Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Best Episode of A Police Show Ever.

I am not a fan of cop shows.

I'm not a fan of most TV shows, these days, and the shows that I am a fan of tend to get canceled just as soon as the universe hears that I like them. (I should never have irritated the Fates by challenging them to that riddle game and then asking them what have I got in my pocket?) Or, if they don't get canceled, then they get taken over by that weird guy with the teeth and totally ruined.

Seriously, what happened to Best Week Ever, the only show VH1 ever put on that was worth watching? I sat down one Friday night to watch it and instead of a bunch of unknown comedians making fun of Michael Buble, I got Paul F. Tompkins in front of that giant pinball machine from Electric Company, and no funny jokes. That, I think, is worse than canceling my show, because my show is still on, it just sucks terribly now.

Cop shows have never really drawn me in for two reasons. First, they're boring. And second, they're predictable.

Although, as I look at that, that may just be one reason and one result of that reason. Either way, though, I'm right: cop shows are boring and predictable.

Look at all the cop shows on TV and see what they all have in common.

Quirky partner pairings? Check: Whether it's Grissom and his fascination with bugs teaming up with ex-stripper-turned-CSI Marg Helgenberger, or Jeff Goldblum's guitar playing nutcase joining forces with that-girl-with-nondescript-hair, any cop show that wants viewers will create a quirky pairing. They even try it on Cold Case, although nobody on that show is quirky.

Ripped-from-the-headlines (but with a twist!) storylines? You bet: this week's installment of Law & Order: Criminal Intent was practically composed of only headlines: An evangelical Christian, who was downsized (in this economy!) for troubles with subprime loans murders (among others) a drama teacher! (Okay, so drama teachers have been absent from the headlines. The rest is all yesterday's news, quite literally.)

Commentary on how terrible our justice system is supposed to be? Right here: A recent episode of Law & Order/CSI/SVU/Criminal Minds/The Closer -- it doesn't matter which it actually was -- had a character saying I don't work for the fairness system, I work for the justice system. Touche, Hollywood writers. As a lawyer, all I can say is: Ouch... that hurts. Metaphorically speaking.

And all of that is not even touching on the most basic point about most cop shows, which is this: They are solved by accident. I've mentioned this before, that detectives mostly solve crimes accidentally on TV, but it bears repeating not just because they still do (A recent episode of the The Closer took this literally -- The Closer solved a crime because people kept going to the wrong address to inspect the scene of the crime) but also because the movie The Hangover just used exactly that same method to solve their problem.


In The Hangover, and, seriously, do not read this if you haven't yet seen the movie, because it will wreck it for you. Just revealing this gives away about thirty punchlines and also the entire plot of the movie...

... forgive me. I'm having a crisis of conscience here because I'm still a little bitter about the fact that I knew, going in, that Bruce Willis was dead, and also I knew, going in, that Qui-Gon would die, so I'm just trying to weigh my moral obligations here, because I know there are going to be people like me who are thinking Just go ahead and tell us, I'm not planning on seeing the movie, which is why I originally read the secret of The Sixth Sense, only then they're going to see the movie, anyway, and it'll be spoiled for them.

Okay. I'm not gonna do it. I'm not going to do what everyone else in the world does. I'm not going to reveal the big twist in The Hangover. If you've seen it, you know what I'm talking about and how they solved their problem entirely by accident, and if you haven't, then you will see it, and you'll know what I was talking about.

Anyway, cop shows as a rule bore me and are predictable and trite and, by now, have more or less run through every possible scenario for every possible crime, and I'm not exaggerating that, either. When a cop show resorts to a world-famous astronaut killing another astronaut (and reveals, for no reason whatsoever, that one of the cops was going to be an astronaut and idolized the killer astronaut), they've exhausted plotlines. (And, as usual, I did not bother doing a SPOILER ALERT! for that because it's a stupid plot and stupid plots deserve to be spoiled.)

There was, though, one cop show once that drew me in and had me watching it every single week, for the whole two years that it was still on while I watched it. That show was Homicide: Life On The Streets.

Homicide was on TV for years before I ever heard about it. My roommate in law school liked to watch it and began telling me about it, and eventually I sat down and watched an episode of it, and I liked it, too. (Within two years, the show was cancelled. The Fates were a little slow, there, but didn't miss their chance.)

Homicide probably never had a chance, and not just because I liked to watch it. It was a complicated, thoughtful show that did not encapsulate each episode and isolate them from the rest.

That's a complaint I have about cop shows these days-- and it's also the reason they can stay on the air so long. If you watch Law & Order/SVU/The Closer/Monk, and the like, there is very little continuity from show to show. Sure, every now and then there's a to be continued, like the time the "special victims" that were being rescued were animals (ahem) but for the most part, each show has no connection to the shows in the past and no connection to the shows in the future. The characters don't grow or change or evolve or learn; they're static, like the kids in Peanuts (which had more continuity from strip to strip than most cop shows do these days.)

