’ll keep quiet about season cliffhangers, but you already know).

This kind of storytelling was necessary given the format of television, which needed repeat viewers and had to be broadcast at specific times. It was a limitation of the medium, and there was no way around it—until now. 

Bosch’s move to more complex storylines and character development was not some revolution by the writers, directors, and executive producers. Had this been made for ordinary television, it would have failed. Such stories are only possible through streaming technology and the phenomenon of binge-watching. Since Netflix and Amazon got into the business of making television series, they’ve changed how these series have been delivered. Some still follow the traditional week-by-week release, but shows such as Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Bosch dump the entire season on the release day, allowing viewers to watch one, two, or all of the episodes in the series in one sitting. This also allows them to go back and watch them repeatedly with no difficulty.

This kind of access to the content means that viewers never have to miss an episode, and they can watch according to their schedule instead of the network’s. The need for previous-episode montages doesn’t apply when viewers can easily go back and watch the previous episode. More likely, the previous episodes are still fresh in their minds because they’re coming straight from them in a multi-episode binge. Instead of piecing out a television series over weeks and months, viewers now have the option to spend a few days and watch the entire season. 

The binge gives viewers a heavy dose of the universe of a show, immersing them in the stories and characters. Small details—such as Jerry Edgar’s love of fine clothing, his dislike of parents who abandon their children (because it reflects his own divorce and estrangement from his children), or the play between Bosch and Edgar in arguing over who has to clean up the latest mess in the backseat of the cruiser—give rise to major character development and world building.

Mysteries have always been about the puzzle. Can people follow the clues that lead them to the correct conclusion? Most episodic mysteries only offer up a few suspects, and it’s never, ever the first one. Viewers don’t have time to actually ponder the evidence. Instead, they’re on the roller coaster waiting for the episode’s detectives to inform them of what happened. It’s too immediate for viewers to truly take part in the investigation, considering and weighing the evidence as real detectives do. But the deliberate pacing of Bosch does allow this.

In the first episode of Bosch, the skeleton of a boy is recovered. The coroner walks us through the various traumas the boy has suffered, describing the kinds of fractures and the long-term abuse (over many years) he endured. Logic would suggest that the blunt trauma to the skull would be an extenuation of that abuse.

One of the neighbors has a history of child molestation, and is a strong first suspect. The boy’s father was a drunk and an abuser, which forced his mother to abandon him. But it’s revealed that the father never touched the boy. Instead, the abuse was by his sister, who was being molested by the father. But, though the abuse is a strong indication, we have to contend with the laws of physics. Bosch can barely make it up the hill. Jerry Edgar, in considerably better condition, can’t make it up the hill with a body. So neither the father nor the sister could have killed the boy and taken him up there. 

In a murder-of-the-week show, this would all be delivered rapid-fire using reports. We wouldn’t see the evidence the way the detectives do, we wouldn’t be able to weigh it the same way that Bosch and his people do. The longer, more focused story arc presents viewers with a mystery that is most reminiscent of a novel, which is appropriate as Bosch is based on Michael Connelly’s novels.

There will always be weekly episodes of television with the murder-of-the-week, but I hope other showrunners will be inspired and explore the template Bosch provides to give people a deeper experience. If the early renewals of Bosch are any indication, others must feel the same way about Bosch’s novel approach to television.

See also: Amazon's Bosch: Echoes of Black

 


Andy Adams is an adjunct professor of English at various colleges in the Phoenix area. He has an affectation for fedoras as they complement his villainous goatee. He’s been known to poke his head onto Twitter @A3Writer, but he’s never been big into birds. He blogs at A3writer.com about writing, teaching, and the conquest of fictional worlds—they’re more fun than the real world.

Read all posts by Andy Adams for Criminal Element.

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1 comment
Scott Adlerberg
1. ScottAdlerberg
Really good analysis and terrific piece. You covered quite well a number of the things that make Bosch a standout series.
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