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Vera: An '83 job can wait, Lilly. Come on.
Lilly: No, it can't. It's waited long enough.

File:Cold cast main.jpg

The Cold Case investigators and their boxes.

A cold case is a criminal investigation that has been rendered inactive and unsolved due to a lack of evidence, witnesses, or suspects to form a solid lead. When new evidence does show up, it's a long, difficult, and painful process to peel back the layers of dust covering it and try to put the new lead into context with what's already known about the case, and where that may lead, no one knows.

This is the basis of Cold Case, a Jerry Bruckheimer-created crime drama that forms one corner of his crime drama trifecta (along with CSI and Without a Trace, both of which had crossovers with the show). Far less science or legalese-absorbed than the other Bruckheimer-verse installments, Cold Case instead focuses on the human aspect of a crime, and how the victims, witnesses, and criminals are affected by the crime both at the time of its commission and in the years afterwards. Expect a lot of Timeshifted Actors and Nothing but Hits, as the bulk of the story is told through flashbacks. Also expect a bit of a history lesson with each episode, as a great many of the cases have something to do with something historically significant at the time (for instance, one of the oldest cases deals with woman's suffrage). It's also brutal about "The Good Old Days", blatantly showing them to be every bit as bad (or worse) than present day. Expect at least two or three episodes a season to deal with themes of racism or homophobia.

The emotionally driven nature of the show means that it will most likely not interest those interested in the "hard science" of crime solving. However, it is, in general, well done, and more suited to those looking for something more emotionally involving.

Based on the A&E reality show Cold Case Files.

Tropes used in Cold Case include:
  • 555: 215-555-0196, on "Saving Sammy". The number flashes on the doer's cell phone, putting him at the crime scene.
  • Accidental Murder: A number of cases.
  • Acquitted Too Late: Happens in "Death Penalty: Final Appeal" and somewhat in "Thrill Kill". In "Death Penalty: Final Appeal", the murderer is caught one day after the innocent man is executed, and in "Thrill Kill", one of the people wrongfully convicted ultimately has to hang himself in prison to get the police to reopen the case.
  • All Just a Dream: "Into The Blue"; borderline Dying Dream.
  • Alpha Bitch: "Stand Up and Holler", "Boy Crazy", "Sleepover". This show usually has the Alpha Bitch be a nicer person in the present, or at least have them recognize how bitchy she was. The ones who stay bitchy usually go into Complete Monster territory.
  • Always Murder: Averted in at least two episodes "Fireflies" and "Ghost of My Child".
  • Asshole Victim: "The Plan", "Blackout", "Justice", "Greed", just to name a few.
    • George Marks's mother was revealed to be an abusive bitch who kept her son locked in the attic and blamed him for everything wrong with her life, calling him "the darkness"; he killed her when he was still a little boy, after she told a burglar to rape him instead of her.
  • Badass Grandpa: John Stillman, especially in "The Woods".
  • Bank Robbery: "Dog Day Afternoon".
  • Batter Up: "A Time to Hate", "Colors", and "Stealing Home".
  • Berserk Button: Scotty Valens was suspended in an episode after beating the crap out of an inmate that said suicide is cowardly and a result of the loved ones failing to do their work. His childhood love had recently committed suicide. In a lesser tone, Vera used to react very badly to comments about his failed marriage.
    • Scotty also beats the crap out of a non-child-molesting-pedophile when the man refuses to stop hanging around a playground, even after Scotty has warned him off.
    • Jeffries beats the crap out the crooked DA who's obstruction resulted in an innocent man getting executed.
    • Vera was so obsessed with solving the case of a serial rapist who had murdered his latest victim that he relentlessly browbeat two suspects (despite the fact that one of them cooperated fully) to the point where the DA had to explicitly tell him to stay away from each man--and five years later the warning still stands.
    • ALL of the detectives react very badly while interrogating George Marks, when rather than caving in and confessing, he instead taunts them about traumatic events in their life--Scotty's schizophrenic girlfriend, Vera mishandling the above mentioned rape case (in fact, Vera needs to be restrained from attacking him), the death of Jeffries' wife (George implies he was the one who killed her, though he wasn't, Jeffries stays calm in the interview but loses it later), Stillman's failed marriage and Lilly's childhood mugging.
