Screen: Wednesday, May 22, 2003
Book ’Em, Dano

Character development\r\nhas brought the cop show \r\nto new heights.


Time was when cop shows didn’t need strong characters. Tv cops were so interchangeable that, in 1958, The Naked City simply killed off its protagonist in mid-season when the Californian actor who played him balked at filming in New York City. Genre fans merely wanted the tried-and-true formula: Lay out the case, let the cops investigate, dig the resolution.

Not so these days. An explanation could lie in shifting audience tastes and — of course — the demands of commerce.

In tv’s infancy, the medium’s novelty alone was enough to sustain viewer loyalty. Pioneering crime dramas like The Naked City and the original Jack Webb-helmed Dragnet needed just 30 minutes of airtime to tell their stories. They presented plot details in telegraphic fashion, reflected in the “just-the-facts-ma’am” investigative approach of Dragnet’s stolid leading man, Sgt. Joe Friday.

In the late ’60s, tv’s top cop was Hawaii Five-O’s Steve McGarrett (Jack Lord), who rattled off terse one-liners like “Book ’em, Dano” while revealing little of his inner self. When public trust of authority figures plummeted post-Vietnam/Watergate, such steely-eyed, hard-bitten detectives were replaced by a new kind of warm ’n’ cuddly gumshoe, usually a private investigator, typified by James Garner’s affable Jim Rockford and hunky Tom Selleck’s Thomas Magnum. The writers on those shows used quirky banter to draw their characters in broad strokes.

By the Reagan ’80s, viewers wanted shows with more realistic plotlines and a naturalistic look and feel. Socially conscious baby-boomers formed a bigger chunk of the viewing audience, and crime dramas began exploring issues like racism, sexism, gay rights, and AIDS — all within storylines where cops still had to catch crooks in less than 45 minutes. Viewers also wanted edgier, more complex characters — the tormented detective from the silver screen’s Serpico, not Dragnet’s phlegmatic Friday.

Between the ’80s and Y2K, the amount of airtime devoted to commercials jumped by 50 percent. Needing to shove even more material into even less time, cop show creators could either emphasize the story or the characters. Since tv fandom now seems to depend more on viewers’ identification with personalities than their affinity for well-crafted plots, it was inevitable that the players would win out over the play.

In 1981, Steven Bochco debuted the template for well-written, character-driven police shows: Hill Street Blues, a paragon of cinematic production values and superb ensemble acting. These days, Bochco’s still churning out episodes of NBC’s once-innovative NYPD Blue, which initially made waves with its use of partial nudity and profanity — scandalous for the time, although tame compared to what cable channels get away with today.

It’s gotten kinda sad to watch Blue, as poor old Detective Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) struggles valiantly but vainly to carry a lackluster bunch of actors and writers. It’s even sadder to contemplate the fate of David Caruso, who broke his NYPD Blue contract to make movies à la George Clooney and wound up banished to CBS’ CSI: Miami, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (Black Hawk Down, Speed). From that vantage point, he’s endured the ignominy of seeing himself replaced on Blue, first by Rick Schroeder, then by the actor who played Zack on Saved by the Bell. How the mighty have fallen.

CSI: Miami is a new kind of cop show; not just a show, it’s part of a franchise, like Survivor or The Bachelor. You know the drill: If one show’s a success, then two or three more cut from the same cloth will be an even bigger bonanza. With the CSI’s (the acronym stands for “crime scene investigator”), the formula’s simple: Take some glitzy locales, some computer-generated depictions showing, say, how a bullet entering the body causes sepsis (with a look more Discovery Channel than broadcast network), and voila! You’ve got a top-rated drama.

But glitz and spiffy F/X are no substitute for character development, however rudimentary. Once the novelty of the high-tech sizzle wears off, some human interest is needed to pull viewers back week after week. So, on the original CSI, Las Vegas forensic investigator Gil Grissom (William Peterson) is a control freak who’s losing his hearing and leads a team with a member who has a gambling problem. Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger, once resident hottie on China Beach) is an ex-stripper turned investigator. (Yeah, right.)

