Unscripted skein focusing on unsolved murders is departure for cabler, 'Top Chef' producers
While TNT may know drama with scripted crime shows including “Perception,” “King & Maxwell” and “Law & Order” reruns , the Turner net is only now getting to know the true crime space with the launch of “Cold Justice” from producer Dick Wolf and reality stalwarts Magical Elves.
Each episode of the skein follows Kelly Siegler and Yolanda McClary, seasoned former prosecutor and CSI, as they investigate an unsolved murder case. Though the pair had not worked together before the lensing of “Cold Justice,” producers believe they have struck gold with the duo’s natural chemistry — the same storytelling element that is so crucial for the detectives on Wolf’s “Law & Order” dramas, long a staple of TNT’s air.
“It’s been a longstanding objective to find unscripted programs that match nicely with scripted shows that have already succeeded on our air,” said David Eilenberg, TNT’s senior veep of unscripted. “From ‘Rizzoli & Isles’ to ‘Major Crimes’ and ‘The Closer,’ we’ve had a great track record of success with female-driven shows in the crime and procedural space. ‘Cold Justice’ works well with our endemic audience, and fits nicely into a mold already established on our network.”
Program not only marks a new genre of content for TNT, but also for Magical Elves, which has established itself with glossy competition shows including “Top Chef,” “Project Runway” and “Fashion Star,” along with cable docusoaps.
Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz (known playfully as “the Elves” to some network execs) were interested in producing a true crime show that went beyond procedural storytelling. The inherent drama that comes with diving into cold murder cases — while not glamorous on the surface — was intriguing to them.
“We wanted something that would have an emotional impact and change people’s lives,” Cutforth explained.
The Magical Elves toppers met Wolf in what Cutforth described as a “typical Hollywood thing,” wherein Wolf and the Elves were brought together by their mutual reps at WME. After TNT programming prexy Michael Wright took a liking to the “Cold Justice” concept, a presentation was shot last summer. That material would end up as the basis for the premiere episode, which bows Sept. 3.
The work of solving a long-forgotten murder case requires a lot of sitting around, shuffling through files and making calls. And in the world of reality TV production, that kind of menial activity can be costly, as producers wait for drama to unfold and waste away their production schedule. Cutforth is quick to correct that assumption, however, stating that the drama on “Cold Justice” is very “organic.”
“When you go to re-open a cold case, there’s a lot of information you have to gather immediately,” Cutforth said. “In fact, for Kelly and Yolanda, their feet don’t touch the ground. They’ve already read up info on the crime, but they have a lot of information to get from the local police. They have to look at the crime scene and bring in key witnesses quickly. In four to five days, they don’t stop for a breath.”
He added, “You don’t have to sit around waiting for drama to happen, and you don’t have to manufacture. The stakes are there — someone got away with murder.”
The production team traversed around the country and stopped in many small towns. But the bulk of the segs were shot in Texas, where Siegler had a hefty load of contacts. “Cold Justice” was also shot in Ohio, Arizona and Tennessee. The Elves felt shooting in small towns was important because financial resources for crime solving are often so limited outside urban areas.
In small towns, Cutforth said, “they can’t immediately do a gunshot residue test, or send off a DNA test like they do in big cities. These things cost money. It’s not as black and white as it appears in scripted television.”
When a case would be solved during the production of an episode, Cutforth said the set was “electrifying.”
“Cold Justice” joins hordes of other true crime shows that are peppered across NBC, MSNBC, HLN, Investigation Discovery and other networks. Eilenberg, however, is confident that “Cold Justice” will stand out.
“A lot — if not all — of those programs are past tense, recreate-driven, whereas this is present tense, going out in the world and trying to solve these crimes in real time,” Eilenberg stated. “It has a different feel to it. The immediacy of what’s going on and the risk attached comes through in the content.”
Both TNT and the Magical Elves principles have their eyes set on the true crime space beyond “Cold Justice,” as well. Eilenberg said TNT is continuing to pursue unscripted procedurals, while Cutforth remarked that Magical Elves “definitely wants to do more in the crime space.”
“We never constrain ourselves in what kind of shows we’ll develop. If it’s creatively exciting, we’ll do it,” he said.