Last week, after many years resisting the never-ending parade of pop-ups, emails and on-screen prompts to sign up for Amazon Prime, I finally buckled and gave in thanks to a well timed first year discount offer. While the chief appeal of Prime remains unlimited free shipping, I confess that it was a number of Amazon’s exclusive shows on its streaming service that ultimately proved to be the tipping point in finally making me dive in. Amazon will doubtless assume that it’s the new Jeremy Clarkson post-Top Gear series The Grand Tour that was the big draw as it happened to début the day after I signed up, but in fact that’s not the case – although that said, I’ll doubtless watch Clarkson and co. pretty soon and will report back when I do.
No, it was a number of Amazon Prime’s older self-produced shows that I was more interested in, starting with Bosch – a crime show starring Titus Welliver as LAPD detective Harry Bosch based on the long-running series of novels by Michael Connelly, which I confess I haven’t read. The TV series started life with a one-off pilot in 2014 which garnered sufficiently positive reaction from viewers (if not critics) to result in a full ten-part season which premièred in February 2015, with the show having since been commissioned for a second, third and fourth series.
The fact that Amazon should make a show like Bosch – let alone that it should be a significant reason for me to sign up to Amazon Prime – is strange, given that it is a straightforward police procedural. We’re used to cable channels and streaming services specialising in fresh and original shows that wouldn’t get made for conventional television networks, but Bosch doesn’t make any attempt to reinvent the crime genre and indeed seems almost consciously trying to turn the clock back a couple of decades to times when detective movies were a staple of the box office, before it all went heavily toward superheroes and Transformers.
These days, not only is it rare to find a straightforward detective story at the cinema, it’s hard to find them on television. There are plenty of series like Bones, Castle, The Mentalist, Elementary and the like which lean more toward light comedy than drama, mixing unlikely leads at least one of whom isn’t a police officer at all but something off-the-wall like a forensic anthropologist, best-selling author or fake mind-reader. Real legal procedure is sketched in and bent according to the needs of the plots, none of which resemble anything like the real cases that cops actually tackle day-to-day. It seems a very long time since we had shows such as Hill Street Blues, Homicide: Life on the Streets or The Wire to chew on.
Recently, HBO tried to reinvent the genre with True Detective which had much to commend it in its early episodes but then faltered toward the end of the first series before completely crashing and burning in the second. That seems to have rather dampened the enthusiasm for police procedurals among the premium entertainment outlets, with Bosch being one of the handful of exemptions to the rule. It’s not trying to reinvent the genre, but instead has gone back to the basics and retrofitted it with the sort of modern production values and 21st century quality writing, directing and performances possible with the sort of shorter seasons and greater time, money and freedom available outside the networks.
Although showrunner Eric Overmyer has made some necessary changes to the plots and the central character in the books in order to bring them up to the present day, Bosch remains a senior detective in his late 40s/early 50s rather than having been transformed by ratings-hungry network executives into an impossibly handsome and youthful male model as you’d expect to happen in a mainstream show. In the title role, Welliver is an excellent serious actor who has been around for years guesting on almost every TV show on the schedules at one point or another, and it’s great to see him get a chance to be solidly in the spotlight in a show that features him in almost every single scene. He brings a rare believability to the role and genuinely seems to inhabit the part of Bosch rather than simply acting the part of a tough guy.
Bosch is, of course, a maverick estranged from his ex-wife and daughter. He sits at home alone brooding over cases through the night, and then ignores the rules on duty when it suits him which gets him into increasing trouble. The very first scene of the Amazon series sees him break LAPD policy on pursuing a subject which results in him facing a lawsuit for an unlawful killing that may end his career; seemingly oblivious to the fact that his professional and personal lives are collapsing around his ears he promptly finds still more burning houses to run into when he insists on picking up the case of a young child’s bones found in the LA hillside, and also starting a relationship with a rookie patrol officer (24′s Annie Wersching) which quickly becomes common locker room gossip around the station.
Despite his manifest failings, the show is careful to represent Bosch as an intelligent and experienced detective who impresses even at the same time that he puts both feet firmly in it. While he might not like the new-look, politically correct LAPD protocols he will still lecture junior officers on the need to follow the training manual when they’re starting out and don’t know any better. He butts heads with authority figures, but underneath the friction he’s on good terms with his boss (ER’s Amy Aquino) and the Deputy Chief (The Wire’s Lance Reddick) who can both appreciate his capability and integrity, and he has an easy-going relationship with his younger partner (Jamie Hector, another The Wire alumni).
Overall the series simply seems very real, from the authentic open-plan bullpen where Bosch has his cubical which could easily be any local government or telesales office the world over, to the simmering layer of internal politics, gossip and ribbing that goes on among colleagues working long hours together in a pressure cooker environment. Better still, the show has the time and space to develop those all-important small moments that make us believe in the truth of the setting and the characters, such as when Bosch’s boss cheerfully offers him cookies her teenage daughter has just baked before seamlessly switching to bawling him out for his latest transgression. Serving as an executive producer on the show, Michael Connelly’s background and experience as a city crime reporter is clearly an important factor in achieving this sense of realism. The only element that feels out of kilter is Bosch’s impossibly stylish home way up in the hills overlooking Los Angeles, but that’s explained by Bosch having sold a case history to Hollywood and consequently buying the house with the movie proceeds; LA is a company town, after all.
Another advantage of the show being on a streaming service is that Bosch is able to take its time in developing its story from simple beginnings to increasingly complex repercussions rather than churning out unconnected one-off cases. The first season of the show is adapted from three of Connelly’s novels – “City of Bones”, “Echo Park” and “The Concrete Blonde” – which allows for a greater level of depth than you usually find in detective shows, and overall the series has more of a satisfyingly literary feel to it than most series. It’s a slow burner with little in the way of guns and car chases, at least until the end of episode four when suddenly things go terribly wrong completely out of the blue in a most violent fashion leading to a man-hunt through LA’s sewer system. That chase leads to the iconic storm drains that were previously seen in any number of TV shows and movies shot in the city before tax breaks lured productions out to the sadly anonymous environs of Vancouver instead. Connolly has insisted that Bosch actually be filmed in LA, and the show makes great use of the city with some eye-catching locations and gorgeous photography particularly in the night time sequences. The opening titles are also really rather beautiful – albeit strikingly like the similarly artistic credits for the most recent seasons of the Swedish crime show Beck although there’s no reason to believe that either production would have been aware of the other’s work in this area.
As you can probably tell, I really like Bosch. At the same time I have a hard time putting my finger on exactly why, or even whether I should. Perhaps I ought to be more disappointed that this is simply a familiar job very well done rather than ambitiously different and ground-breaking. Viewed strictly objectively this is a very down the line, generic production, and it’s left to the little details to raise it up and make it special. If this was a real estate project, then Bosch would be a terrific restoration of a much-loved historic family home with lots of nice designer touches to make it sparkle; but at the same time, still basically the same house as it was when it started, rather than knocking it down and replacing it with something cutting edge and wholly 21st century. It feels comfortable and warm and lived-in rather than exciting and new.
And you know what? That works just fine as far as I’m concerned.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Bosch seasons 1 and 2 are available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.