On second thought, maybe it should be a man’s world.
The feminization of crime shows has been great for television: Among other things, it made possible the evolution from “Dragnet” to “Prime Suspect.” But too much can, be as bad as too little.
“Killer Women,” a new ABC drama, is a case in point. In Tuesday’s premiere, the heroine, Molly Parker (Tricia Helfer), a long-legged Texas Ranger, locked horns with a beautiful Latina murder suspect caught red-handed in a tight red mini-dress and red stiletto pumps. (Sofia Vergara of “Modern Family” is one of the executive producers, which may explain the wardrobe choices.)
Hannah Shakespeare, the show’s creator, tried to bring some “Scandal”-like sizzle to an otherwise very basic procedural, but the effort seemed forced, silly and quite dreary.
And that accentuates what’s right about “Chicago P.D.,” a spinoff of “Chicago Fire” that begins tonight on NBC. Dick Wolf, the creator of the “Law & Order” franchise, is an executive producer of both, and now Wolf is rediscovering his muse in the Midwest – and his past. In this show about an intelligence unit of the Chicago police force, Wolf returns to an early “Law & Order” sensibility, with even a hint of “Hill Street Blues,” where Wolf cut his teeth as a television writer in the mid-1980s.
The leads are mostly male, there is a lot of action and brutality, and, best of all, there appear to be limits to how much personal angst and back story melodrama can bedevil the main characters. The leader of the unit is Sgt. Hank Voight (Jason Beghe), who was a ruthless, corrupt cop on “Chicago Fire,” and here is only slightly redeemed, thanks to a brief stint in jail and pull from well-connected allies at the top. The show barely explains how he got his badge back, let alone what drove him to become a cop in the first place.
Voight still breaks rules and defies authority, though on this show, he mainly does it to help deserving people. The mantra he gives his troops is “You tell me the truth so I can lie for you.”
Two of his top team members are also characters from “Chicago Fire.” Antonio Dawson (Jon Seda), a by-the-book police detective, is now on Voight’s good side, as is another detective, Jay Halstead (Jesse Lee Soffer).
Voight has a few women working cases, notably Erin Lindsay (Sophia Bush), a young former juvenile delinquent who was rescued by Voight and set straight. Unlike the heroine of “Women Killers,” who looks, on duty and off, like a high-priced Russian escort, Lindsay dresses for the job, not the camera.
And one of the better characters is neither young nor beautiful: The desk sergeant Platt (Amy Morton) is a crabby, slightly venal bully and the kind of odd but engaging character that used to be found on “Hill Street Blues.”
There is some archness in “Killer Women” – the opening scene looked like a Robert Palmer music video from the 1980s – but no real humor and still less suspense. Molly easily solved the crime, with the help of her sometime lover, played by Marc Blucas, a strapping Drug Enforcement Administration agent.
And besides sex and clothes, it’s not clear what the show is really about – possibly because it’s a strange hybrid of telenovela and procedural. “Killer Women” is loosely inspired by an Argentine drama, “Mujeres Asesinas,” in which each episode focuses on a woman who commits murder.
The American version is much tamer, centering the show on a female law enforcement officer. This series puts the requisite inner demons driving Molly right upfront: It soon becomes evident that Molly’s smarmy estranged husband physically abused her when they were married.
Female characters were never Wolf’s strong suit; he didn’t include any in the original “Law & Order”; in 1993, NBC forced him to replace Dann Florek with S. Epatha Merkerson. His lead detectives on that show were men; he cast tall, icily beautiful and rather joyless women as prosecutors.
“Chicago P.D.” is, in many ways, a throwback to an earlier, male-dominated era of crime shows, yet it carves out room for strong female characters who are good at their jobs and taken seriously by their colleagues – and the writers. “Killer Women” is a much more stylish, contemporary series that showcases one of the first women to become a Texas Ranger, yet it dummies the heroine down by dolling her up Aaron Spelling-style.
Both series are a little retro, but only one improves on the past.