  • Billy Elliot Plot: "Shuffle, Ball Change".
  • Bittersweet Ending: Every episode.
  • Black Sheep: Christina Rush. Though in a way every Rush save Lilly is a Black Sheep.
  • Black Widow: "The Runaway Bunny".
  • The Bluebeard: "Lonely Hearts", and to a lesser extent "Gleen".
  • Bottle Episode: The flashbacks in "Blood on the Tracks" are all in the same house, over the same few days. Also used in "Blackout", where the flashbacks were in the same house over a matter of hours, and in "Shattered", depicting the victim's prom night.
  • The Boxing Episode: "Yo Adrian".
  • Brother-Sister Incest: "Late Returns".
  • Buried Alive: "One Night".
  • California Doubling: Averted for six seasons, which included shots of Philadelphia that sometimes bordered Scenery Porn. However, the last season was filmed entirely in Los Angeles to reduce production costs.
  • Can Not Tell a Lie: The only witness in "Saving Sammy" is a boy with High Functioning Autism. He regresses for several years, making it hard for him to even tell the truth.
  • Casting Gag: Barry Bostwick as a Serial Killer in "Creatures of the Night", an episode revolving around a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
  • Celebrity Paradox: "Creatures of the Night".
  • Color Wash: Almost every episode. It is used to distinguish the scenes in the past from those in the present. For instance, scenes taking place in the seventies will have vivid, warm colors while the present-day scenes will have a 'normal'/slightly blue-tinged color scheme.
  • Confessional
  • The Coroner: Frannie Ching.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Such a person is an accomplice in "Breaking News". To his credit, he probably didn't intend anyone to actually die, but that still doesn't save him from the slammer.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: In "Shore Leave", one suspect, a former Marine, lied about his age to fight in The Korean War, but became the Butt Monkey of his platoon and Drill Sergeant Nasty because of his ineptitude. He ended up saving the lives of his comrades by responding quickly to a P.L.A. ambush on the front lines and was awarded the Navy Cross, second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor.
  • Cult: "Blank Generation".
  • Cycle of Revenge: "Saving Patrick Bubley".
  • Daddy Had a Good Reason For Abandoning You: Lily's dad — he was an alcoholic like mom, but when he became sober, mom threw him out and cut him off from Lily and Christina. Also the episode "Family".
  • Dark Secret: Often the motive for many of the crimes.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Most of the main cast has it's Moments but special mention goes to Detective Nick Vera.
    • (From "The Promise") "He's Cute. French maids do it for me too."
  • Dead Person Impersonation:
    • The dead woman from Committed was using the identity of a murder victim.
    • The killer from "Blood on the Tracks" took the identity of one her victims. As it turns out, this was easy to do as they bore a strong resemblance to each other.
    • "The Hen House", the murderer was a Nazi guard at Auschwitz who stole the name of a young man killed at the camp.Both to escape and in an attempt to redeem himself, he took the name and with the rest of the family also having died at the camp easily passed without much question even going so far as to join the man's living family members in the US (who didn't have a way of knowing it was a impostor having likely never met) and lived among them for over sixty years. He was only caught thanks to a investigation into the murder he committed in the 40's both to prevent from being exposed and half-enraged/half-heartbroken that his victim (whom he'd fallen in love with) rejected him after finding out what he'd done.
  • Department of Child Disservices: The episodes "Fly Away", "The Woods", and "Ghost of My Child" have the child service workers being a pedophile, a burglar, and a child kidnapper, respectively.
  • Depraved Bisexual: How many shows have one of these in the first episode? It was in the form of a jailed, somewhat effete pederast. Also seen in "Greed" where the manipulative stockbroker tells young men they can get ahead if they sleep with him, and sleeps with a mother and a son to get the mother to invest money.
  • Dirty Coward: Mike Delaney ("Justice") actually pissed himself when his victims confronted him.
