Dr. Megan Hunt, the heroine of ABC’s new mystery series “Body of Proof,” is a one-time neurosurgeon who now works as a medical examiner. She’s prone to giving speeches about how she learns more now from the silent, still bodies of the dead than she ever did from conversations with the living – speeches that often invoke the show’s very title.
“The body is the proof,” she tells a bored cop early in the series’ pilot episode, which airs tonight at 10. “It will tell you everything you need to know.”
Given this philosophy, you would expect “Body of Proof” to be a show in which Dr. Hunt is mostly in the lab hanging out with the corpses, looking for clues as to how they lived and died. And there’s some of that, sure. But because Megan Hunt is played by Dana Delany, and because a show about a character who silently studies dead bodies for an hour each week would be a tremendous waste of the superhumanly charming resource that is Dana Delany, Dr. Hunt spends a whole lot of time out in the world, gabbing with people of the non-corpse variety.
She goes with the cops to interview witnesses and suspects. She visits locations where evidence might be found. Heck, when the detectives are stymied, she’ll even pop into an interrogation room and secure a confession for them. Though there’s no evidence of it in the two episodes I’ve seen, I imagine she could capably lead a SWAT team assault on a bank robbery. She’s just that talented and personable, even though all the characters talk about how prickly she is. (Even Megan herself insists she’s a handful, telling one cop, “Don’t believe everything you’ve heard about me. Truth is much worse.”)
“Body of Proof” is, in other words, a mash-up of half the popular mystery series on TV right now: a little bit “Castle,” a little bit “Bones” and a whole lot “House.” How effective you find it depends almost entirely on how you feel about Delany.
There are other people on the show – Nicholas Bishop as Megan’s investigator sidekick, John Carroll Lynch and Sonja Sohn as the cops inevitably assigned to every one of her cases, Jeri Ryan as the chief medical examiner and Geoffrey Arend and Windell Middlebrooks as two other colleagues – but all of them are there to kneel at the altar of Megan Hunt’s genius. (Or, in the case of Lynch’s gruff sexist, to be frequently made a fool for doubting her genius.) It is a star vehicle in every possible way, all leaning heavily on Delany to make it work.
I’m a Delany fan, even though it’s been nearly 20 years since “China Beach,” the Vietnam War drama that made her a star, and which is the only one of her many TV gigs (“Pasadena,” “Kidnapped,” “Desperate Housewives”) that have put her varied talents on display all at once. She’s been snarky or emotional, but rarely both in the same role. Here, she gets to cut skeptics down to size while simultaneously getting choked up over the great responsibility she has to speak for these dead bodies on her table. The shifts from sarcasm to tears should feel more jarring than they do, but Delany makes it all feel like part of the same character.
The mysteries themselves are fairly paint-by-numbers procedural. (Hint: if the episode seems to be dwelling too long on a character who seemingly has nothing to do with the case, they actually have a lot to do with the case.) But Delany commands the screen, and is a potent reminder that what differentiates the successes from the failures in this genre isn’t usually the plotting, but the performances.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org