Move over, Jessica: 'Suspects' makes gumshoes of viewers

September 11, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

The heir to "Murder She Wrote" is here. It's called "Likely Suspects," and it airs, of all places, on Fox -- a network not exactly known for classy endeavors appealing to the fiftysomething set.

Actually, "Likely Suspects" is better than "Murder She Wrote," which has gotten campy, flabby and, sometimes, downright stupid since star Angela Lansbury took complete control of producing it last year.

In "Likely Suspects," the clues and plotting are everything -- or almost everything. The half-hour mystery also has funny lines planted in the mouth of its two characters -- Detective Marshak (Sam Murray) and Detective Spinoza (Jason Schombing). Tonight's pilot will remind viewers how tight and on-target good TV writing can be.

The format of this crafty little detective show has the two investigators (the show's only two characters) talking directly to the camera (in this case, a hand-held camera that bumps and jerks along behind them as they do their investigating).

The goal of directly addressing the camera is to have the viewers feel as if they are a third member of the detective squad. Marshak and Spinoza, in fact, address the camera as if they are talking to a new member of their team, a rookie tagging along. It's a clever way of heightening viewer involvement in solving the crime.

The rookie sees all the clues, sits in on the interrogations and is there to catch the throwaway banter from the two detectives. At one point tonight, the rookie even gets to trip up a suspect.

The show moves fast and is fun besides. It's like reading a Sue Grafton mystery in a half hour. At the end of the 30 minutes, Marshak has the solution. He looks to the camera and asks if the rookie knows whodunit.

In the pilot, Marshak is about two steps ahead of the rookie. Most viewers will probably think they could have solved it, too, with just another five minutes of thinking. And that is probably what will keep viewers coming back -- pitting themselves against the smart-talking guy on the screen. It's a sort of "Jeopardy" with characters, passions, motives and one-liners. Or a "Wheel of Fortune" for people with a brain.

Tonight's pilot has Barbara Bain, from original "Mission Impossible," as a guest star. A motherlode of other guest stars are promised by Fox to keep the show fresh.

The format feels more than fresh enough -- because this time, there's a point to having the "fourth wall" of TV broken, with characters speaking directly to the camera. Unlike a lot of shows this season, "Likely Suspects" seems to be done with the viewer in mind, a viewer whom the show's writers and producers have a little respect and perhaps even a liking for. And that may be the freshest and nicest thing of all about "Likely Suspects."

Detective show

What: "Likely Suspects"

When: Tonight, 9:30

Where: WBFF (Channel 45)

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