    • When you sum up everything she did, the killer in "Blood On The Tracks" is this as well--she even admits to it when confronted by Lily.
  • Disposable Sex Worker: Straight example in "Hubris" - the old case is reopened because a prostitute is murdered in the same way as the other victim in the modern day... yet this new victim is almost not investigated at all, and she does not appear in "ghost form" when her killer is caught at the end, while the old victim does. Other episodes' cases like "The Letter" and "Running Around" go cold in the first place because the victims were mistaken as prostitutes, so the cops didn't put any effort in searching for their killers.
    • It may not have had as much priority as the main case, but the hooker's murder is investigated in "Hubris". Catching the guy responsible is what leads them to the other killer's arrest.
    • And that isn't why the case in "Running Around" goes cold. It does because the victim was an Amish girl on Rumspringa. They had no records on her, and she had no ID.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: The killers from "Rampage" and "Sabotage" respectively.
  • Domestic Abuse: Several but most notably in "A Perfect Day", "Churchgoing People", and "The Brush Man".
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: The murderer in "Shore Leave".
  • Drop the Hammer: "Spiders".
  • The Dutiful Daughter: Lilly.
  • Education Papa: "Knuckle Up" has one.
  • Enhance Button: Played with - the detectives move up close to the screen.
  • Everybody Did It: "That Woman".
  • Everybody Is Single
  • Evil Matriarch: Probably many, but one in particular stands out: she's an ex-beauty queen who needs to feel sexually attractive to men — all men, including her own son and grandson (which is what gets her killed after her neglected "plain Jane" daughter catches on).
  • Evil Old Folks: Several perpetrators are quite elderly in the present, though with the mitigating factor that they were young when they actually committed their crimes. Special mention goes to the nonagenarian, Alzheimers-afflicted guy from "World's End", who'd gotten away with his crime for almost seventy years. They still lock up the poor old guy, too, arguably a Kick the Dog for the main characters.
  • Fair Cop
  • Fashion Hurts: Quincy Bubley's cornrows.
  • A Father to His Men: John Stillman, the Benevolent Boss.
  • Finger in the Mail: A coyote (smuggler of humans along the US-Mexico boarder) would kidnap the children of families that missed payments, cut off their ear and mail it to the family, then kill the child if there was still no payment received.
  • Fingore: The signature of the serial killer from "It Takes a Village" was to cut one of his victims' fingers off. "The House" also had a scene where the corrupt warden broke two of an inmate's fingers with something that looked like a pair of pliers.
  • Five-Man Band:
  • Flash Back
  • Flashback Effects: Flashback scenes imitate the style and appearance of actual footage from that time period, including Deliberately Monochrome for really old cases.
    • It's not just Deliberately Monochrome. They go the whole hog, spots on the film and what have you.
    • An episode where the crime happened at a party in 2004 had flashback footage looking like it was filmed with a camera phone. Similarly, an episode set in 1990 looked as though it were filmed on home video.
  • A Fool and His New Money Are Soon Parted: "Lotto Fever".
  • Foregone Conclusion: We already know someone's going to die--the very first minutes of each episode depicts this. The flashbacks and investigations serve to reveal the identity and motive of whoever is responsible.
  • Foreshadowing: The opening scenes often drop hints as to what lead to the victim's murder.
  • Forensic Drama
  • Future Loser
    • A special yet recurrent variant is to show people that were beautiful or hot in the past (and exploiting it for their benefit) to be "fugly" or having aged way worse than others in the present, even if they weren't really bad people back then. Examples include the rival male dancer in "Disco Inferno", the football player in "Stand Up and Holler", the Gold Digger in "The Runaway Bunny", the gorgeous blonde in "Justice", and the former prom king in "Shattered"... Yet none of these are as hard as the dumb babysitter in "Baby Blues", which in the modern day is still dumb, really ugly and now... "works" in the street.
    • Notably averted in "Debut" - all of the young, beautiful high-society debutantes (male and female) are still fairly attractive (for their age) 40 years later. Wealth and privilege can have that effect though.
