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Is Harry Bosch the Last Great American TV Detective?

In a genre stuffed with splashy, episodic shows, ‘Bosch’ is deep enough to deliver a thoroughly rewarding binge experience

Anyone who decides to narrow down the list of the greatest fictional American detectives — from literature, movies and television — should probably just start with the ones based in L.A. Maybe we should begin with Philip Marlowe, exposing the venality of California’s upper-class. Or maybe we look to Lieutenant Columbo, doggedly asking questions until he catches murderers lying. How about Jim Rockford, working for cheap for people who usually can’t afford justice? Or Easy Rawlins, traveling in circles where white cops aren’t welcome? Perhaps we want Lew Archer, a stoic gumshoe so plugged into human nature that he can often just sense what’s gone wrong… and what’s about to.

Or maybe we should just settle on Harry Bosch: the detective savvy enough to know all of his literary and television predecessors’ tricks.

There are two versions of Harry Bosch. The most widely known is probably the one who’s been played by Titus Welliver on Amazon Prime Video’s TV series Bosch since 2014. The sixth season of Bosch debuts on Amazon this Friday — a seventh and final season has already been ordered, but hasn’t been scheduled. (Undoubtedly, the current pandemic will complicate whatever existing plans the producers and studio had.) 

But Bosch was originally introduced in 1992, when crime reporter Michael Connelly released his first mystery novel, The Black Echo. A hardcore fan of hardboiled fiction, Connelly fleshed out his LAPD hero Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch with the kind of vivid personal details common to the genre. Harry is ex-military — a Vietnam vet in the novels, a Gulf War vet on TV. And he had a hard childhood, raised in orphanages and foster families after his sex worker mother was murdered. He’s a tough bastard, resistant to authority, but he’s also a sensitive soul who loves jazz and loves his daughter, Maddie.

The Bosch in the books also enjoys detective fiction, and over the course of more than 20 novels, Connelly has endorsed some of his favorite contemporary colleagues via whatever his main character happens to be reading. This isn’t just an author being cute: It matters that Bosch is — in a way — self-aware. In Connelly’s Bosch stories, the legacy of fictional detectives plays a part in how the hero sees himself.

The real-life history of L.A. is pretty important, too. The Bosch novels reference famous serial killer cases and infamous incidents of racial strife. Bosch himself lives in a nice house in the Hollywood Hills — paid for with the earnings from a television show based on one of his cases — from which he looks out over his town, and sometimes reflects on its character and its past.

The TV Bosch — overseen by Eric Overmyer, a genre television veteran who’s worked on top-shelf crime dramas like Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire — has stayed unusually true to the source. Each season is largely self-contained, usually drawing on plots from a couple of Connelly’s novels. Characters and subplots carry over across the years, just like in the books. But a viewer could start watching any Bosch season — just like a reader could pick up any Bosch novel — without feeling too lost.

Overmyer and his writers have made some tweaks to the original stories (for one thing, on television Harry has remained an LAPD employee throughout every season, while in the books he’s had multiple jobs, including private eye). But his past and his personality have remained consistent from the page to the small screen. Bosch is still resolutely old school, favoring face-to-face interviews and pavement-pounding over internet digging. He also still starts his day with a print copy of the L.A. Times newspaper.

In fact, the TV series is steeped in L.A. lore. The show features city landmarks like the Angels Flight railway and the Hollywood sign, and the characters often reference L.A.’s real history and real problems. The stories sprawl widely, from the beaches to the mansions to the poorest neighborhoods. There’s a reason why L.A. has been such a popular setting for pulpy crime stories over the years, beyond the fact that much of American show business is headquartered there. The eclectic and spacious neighborhoods, the mix of glamor and grit, the political compromises and outright crimes that built this city — there’s a lot of rich thematic material to mine.

This particular show sometimes feels like a throwback to the TV mysteries of the 1970s and 1980s. It has a sax-stoked theme song, like L.A. Law and In the Heat of the Night. It has a bright look, eschewing the dimly lit stylistic affectations of modern crime dramas like Ozark and The Americans. And the action in any given episode is divided between Bosch and the secondary characters, including Bosch’s conscientious partner Jerry; his supervisor and sounding board Grace; the politically ambitious police chief Irvin Irving; and the two doltish LAPD lifers nicknamed “Crate and Barrel.”

But Overmyer’s crew keep one foot in today’s “prestige TV” era too. The creative team relies a lot on that neat little technological gimmick that allows streaming shows to roll directly from episode to episode, automatically. Each of Bosch’s ten-episode seasons is meant to be binged — the individual chapters rarely stand out.

Bosch is very much in the tradition of murder mystery stories that start with one strange crime and then open up into something much larger, until they cover the social and political complexities of an entire city (think Chinatown or L.A. Confidential). In one of the opening scenes of the new season — which is based on the Connelly novels The Overlook and Dark Sacred Night — Bosch arrives on the scene of a murder, which quickly leads to the aftermath of a home invasion, and then ultimately leads to a possible terrorist plot being investigated by the FBI. 

Compared to past detective series set in L.A. and its environs, Bosch is more committed to the long-form storytelling of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. Whereas Mannix, Columbo, The Rockford Files, Barnaby Jones, Charlie’s Angels, Moonlighting, The Closer, The Shield, Southland and a lot of the other L.A.-based detective shows that have endured in popular culture have taken their cues more from short stories, movies and other television shows than from novels.

The mystery genre has dominated the American TV ratings in recent years, though most of the biggest hit shows have formulaic “case of the week” procedurals, where eclectic teams of experts crack cartoonishly sensationalistic cases: CSI, NCIS, Criminal Minds, Law & Order and all their offshoots. There have been a few decent-to-dazzling shows in the more character-driven “detective” mode, too, over the course of the past decade: Terriers, Veronica Mars, Justified, Elementary, Stumptown. (Oddly, none of these are set in L.A.)

But recently at least, there’s been nothing quite like Bosch — except for maybe some of the imports from overseas, where the Europeans have been pumping out dozens of grim, bloody mystery miniseries each year. Even those shows, though, have a different feel and flavor. They tend to be chillier and more despairing, suffused with the fog of moral ambiguity. They also often lack Bosch’s sense of connection with a complicated place and its long, troubled past.

It’d be a stretch to argue that Bosch is one of the best dramas of its era. It’s not Better Call Saul-level great, or as phenomenal as Succession, Pose, The Good Fight or The Leftovers. The writers and directors aren’t doing anything especially daring with the visual style or the narrative approach. They’re working within familiar, mainstream storytelling modes, wherein a detective chases down promising leads and dead ends until he eventually finds himself engaged in some kind of life or death struggle with the prime suspect.

But Bosch doesn’t botch Connelly’s stories, which are smartly plotted, and which present a strong point-of-view. Anchored by the calmly self-possessed Harry Bosch, Connelly’s novels — and the TV show based on them — have a sense of right and wrong. Yet they also understand the way the world works, and how sometimes it’s bureaucratic red tape, interdepartmental rivalries, shrewd criminal attorneys and prying reporters that keep an officer of the law sharply focused.

Even as times and values change, the justice system still needs sleuths with strong institutional memories and instincts honed through a lifetime of walking around crime scenes. We need heroes who care about fairness for all, regardless of their background. We need detectives determined to know exactly where their world has gone awry, and empowered enough to try to fix it.