Anyone growing up watching police dramas on television in the ’70s and ’80s could hardly escape getting to know Southern California. Producers throughout the greater Los Angeles area used that vast metropolitan space as a giant and conveniently located set for their work, from Adam-12 to Columbo. Its desert expanses, crowded freeways, dusty valleys, mean streets, and sunny ocean views dominate the small-screen backdrop for American television memories.
As Bosch’s character unfolds through story arcs that stretch across multiple seasons, one increasingly sees a version of the Father Brown quality that G. K. Chesterton built into his own corpus of detective stories.
For those binge-watching the six seasons of Amazon’s slow-burn hit Bosch (a seventh and final season is scheduled for a spring 2021 release), a major appeal of the series is that it kind of makes L.A. great again. Harry Bosch, relentlessly played by Titus Welliver, is himself a throwback — an LAPD detective with a single-minded determination to put murderers behind bars and whose response to the psychological intrusions of modern police bureaucracy is to double down on his inclination to say nothing at all.
At night, he smokes cigarettes and listens to classic jazz on vinyl while drinking his beer cold and his bourbon neat and going through evidence chronicled in ring-bound hard-copy “murder books” at the dining room table of his precarious, and quintessentially Southern Californian, ridge-top house on stilts in the Hollywood Hills. But even the hard-bitten Bosch can’t avoid being touched by the Southern California cliché where everyone seems to have or aspire to some connection to the big screen. We learn that he could afford this choice piece of property because he was paid handsomely for helping turn the story of one of his early solved murder cases into a so-so movie. His teenaged daughter comes to visit, sees the poster of the film, and says “I streamed that — I’m really glad they didn’t use your real name.”
Even that name, Hieronymus Bosch, lends an antique tint. Like his Flemish painter namesake, he sees a complex and dangerous world that others don’t. Harry Bosch tries to make his peace with the world everyone else sees: working at quitting smoking, listening to his daughter’s recommended playlists, and dutifully learning to cope with computerized police-work, even though his heart manifestly isn’t in any of it.
Welliver’s portrayal of Bosch conveys an understanding that some degree of brokenness is the lot of those who live by an old code in a new world. Over the course of the series, we encounter the detritus of a life lived in single-minded obsession. The first season in particular explores the moral choices that meant the difference between an orphan like Bosch growing up to become a detective obsessed with obtaining justice for murdered victims rather than one of the predators he hunts.
Bosch is an old soul surrounded by a changed Los Angeles, and his every misstep is hounded by Internal Affairs apparatchiks, by reporters rushing half-examined stories online in the hunt for clicks, and by opportunistic lawyers looking to sue the city for alleged police misconduct. Bosch survives, and even thrives in his own way, by doing things the old-fashioned way — paying attention to details like the scent of gunpowder on the hands of a corpse or noticing a photo that should be there but isn’t.
The series gives an obligatory nod to gritty NCIS-style forensic procedurals and gruesome smut in the first season. But as Bosch’s character unfolds through story arcs that stretch across multiple seasons, one increasingly sees a version of the Father Brown quality that G. K. Chesterton built into his own corpus of detective stories. Like Father Brown, Bosch’s most important tools are moral. The probable identity of a killer is derived from the investigator’s ability to discern the moral character of possible suspects, comparing those observations with the crime committed. Sometimes this intuition leads to nailing a slippery suspect, and at other times it means that Bosch refuses to accept too readily even seemingly damning evidence or a plausible confession when it doesn’t line up with his moral intuition.
And in the background, unspoken, is the grandest character of all: the city of Los Angeles itself. Most Americans are probably happy never to have set foot in L.A., but it is still an old friend because we know it from the small screen. The makers of Bosch know this, taking us through night-time noir moments, aerial shots of the freeways and downtown, and backdrops of the San Gabriel mountains and the Pacific Ocean.
Early on, Bosch takes a potential love interest to Hollywood’s iconic Musso and Frank Grill for martinis, and his date remarks what a great place it is. Bosch agrees, “Old LA … isn’t much of it left.” Perhaps there isn’t, but Titus Welliver in his role as both producer and star of Bosch seems to find enough of it on a regular basis to keep the nostalgic viewer content.