  • The Gambling Addict: Explored in "The River".
  • Gayngst: The surviving partners in "Forever Blue" and "Best Friends", who are still closeted and mourning their one true love when the team comes to investigate decades later.
  • Genius Bruiser: "Metamorphosis".
  • Gentle Giant: "Metamorphosis". Actually a subversion, as it is discovered that Lester is in reality a very mean Smug Snake that plays dumb to draw suspicions off him. He is Out-Gambitted and tricked to confess the crime.
  • A God Am I: Played with in "The Woods".

Lilly: No you're not... you're a scared little boy... whose mother didn't love him.

  • Gold Digger: "Lotto Fever".
  • Hanging Judge: "Jurisprudence".
  • Hannibal Lecture: John Smith tries this on Lilly in "The Road". Subverted when he takes it too far and Lilly's Kensington background proves vital to the case.
    • George Marks uses it on everyone in both the episodes he's in.
  • Have You Told Anyone Else?
  • He Knows Too Much: Part of the reason why the teacher in "True Calling" was murdered was because she knew a fellow teacher was using drugs and forcing her student to bring them to him.
    • A lot of other episodes, as well, such as "Blood On The Tracks", where one of the victims wanted to confess to the police about a crime that he and the other suspects had all been involved in--only to be killed before he could.
  • His Name Is--: "Yo, Adrian".
  • Hollywood Old: Actors who are only in their 60's are frequently hired to play characters in their 70's, 80's, or even 90's.
  • Hollywood Pudgy: Averted in the episode "The Promise", in which an overweight college student was murdered. We learn that she and her equally corpulent friends were victims of harassment. The actresses portraying them are genuinely overweight, not merely a Hollywood Pudgy size eight or ten.
  • Hunting the Most Dangerous Game: The character of George Marks, played by John Billingsley, is shown hunting his victims in forests, much like the real-life serial killer Robert Hansen.
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: Lampshaded, during the episode "Thick As Thieves", by the victim's son, who turned out to be the one who shot her. Considering he had been on the road with his mother since he was 6, it's not surprising he'd feel that way.
  • The Illegal: The Eastern European women in "Cargo", the victims in "Who's Your Daddy?".
  • Improvised Weapon: Since a lot of the murders are spur-of-the-moment, lots of different objects have been used. Some examples include a clock, a metronome, a phone, a crutch, and a skateboard.
  • In with the In Crowd: "Stand Up And Holler". The Alpha Bitch murdered the victim because the latter had found out her friend was gang-raped as the final part of her initiation into the cheerleading squad. The friend could have saved her but didn't because she wanted to be popular. It Got Worse. One of the teachers used to be unpopular in his day covered up the rapes because he's still desperately trying to be in with the cool kids.
  • I See Dead People: At the end of most episodes, the ghost of victim is seen by the officers and/or by someone who is they were close to (family, friend, etc). Occasionally the killer will also see the victim.
    • Subverted in two episodes in which the victim is not seen; the first because the case wasn't closed, and the second, because the victim was only a infant at the time of death. And then, there was the one where it turned out the victim wasn't dead.
  • It's Personal/One of Our Own: "Officer Down".
  • Karma Houdini: Although George dies in "The Woods", it's kinda how he wanted to die. And in "Death Penalty: Final Appeal" the crooked DA who got an innocent man simply loses his job (although it was also in the paper so to be fair his reputation was also irreversibly damaged).
    • In Real Life, what he did would get him disbarred and possibly even sent to prison. It's not unreasonable to think the same happened here, just simply off-screen.
    • Scott never suffers any consequences for engineering the death of his mother's rapist, nor for beating up the would-be pedophile (though Scotty's assessment of him was correct, the man had technically not done anything illegal and as such, there was no reason for Scotty's assault on him). Ironic, since throughout the series he is reprimanded for other mistakes that he's made.
  • Kavorka Man: Detective Vera. Even though he NEVER stays with any of the women he hooks up with, it boggles the mind how someone as uncouth as he is always tends to get them.