Emphasizing the people as much as the police work these days also means providing enough different characters to appeal to all segments of the tv audience. Thus, on NBC’s Law & Order, liberal assistant district attorney Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) is balanced by Fred Thompson as Arthur Branch, who injects occasional Ashcroftian aphorisms. When McCoy opines that maybe a convicted sniper can be rehabilitated, Branch replies, “With four people dead, I don’t know if he’s earned that right.”

While it’s unlikely the real Noo Yawk electorate would pick a drawling good-ole-boy like Branch for the DA’s post, his predecessor, Nora Lewin (Dianne Wiest), apparently was too liberal-schmiberal for the current political climate, kinda like The West Wing’s real-life war-protesting president, Martin Sheen (whose character has become a kind of Poli Sci-fi wet-dream for lefties: a hyper-principled liberal POTUS with integrity and balls).

In fact, Law & Order and its two spinoffs — created by tv’s god-king of police procedural pulp, Dick Wolf — are tops when it comes to equal representation for minorities ’n’ wimmin in responsible positions, starting with L&O’s black female lieutenant, played by the dauntingly named S. Epatha Merkerson. Even better — especially to the son of parents who started watching baseball after the Yankees and Mets started drafting Japanese pitchers — Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’s brainy police shrink George Huang (B.D. Wong) has probably gone further than any Asian tv character from the cook-houseboy stereotype.

Besides Huang, the SVU (which investigates “sexually based offenses,” hubba hubba) includes a couple of unlikely candidates to play two of New York’s finest. In a sublime casting irony, rapper Ice-T, author of Body Count’s hit “Cop Killer,” plays Detective Fin Tutuola, while formerly edgy comic Richard Belzer plays his partner, Detective John Munch. Belzer’s Munch character is a franchise of its own, having appeared in a total of six prime-time series. All of the SVU cops exhibit a degree of moral outrage against perps that would have been unthinkable in Friday’s heyday.

The jewel in the Law & Order crown is the second spin-off, Law & Order: Criminal Intent. The show revolves around Detective Robert Goren, an omniscient, Holmesian sleuth with an uncanny ability to deduce criminals’ motivations and employ his knowledge to trap these baddies in his investigative web. As played by Vincent D’Onofrio, Goren fulminates with barely suppressed rage, sneering contemptuously at his suspects.

Clearly, this cop has issues only hinted at in the dialogue, but his wounded psyche heightens his ability to think his way into a sociopath’s subconscious. He even has his own Professor Moriarty: an Aussie drug dealer-turned-serial killer who passes herself off as an Oxford don and murders a university dean to create a job opening for her lesbian lover. When she absconds before Goren can arrest her, the depth of his frustration is palpable.

D’Onofrio came to tv copdom from films, where he favored offbeat roles like the psychotic Marine in Full Metal Jacket or asocial, mother-obsessed Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard in The Whole Wide World. He brings far more nuance to Goren than the writing requires, communicating volumes with a glance, an inflection, or a movement.

Compare his performance with Ed O’Neill’s as Friday in the resuscitated Dragnet, the lone loser to emerge from Wolf’s golden pen. Best known as dysfunctional family man Ed Bundy from Married with Children, O’Neill was born to portray one-dimensional characters. He plays Friday straight and not as wooden as Webb, but you still expect him to break character with a boorish guffaw and start shit-talking his wife.

If there’s not a lot of humor written into any of these shows, it’s because their omnipresent, overarching reality is the fear of terrorism. It’s there when a character on CBS’ Navy-lawyer stinker JAG mentions a brother who died on the U.S.S. Cole, or when the police chief in an L&O episode recommends “shutting down Manhattan like we did when the Twin Towers went down.”

While some commentators have taken exception to the fast-and-loose approach to the rights of the accused displayed by Law & Order cops — and indeed by many small-screen badge-flashers — the way officers and prosecutors are depicted affirms a key article of post-9/11 faith: Those charged with protecting us from wrongdoers are boundlessly competent and relentless and will ultimately get their man.

What these shows still lack is also what they need to pull in the GenX/Y-ers: good-looking young people and a soupçon of sexual tension. Absent those elements, stories ripped from this year’s headlines could wind up at the bottom of next year’s dustbin. With the skells, as Sipowicz would say.

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