When Franklin & Bash debuted last year, I watched a couple of episodes and decided it wasn’t for me. Like most summer cable shows, it featured a quirky odd couple of professionals—in this case ambulance-chasing attorneys Jared Franklin (Breckin Meyer), and Peter Bash (Mark-Paul Gosselaar). Their attitude to advocacy was part Perry Mason, part P.T. Barnum, and their trial preparation was heavy on costumes and surprise witnesses and light on precedents and process.
The main problem, though, was a lack of likability. Franklin and Bash were a pair of obnoxious frat boys whose antics felt childish and irritating. The twist that unspooled in the show’s first episode—the eccentric senior partner of a white-shoe law firm sees the boys in action and recruits them into his firm—was frankly ridiculous. Besides, watching other people pound beers is never much fun when you’re sober.
Still, as an avid ampersand aficionada, I couldn’t resist giving the show a second chance when TNT’s 2012 summer schedule slotted Franklin & Bash behind Rizzoli & Isles. And having watched the first two episodes, I’m confident in stating that Franklin & Bash has become television’s first great brocedural.
The characters have softened in their sophomore season. Sure, they’re still frat boys—despite being high-flying lawyers, they still live in a big shared house that serves as party central for dudes in floppy caps and the kind of women who always wear bikinis under their clothes—but now it’s one of those service fraternities: Instead of chasing sleazy clients, they’re helping people that less evolved dudes might see as pathetic losers. In the first episode they sided with an independent brewer against their own deep-pocketed client (and still somehow got fast-tracked to become partners in their firm). In the second, they defended a costumed crime fighter. (Holy coincidence, viewers: Costumed vigilantes also showed up in a recent episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.)
But the key difference seems to be the pairing with Rizzoli & Isles. The two have more in common than mere punctuation. Rizzoli & Isles, you may recall, is the story of two strong women: Jane Rizzoli, a Boston homicide detective played by Angie Harmon, and medical examiner Dr. Maura Isles, played by Sasha Alexander. That show, too, launched with a harder edge. Staying true to its origin in Tess Gerritsen’s novel The Surgeon, it focused on a serial killer who was systematically targeting vulnerable young women. The show still has lots of dead bodies—what else would you expect from a series about a homicide cop and a medical examiner—but these days it’s all about the subtext.
What is that subtext? Rizzoli and Isles are a lesbian couple. Rizzoli is a butch brunette and Isles a blonde femme, of course—but there’s much more to it than mere appearances. As lesbian pop-culture site After Ellen’s weekly “subtext recaps” prove, the coded messages about Rizzoli and Isles’ attraction to each other are about as hard to crack as pig Latin. Last night’s episode played out like a lesbian romance novel: Jane and Maura had been estranged since Jane shot Maura’s biological father, but Jane’s colleagues engineered a rapprochement by sending them on a long drive together. After being chased by bad guys, their car was side-swiped, and Maura would’ve lost a leg, had Jane not performed emergency surgery. “Take your shirt off,” Maura ordered before instructing Jane where to make the incisions. When the other cops found them, Jane was cradling Maura in her arms.
They always deny they’re a couple—thus acknowledging that everyone thinks they are—and each has had male love interests. But those hetero relationships never last, and, as Alexander told After Ellen in a very sweet interview, everyone involved with the show is aware of this popular interpretation. Whatever they’re doing works: Last week’s season premiere drew 5.6 million viewers—more than twice as many people as watched the Mad Men Season 5 finale.
Of course, coded male couples don’t enjoy the crossover appeal of girl-on-girl action, so it isn’t surprising that Franklin & Bash’s gay subtext is far more subtle than what you get on Rizzoli & Isles. But, believe me, it’s there. Consider, for example, the following bits of dialogue from last night’s episode. As Bash and his girlfriend made out in his room, Franklin repeatedly interrupted them by knocking on the door, eventually telling Bash, “Beer tap’s clogged; I need you to suck it out again.” Later, Bash arrived from the store yelling, “I’ve got eight pounds of meat!” The show’s writers know what they’re doing: The key ingredient in a smart brocedural is a dash of bromance.