  • Kill and Replace: One case was about a couple killed in a gas explosion in their home. The husband had revealed to their friends that he was going to turn themselves in for the accidental death of another friend. So the wife convinced her ex-lover to make a homemade bomb which she used to kill her husband and a friend of theirs who no one knew was staying on longer. She then stole said friend's identity because they bore a strong resemblance to each other and she had no family or friends who would have noticed the difference.
  • Knife-Throwing Act: "Metamorphosis".
  • Lady Drunk: Ellen Rush.
  • Love Makes You Evil: "Lonely Hearts", "Resolutions", "Saving Sammy", "Soul".
  • Lying to the Perp: Done by almost every detective at least once, and especially recurrent in the case of Vera.
  • Mad Bomber: "Sabotage".
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: "Blood On The Tracks". The explosion that killed the two victims was thought to be due to an accidental gas leak. 20-something years later evidenced surfaced proving that it was the result of a bomb. A handful of other deaths as well, that were initially thought to be accidental, suicide, or even natural causes.
  • Mama Bear: Several of the Sympathetic Murderer characters.
  • Manly Gay: The closeted cops in "Forever Blue".
  • Married to the Job: Led to the divorces of Nick Vera and John Stillman, and is the reason for some of Lilly's failed relationships.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The "apparitions" that appear at the end of every episode.
  • Medley Exit: Done in each episode when the full story comes out and the perpetrator is identified, showing where are they now after the case is solved.
  • Mercy Kill/I Cannot Self-Terminate: "Wishing" and "Boy Crazy"; "The Good Death" also featured an Angel of Death-type serial killer as a character. Ironically, he wasn't the "killer", the man's wife was.
    • Also in "The Letter", where a man suffocated his lover while she was being gang-raped by his drunken friends.
  • Mind Screw: "Into the Blue". The entire episode, apart from the very beginning and very end, and including all Lilly's efforts to solve the case therein, is a Dying Dream. Granted, the final montage shows that she turned out to be right in her dream-deductions.
  • Miscarriage of Justice: Some of the cases are reopened because of these. Also central plot of "Death Penalty: Final Appeal".
    • You could consider just about every episode as an example of this, considering how long someone has been able to get away with murder, even if they are finally caught at the end.
  • Misplaced Retribution:: The killer in "It Takes A Village". Horrifically abused while in a group home, he is now killing innocent boys who have the misfortune of reminding him of his tormentors, instead of, you know, those who actually bullied him, or those who let it happen.
  • Missing White Woman Syndrome: Invoked in "8:03 AM", when the grandfather of a murdered black teen thinks the police are only reopening the case because a white girl was killed at the same time. He is actually wrong.
    • At least several (innocent) suspects admit that they fled from or refused to cooperate with the police because they knew they would be the prime suspect, simply for having been a black man in the mere vicinity of the dead white victim.
  • Mommy Issues
  • Morally-Ambiguous Doctorate: Jack Galton from "Mind Games"; in addition to being mentally ill himself, knowingly kept a mentally ill man insane by denying him medication, and he played on the guy's own schizophrenia to cover his tracks.
  • Motive Rant: This is the main way to get convictions, since, in many of the cases, any physical evidence has degraded beyond use.
  • Musical Nod: Get Together by the Youngbloods is the ending song for first season episode "Volunteers" the song shows up again in the final season episode "Free Love". Both cases occur in the year 1969.
  • Music Video Syndrome
  • My God, What Have I Done?: The look on many of the perpetrators' faces, right after they've committed the murder.
  • Nazi Grandpa: "The Hen House".
  • Never Found the Body: "Fireflies". Subverted in "Blood On The Tracks" and "Joseph", where bodies where found, but their mangled state thanks to the method of killing (explosion in the first case, shotgun blast to the face in the second) lead to them being misidentified.
  • Never Suicide: Averted in a handful of episodes, such as "Two Weddings" and "Daniela".
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed:

Will Jeffries: A white boy that played black music in the '50s? Reminds me of Elvis.

  • No Name Given: The serial rapist from Season Seven, despite having what was essentially a multi-episode side arc in which he raped Scotty's mother.
