One of the many cases LAPD homicide cop Harry Bosch juggles in the third season of Bosch involves a wealthy movie director accused of murdering a woman during sex. As the director gathers his team to contemplate why Bosch (Titus Welliver) is going after him so ruthlessly, and how to turn the tables on the detective, he starts considering how this story might play out in one of his movies.
“It’s so trope-y,” he shrugs. “Who would believe it?”
That’s the thing about Bosch, both in the long-running series of Michael Connelly novels and now in the Amazon drama run by Eric Overmyer. In theory, he is a walking, talking repository of cliches about The Cop Who Cares Too Much (Dammit), and most of his cases are the type that have been dramatized so often, even the writers of Criminal Minds might flinch at them and say, “Yeah, that’s been done to death.” But the novels, and the show — starting with the second season and moving into the third, which debuts this Friday (I’ve seen the first five episodes) — tell those stories with such craft and specificity that the tropes become a feature, not a bug: these are the greatest hits of hard-boiled LA crime drama, performed by masters at their craft.
The show can’t always breathe new life into the cliches: the first season was mostly serial killer by numbers, and too mono-focused on Bosch even as Overmyer and Welliver softened him a bit in the translation from page to screen, in a way that didn’t lend itself to shouldering such a huge narrative burden.
But Overmyer has written for some of the greatest cop shows ever made, including Homicide and The Wire, and starting in season two, he figured out how to incorporate the best aspects of the novels into something that actually felt like a television show(*).
(*) To answer the inevitable, “So can I just skip season one?” question: Yes. Yes, you can. As it is, Bosch the show begins midway through the book series in terms of Harry’s career and personal life, so there’s already backstory you’ll be catching up on no matter where you begin. Bosch is a dedicated LAPD detective; you can figure out the rest pretty easily.
In fact, Bosch follows the “novel for television” structure I have been known to rail against. It’s purely serialized from beginning to end, and while some episodes may end on cliffhangers, none of them really distinguish themselves from one another; each is just the next chapter of the story. But where too many Amazon and Netflix dramas struggle badly to maintain that structure over an entire season, Overmyer — who worked on the final two seasons of The Wire and then co-created Tremé — has plenty of experience with making it work. There was no blatant wheel-spinning point last year, nor through the first half of this season, and the biggest adjustment he made from the start of the series to now is simply adding so much more material — both story and character — that there’s always a new place to go to keep the season from sagging.
Some of that involved treating the supporting cast as more than just props to support Bosch. Welliver is, as usual, superb — focused and self-righteous, but always as this specific guy rather than the caricature — but it helps to have the people around him feel like, well, people. Season two spent a lot of time on Bosch’s lieutenant, Grace Billets (Amy Aquino), a lesbian always aware of her precarious position in the LAPD command hierarchy, and on Deputy Chief Irvin Irving (Wire alum Lance Reddick, doing career-best work), whose relentless political rise was disrupted by a personal tragedy. Season three keeps tracking both of their stories, while also finally delving into what makes Harry’s partner Jerry Edgar (Jamie Hector, also a Wire vet) tick, and how exactly he feels about working alongside such an intense and secretive cop. We even go home with Edgar at one point to meet his wife and son, and where on many shows this might seem a warning sign that he’s about to get shot in the line of duty, here it comes at a point where Overmyer has made clear that Hector deserves more to play than he was given in previous seasons. It’s a good cast, and a good group of characters, and (unlike on, say, Dexter) the show not only doesn’t suffer when the title character is off-screen, but the time spent getting to know everyone else only makes Bosch’s interactions with them more interesting.
Bosch also avoids streaming drift by having so many stories unfolding simultaneously(*) that, even if one isn’t necessarily to your liking, you’re never trapped exclusively with it for the whole season. The new episodes have some leftover business from season two involving Jeri Ryan’s foiled Black Widow type, while also including Harry and a prosecutor preparing to take the movie director to trial, a fresh murder involving a military veteran and his mercenary buddies, Irving involving himself in a series of killings by a man on a bicycle, plus Harry finding himself in a jam when a cold case suspect he kept hounding ends up dead. Some of the stories intersect, while others just capture the way that cops like Bosch and Edgar have to juggle many life-or-death matters at the same time.
(*) This season adapts different pieces of two Connelly novels: The Black Echo, the very first Bosch book, and A Darkness More Than Night, which had Bosch interacting with the heroes of two of Connelly’s standalone books, The Poet and Blood Work; those other characters don’t appear here, perhaps due to rights issues. (Blood Work was adapted into a Clint Eastwood film.)
The various investigations also do a nice job of illustrating the way that Harry solving his mother’s murder — the event that sent him on his lifelong mission of justice — last season hasn’t really calmed the anger roiling inside him (“Instead,” Billets suggests, “it’s made you more miserable”) and the impact that has on his teenage daughter Maddie (Madison Lintz), now living with him while Harry’s ex-wife works overseas. There’s a stunning moment in the fourth episode where Harry invites Maddie, who wants to become a cop herself one day, with him to a crime scene, and she gets her first real, unsettling glimpse of how personally certain murders can affect him.
Like most of Bosch, that scene’s nothing new, just executed incredibly well. The sheer volume of cases and personal subplots keeps things moving along nicely, and there are smart decisions made along the way, like treating Detective Robertson (Paul Calderon), the man looking at Bosch as a suspect in the cold case murder, not as a stock villain who’s obviously wrong about our man, but as a Bosch-like righteous avenger in his own right who could have been starring in a parallel version of the show all this time.
I’ve read every Bosch book (plus his appearances as the half-brother of the main character in Connelly’s Lincoln Lawyer novels) and was disappointed that the first season had all the tropes with none of the added life. The second season and now the third aren’t exact translations of the books — nor should they be, since what works in one medium doesn’t automatically in another — but they feel to me both like the Harry Bosch from the page and like a very solid TV cop drama.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org