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CBS Shows Strain To Reinvent Crime-Drama Formula

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And if football's not really your thing, don't worry. There's something for you, too. Tonight, after the game, CBS will premiere a new version of its classic drama series "The Equalizer," starring Queen Latifah. And later this week, CBS will debut another new show based on the film "Silence Of The Lambs." That's called "Clarice." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says they both attempt to rewrite the network's longstanding formula for crime dramas.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: When we first meet Queen Latifah's character, Robyn McCall, she's shopping with her rebellious daughter, who presses her on why she quit her swanky job leading a huge charity.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE EQUALIZER")

LAYA DELEON HAYES: (As Delilah Winter) Isn't it super-weird for you, going shopping for my dress for dad's wedding?

QUEEN LATIFAH: (As Robyn McCall) It's not on my bucket list.

DELEON HAYES: (As Delilah Winter) Who decides to stop being champion of the downtrodden so they can just stay home?

LATIFAH: (As Robyn McCall) It's complicated.

DEGGANS: We find out just how complicated a little later when she meets up with an old buddy played by "Law And Order" alum Chris Noth. Turns out McCall is a crack, super-secret spy who got disillusioned and quit for reasons she explains to Noth.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE EQUALIZER")

CHRIS NOTH: (As William Bishop) Oh, hell. It's all the same chessboard. You know that.

LATIFAH: (As Robyn McCall) Everybody's playing chess. Nobody's thinking about the living, breathing pieces that we sacrifice along the way. When I can't sleep at night, it's not the things I've done that keep me up. It's the people I couldn't save.

DEGGANS: This twist will not surprise fans of the original 1980s-era "Equalizer" series, which starred British actor Edward Woodward. Denzel Washington starred in two films that updated the character. Latifah takes that retooling even further, turning McCall into a Black single mother who helps average people in over their heads, helped out with a couple of buddies.

But it's also an attempt to hip-ify and reboot CBS's longstanding crime drama formula, which often features white male heroes on shows like "Bull" and "NCIS." On those shows, a charismatic know-it-all loner leads a misfit team to solve crimes and right wrongs. In the same way, Latifah's McCall saves a young girl accused of murder from being assaulted by four guys.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE EQUALIZER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Maybe you should mind your own business.

LATIFAH: (As Robyn McCall) You know, I'll tell you, I try. But it turns out I'm really bad at it.

DEGGANS: The resulting scene is a cavalcade of quick camera cuts and editing that makes Latifah look like Bruce Lee. Not that believable or even that compelling, but at least CBS is trying something different.

The strain to reinvent the CBS crime drama formula is even more apparent on "Clarice," a spinoff of the 1991 film "Silence Of The Lambs." CBS's show centers on young agent Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster in the movie and "Pretty Little Liars" alum Rebecca Breeds on CBS. "Clarice" shows Starling struggling with PTSD shortly after the events of the film, when she helped catch the serial killer known as Buffalo Bill.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CLARICE")

SHAWN DOYLE: (As Clarice's Therapist) Clarice, you've been deflecting like a pro for a full year now.

REBECCA BREEDS: (As Clarice Starling) Sir, I'm mandated to come here and speak with you.

DOYLE: (As Clarice's Therapist) Which is understandable, given your last therapist was an inmate in a Baltimore hospital for the criminally insane. You know, he ate his patients.

BREEDS: (As Clarice Starling) He was not my therapist. He wanted...

DOYLE: (As Clarice's Therapist) Pieces of your life in exchange for his insights into Buffalo Bill. But you were specifically told not to give him any information, Clarice.

BREEDS: (As Clarice Starling) We only had three days.

DOYLE: (As Clarice's Therapist) You let that relationship be intimate. How do you carry his rage?

DEGGANS: It's the same essential formula as "The Equalizer" - a talented loner working with a team to right wrongs, with crimes often wrapped up in a single hour-long episode.

It's gratifying to see CBS push boundaries - for example, casting transgender actress Jen Richards as a transgender character who will help the show address the troubling legacy of Buffalo Bill, who tried to make a suit of women's skin to change himself in the movie. But after watching episodes of "The Equalizer" and "Clarice," I think the network will have to work a little harder to find something unique to say outside of the crime of the week. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.