    • Later averted, his name was given in a later episode as Jimmy Mota.
    • John Smith's real name is never uncovered, since the guy was pretty much a ghost (always paid in cash, drove stolen cars and fake licenses, had no fingerprints or DNA on file). As one of the team put - "John Smith? More like John Doe."
  • Nothing but Hits: Each episode almost exclusively used chart-toppers from the year of the episode's case during the Flashbacks.
    • But the way they use it makes it Crowning Music of Awesome, especially at the end of each episode.
    • The most Crowning Music of Awesome episodes are the ones where they feature a single artist. The episode featuring Bruce Springsteen's songs from each decade is the most awesome one.
  • Not Proven: One episode ends with a prominent politician admitting to Valens, off the record, that he committed the murder years ago. Unfortunately, his sister, in a misguided show of loyalty, has already confessed to everything, and there's no evidence to contradict her claims.
    • One episode has Cullen Masters, a disgraced hockey player who got banned from playing after being arrested for the murder of a rival. The cops had nothing against Masters other than the fact he hated the victim but that was enough for them to try (and fail) to force a confession out of him. While he was released, the league was so sure of his guilt they wouldn't allow him to play hockey again and, years later, this was held as a reason to ban his son from joining the league. The last part motivated Masters to investigate on his own and ask the police to reopen the case.
  • Not So Different: Serial killer George Marks used this straight on Lilly in "The Woods".
  • Oh Crap: This is how several suspects react to the detectives.
  • Outlaw Couple: "Lonely Hearts".
  • Pac-Man Fever: In the episode "It Takes A Village", the central clue to catching the killer is an arcade game called Defector 3. They describe it as a 'Role Playing Game' despite the fact that the on-screen action is akin to the fighting game Mortal Kombat. Great job guys.
  • Parental Abandonment: Lilly was raised (sorta) by her alcoholic mother alone.
  • Parting Words Regret: The father of the murder victim the detectives investigate in "Disco Inferno" episode confesses to this: When the victim decides to defy him on his choice for future life career path, the father said "I... renounce... you." before leaving, barely hours before the son dies.
    • In the episode "Shuffle, Ball Change", the victim and his brother got into a shoving match that resulted in the brother injuring his knee, possibly derailing his wrestling career. Their infuriated father told the victim, "God help you, Maurice." The boy disappeared soon afterwards, leaving the father thoroughly haunted by the thought that his son had run away from home thinking that his father hated him, and even more torn up when he learned that his son had in fact been murdered, and that either way, those were the last words that he said to him.
  • Pass Fail: "Libertyville".
  • The Perfect Crime: "Mind Hunters". Probably the only one episode that has a Downer Ending.
    • Also "The Runaway Bunny", though it isn't the episode's main case.
  • Perp Walk: Once Per Episode.
    • Not always. For example, in "A Perfect Day", the killer is already dead. Stillman has his picture taken down from the bar he frequented though.
    • And in the episode with the case from 1919, the perpetrator, and everyone involved except the eight year old daughter of the maid, was long dead, so all they could do was write "CLOSED" on the case box.
      • There are still parallels of the Perp Walk: In the 1919 case they handed the recorded confession to the great-grandniece of the victim who was also the great-great-grand niece of the killer and in the 1929 case they confiscated the murder weapon as the ghost of the killer looked ashamed to his grandson.
      • Even the only episode where they couldn't break the killer ("Mind Hunters") has a perpetrator walk... but with the perpetrator walking as a free man. This is a show that loves its format.
  • Posthumous Character: With only a few exceptions, the victim of the week, whose death is established in the opening sequence, but whose character is fleshed out during flashbacks with the information provided by friends, family members, etc.
  • Pre-Mortem One-Liner
  • Professional Wrestling: "One Fall".
  • Prom Baby: "Family".
  • Put on a Bus: The mostly forgotten detectives Chris Lassing (Lilly's first partner) and Josie Sutton. Saccardo goes through this twice. And then there is Scotty's girlfriend Elisa, who was...
