Work It

Three to one says this baby's dead by the time the next Pampers commercial rolls around: Drs. Greene and Corday on 'ER'

One of the most compelling reasons to watch CBS's Without a Trace is not its tense reconstruction of a missing person's life, nor its unsettling transitions between memory and evidence. The real suspense in the show centers on blonde Sam Spade (Poppy McGovern) and her supervisor, Jack (Anthony LaPaglia), who may or may not have had an affair that may or may not have contributed to his divorce. Not that we, the viewers, have any idea what's going on: The show has never given us a line of dialogue to indicate that Sam and Jack investigated each other intimately after hours. Then again, the show has given us plenty of tense exchanges between the two whenever the issue of marital fidelity or fatherly obligation comes up, and the caution with which the characters choose their words betrays a world of unexamined subtext.

Would that it stay that way. For me, whether Sam and Jack will get all gabby about their boudoir business is no great cliffhanger. What I want to know is whether the creative team behind Without a Trace will be able to resist the temptation to bring a little romance into the office. I prefer my office relationships Law and Order style--offscreen and so subtle that even the actors are surprised to find out what their characters were doing. Anything else is like do-it-yourself fugu--screwing up is inevitable and the results are rarely digestible.

A call for less screen sexuality might suggest a dark alliance with the Family Research Council, but my concerns have nothing to do with what God's son would want to watch and everything to do with how rotten television is at depicting pursuit in any credible fashion. If the characters on television shows were actual people, they'd review the course of events that beset the typical TV engagement--alien abduction, imminent marriage to someone else--and conclude that God was trying to send them a message. On television, however, this course of events is called "courtship" and is wildly popular with beer conglomerates, deodorant manufacturers, and the culture's other arbiters of taste. Why or how it's considered entertaining is one of life's modern mysteries.

A corollary mystery is why on earth viewers are supposed to be rooting for these two crazy co-workers to get together in the first place. At this point, ER viewers should be conditioned to panic the moment someone makes eyes at a co-worker over the victim-of-the-week's bloodied body. Given that the show started off with one co-worker (Carol) attempting suicide after the romantic trials suffered at the hands of another (Doug), we should have expected this hospital love would hurt. But it would take a few more seasons of assorted affairs and divorces (Benton, Jeannie, and Mark were the biggest offenders), womanizing (Doug sleeping with Anna, much to everyone's displeasure), impregnation (Carol by Doug, Elizabeth by Mark), and doomed affairs (Carter and Harper, Carter and Lucy, Carter and Susan, Carter and the defibrillator) to finally bring the show to where it is now: a shambling train wreck where even a doctor's surprise amputation hardly registers among the assorted amatory travails everyone else is experiencing that minute. Given that these doctors let their troubled love lives get in the way of providing quality patient care, who would trust these people with a simple urine sample--to say nothing of an organ transplant?

This muddle is the peril of letting romance creep into what was supposed to be a workplace drama: It quickly discredits the "workplace" part of the show's premise, and then where are you? You can be in the loveless West Wing, but the options for romance there (being shot by hoods in New York, or dumped by your spouse, or interrogated in congressional subcommittee by your one-night stand, or splashed across the gossip pages with a call girl) make working until 2:00 a.m. on agriculture reform look appealing. It's admirable that the brain trust behind that show has repeatedly pointed out the toll working in politics exacts from one's personal life. But hauling out a love interest only to have it end in a hail of bullets--or, as is more often the case, without explanation at all--is even more depressing.

Occupation-oriented shows like Alias, NYPD Blue, and The Guardian aren't the only ones that suffer when Cupid comes to town. Procedural dramas fare worse. The biggest appeal in these dramas lies not in the premise that the people are represented by two separate but equally important branches of law enforcement, but in their formulaic predictability. We don't watch procedural dramas such as Law and Order, CSI, or Without a Trace because we're interested in the characters' personal growth--leave that squishy stuff to the Zwick- Herskovitz team. We watch because we want to see how a little slab of trouble will be neatly resolved within the boundaries of a system. And if this is the week where we also happen to find out that someone's ex-boyfriend just collected his 12-year sobriety chip--well, that's extra.

The seven-sigma assembly-line reliability of the Law and Order franchise helps explain how it has weathered cast turnovers that would paralyze a temp agency. The way SVU's Eames (Kathryn Erbe) and Goren (Vincent D'Onofrio) complement each other during the questioning of a suspect is a calm intermission on a television dial crowded with doomed couples clinching illicitly over a desk. Let's get serious: In the working world, where people are being downsized every day, not even the Bachelor would cavalierly risk the censure of the human-resources department.

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