    • Put on a Bus to Hell: To an asylum after suffering a mental breakdown, despite Scotty had promised her she wouldn't be interned. And then suffered a...
    • Bus Crash: By jumping off a bridge some time after she had been discharged. All this happened off-screen.
  • Quip to Black: Frequently, and usually Lily.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: One of the story arcs in season seven is the department suffering severe budget cuts, which coincides with CBS also doing budget cuts on the series. Possible Take That involved in the fact that the guy forcing those cuts is a new Deputy Commissioner that Stillman despises.
  • Really Seventeen Years Old: One episode has a subplot involving a witness who' an army recruit who lied about his age.
  • Red Herring: Mostly played straight, but remarkably averted in at least two episodes where the person presented as the prime suspect was in fact the killer.
  • Red Scare: "Red Glare".
  • Rescue Romance
  • Ripped from the Headlines: A number of episodes-- "Look Again" (Martha Moxley), "Strange Fruit" (Emmitt Till), etc--are based on real life cases. Most notably "The Boy in the Box" is so close to a still unsolved Philadelphia Cold Case that there isn't the usual "The following story is fictional and does not depict any actual person or event" disclaimer at the beginning of the episode.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: "Offender".
  • Save Our Students: "True Calling". the victim is killed by another teacher who's basically a jaded, older version of her, when she tries to get him to confess to drug use to save the future of the student he forced to carry for him. The student in question feels so responsible for her death that he descends into the life of crime he would've had without her intervention, despite his obvious talent as a writer.
  • Sealed Room in the Middle of Nowhere: MO of the serial killer from "The Road".
  • Serial Killer: "Creatures of the Night", "It Takes A Village", "The Road", "Mind Hunters"/"The Woods", and "Last Drive-In"/"Bullet".
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: "Honor", "War at Home", "Family 8108", "The Brush Man", "The Good Soldier".
  • Smug Snake: Moe Kitchener, and most serial killers and rapists.
  • The Smurfette Principle: In the early seasons, Lilly was not just the only female member of the Cold Case squad, but it was stated several times that she was the only female detective in Philadelphia. In later seasons, Kat joined the squad.
    • Actually, female detectives from other parts of Philadelphia were introduced after the second season.
  • Soft Water: Subverted in "A Perfect Day". The victim's skeleton is shown to have multiple fractures as a result of her being thrown off a bridge by her father. Well, besides the broken arm he already gave her.
  • Stealth Pun: "Beautiful Little Fool" opens with the 1929 New Year party in a mansion. In the next scene, one of the attendants is dead. The Butler Did It.
  • Strictly Formula: (Like most CBS Procedurals...) Mundane scene in the past that introduces us to the victim, his or her loved ones and sometimes even a few hints as to why they'll be murdered. Then, said murder. Case reopened in the modern day due to discovery of new evidence. Interviews. Flashbacks. Case solved. Medley Exit. Where Are They Now. Somebody sees the victim's ghost.
  • Stylistic Suck: "Creatures of the Night", where the lighting in the flashbacks is more intrusive than usual, and everyone in the flashbacks is acting fairly hammy.
  • Suicide by Cop: "The River", though no cop was involved. Played straight with George Marks, by Lilly.
  • Sympathetic Murderer: Basically any episode in which there was an example of:
    • Asshole Victim: "Blackout", "Justice", "Greed", "The Plan", "Thick As Thieves", etc.
      • Alternatively, an Asshole Victim that's not the main victim: "Revenge", "Offender", "A Perfect Day", etc.
    • Accidental Murder: "Baby Blues", "Kensington", etc.
    • A mercy killing, like in "The Good Death", "Boy Crazy".
    • A crime of passion, committed in the heat of the moment and almost instantly regretted-- "Sleepover", "Fly Away", "Shuffle, Ball-Change".
    • Even some of the Complete Monster killers get a bit of this--the killer in "It Takes A Village", for instance, is clearly the result of the horrific abuse he suffered as a child.
  • Taking You with Me: This exchange from "Knuckle Up": "If you do this... you're going down." "Then you're coming with me." This is followed by the confession that implicated the one making the threat.
  • Tall, Dark and Handsome: Scotty.
    • Also Saccardo.
  • That One Case:
    • Nick Vera: "Our Boy is Back", "Triple Threat", "Flashover" he is suspended during the Medley Exit.
    • John Stillman: "Glued", "Chinatown".
    • Will Jeffries: "Strange Fruit", "The Key".
    • Lilly Rush: "Saving Patrick Bubley".
    • Kat Miller: "8:03 AM".
    • Scotty Valens: "Sanctuary", "Jurisprudence".
    • Other, non-main cast detectives: "Churchgoing People", "One Small Step", "The Last Drive-In"/"Bullet".
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Both the originals ("The Hen House") and the imitators ("Spiders").
  • Timeshifted Actor: Used heavily due to the reliance on flashbacks to tell the case's story, with nifty juxtapositions and actor-switching in between, to demonstrate just how much (or little) each person questioned in the case has changed over the years.
  • Tragic Mulatto: "Libertyville".
  • Trans-Atlantic Equivalent: "Waking the Dead" and "Cold Squad".
  • The Unfair Sex: In "World's End", where a cheating wife gets offended by her lover's cheating on his wife. Despite that, you know, she is cheating on her husband from the get go. And we are supposed to feel sorry for her.
    • Their relationship never really went beyond companionship even though both were falling in love with each other. All they did was talk, which gave them hope, despite the crap they were going through, and the wife only got mad at him because she thought he lied about his wife still being alive.
    • Similarly, in "The Key", the victim's husband is incensed that his wife is cheating on him, despite the fact that he's been cheating on her left and right for years. Interestingly enough, he is NOT the murderer.
  • Victim of the Week: Often with the personality and situation of the victim explored in great detail.
  • Vietnam War: "Volunteers", "Revolution", "Honor", "Free Love".
  • Villainous Breakdown: George Marks suffers this after Lilly resists being broken, confronts him about his past, and rips his god complex apart saying that all he is is a frightened little boy who's mommy never loved him. In the span of two minutes, George goes from Smug Snake/Manipulative Bastard to Screaming Lunatic who can only scream "You Shut Up!" over and over again. After watching him walk away like a smug bastard in "Mind Hunters", watching George lose it felt strangely satisfying.
    • John Smith ("The Road") kind of has this too. He's rattled by the fact that his latest victim refuses to give up hope of rescue, leading him to make the mistake that gets him arrested, and he's infuriated that Lily doesn't give up either and instead, figures out where the victim is being held in time to save her from starving to death.
    • Jim Larkin ("Lover's Lane") also pulls off Smug Snake... until the team reveals they have DNA evidence, at which point he has a Freak-Out.
  • Wham! Episode: The end of "Stalker", which has the killer go batshit and take several members of the team hostage, shooting and nearly killing both Lilly and John.
  • Where Are They Now? Epilogue: The present-day situations of each person involved in the case is interposed with shots of what they were like when the case first happened.
  • Whole-Plot Reference: Many episodes are based on the plot of certain movies--"Blood On The Tracks" (The Big Chill), "Yo Adrian" (Rocky), "Joseph" (Laura), "The Dealer" (Glengarry Glen Ross), and subverted with "Dangerous Minds" episode; the WPR for that film was actually True Calling, though it's arguably a reference to the "Nice White Lady" type of dramas the film spawned. It's arguably a Deconstruction; see the Save Our Students spoiler above. Ouch.
  • World War Two: "Factory Girls", "Family 8108", "WASP", "The Hen House".
  • Worthy Opponent: George Marks sees Lilly as this, and such as ensures that she is the one who kills him.
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: Jeffries is twelve in 1963, a grown adult in 1966, and turns sixty in 2005. Stillman's daughter is said to be born in 1980, and then to be eighteen about twenty years ago. And don't even try to guess the age of the killer arrested in "World's End" for a crime he committed in 1938.
  • You Killed My Brother: Cedric Bubley does this, but changes his mind about killing.

"You ruined our family."