Don't bother saying but they mention Elliot's wife, or didn't Brenda marry Fritz? Or Monk's been investigating his wife's murder for years. Those don't really matter. They're just "character tidbits," sprinkled over the show like jimmies on ice cream. The writers have to give the cops something to say while they walk down the street to get to the brownstone where the Hispanic illegal immigrant (timely!) who is planning to shoot a doctor who gives abortions (timely!) because the doctor aborted his Iranian girlfriend's baby, resulting in her deportation back to that country (extra timely!), and so they scatter some "characterization:"

Emotionally-stable, probably-female cop character:
"So, as we walk to this brownstone to arrest this illegal immigrant, etc. etc., how are things going with that child or children you had in that one episode?"

Quirky, possibly-deranged, likely male cop character: "I've been studying guitar, in hopes of connecting with him/her/them but my wife, or if I am suddenly revealed to be a gay man in hopes of getting ratings, life partner, has really been interfering with my ability to do so."

Emotionally-stable, probably-female cop character: "Well, that's too bad. Hey, here we are. Let's go arrest this guy even though he's kind of a victim of the system."

Quirky, possibly-deranged, likely male cop character: "I don't work for the victim system. I work for the justice system."

Emotionally-stable, probably-female cop character: "That really didn't make any sense."

You get the point. By the next episode, the guitar-playing kids will never be mentioned again and the male character won't have a wedding ring on. The rule is: the less continuity, the better!because if there's continuity then viewers will not be free to tune in some weeks and tune out others, and will have to follow the show. You know what passes for continuity nowadays? Brenda carrying around her cat as she investigates a murder on The Closer.

Homicide was different. Homicide had continuity coming out its ears. It took me the better part of six months to get up to speed on the show, figure out who was who and why they acted the way they did, follow the ongoing investigations and storylines, and sort out characters, but it was six months' worth of entertainment I had in doing so, and as I figured out what was going on and who was who and why they did what they did, the storylines became richer for me, the characters more developed, everything more meaningful.

At the time I began watching, the ongoing story involved an attempt to investigate and bring down a murderous drug dealer named Luther Mahoney, who, with his gang, was responsible for murder after murder and crime after crime and who, I believe, had actually gotten some of the Baltimore cops shot. That investigation lasted months, until it culminated in an episode where three of the characters had cornered Luther Mahoney in his penthouse and were going to arrest him. They had Luther at gunpoint, and he had a gun, and as the cops and Luther faced off against each other, Luther put his hands to his side and dropped his gun and there was a heartbeat-length pause... and then one of the cops shot him. Just gunned him down.

That single act would reverberate over the remainder of the show as the cops tried to cover for each other and there was an investigation and then the cops had to investigate each other and finally the cop who'd done the shooting confessed and resigned, and all of it was gripping and well-done and kept me captivated.

You know how long that storyline would take on one of today's cop shows? 1 hour. Maybe 2 if they did it as a season-ending cliffhanger. Most of the story would be both revealed and resolved with Sam Waterston and a judge and a defense attorney in a hallway, arguing:

Sam Waterston: "I don't care if he's a cop, he shot someone in cold blood and then covered up the evidence for months and months and even hid it from the internal affairs investigation run by a good friend of his, all of which we didn't bother to show you because our viewers would get bored, so I'm just recapping it now."

Defense Attorney: "He shot a drug dealer, who had murdered dozens of people and even shot a cop, as was shown by the brief montage set to music that we played 22 minutes into the show, just prior to commercials. It's not fair to hold him to the same standard as drug dealers."

Judge: "I don't work for the fairness system. I work for NBC. Who writes this garbage, anyway?"

With all that, there was one episode of Homicide: Life On The Streets that really sticks out in my mind, and it had nothing to do with the ongoing investigation into Luther Mahoney, or any ongoing investigation, or any ongoing storyline. The episode in question was a one-off, an episode which had nothing much to do with anything else on the show but still stands out as The Best Episode of A Police Show Ever, because it was so compelling and so well done and also because it featured the only time I've ever seen a detective investigate a murder that isn't completed yet.

The episode was titled, simply, Subway, and starred Vincent D'Onofrio as a guy who takes the train to work sometimes -- just one day a week -- and who on this particular day is shoved in front of a train by a stranger. But he doesn't get hit by the train and die. He gets, instead, caught in between the train and the edge of the tracks, his body (below the waist) twisted over and over again... so that when the police arrive, he's trapped there, alive -- but not for long.

The homicide detectives are called in to investigate, but they're not even sure if they have a homicide, or an attempted homicide, or just an accident. What they are sure of is that Vincent D'Onofrio's chances are slim-to-none, and so as two cops investigate the murder-- maybe-- other cops are called out to go look for Vincent's wife, who is out jogging.

When I watched that episode the first time (I've watched it in reruns a few times since) I was struck by how great it was. Sad, yes, horrifyingly so, but also phenomenal storytelling that wasn't "ripped from the headlines" or paint-by-numbers detective work. Nobody stumbled across an answer, nobody tossed motions onto a judge's desk and said I'll see you in court, McCoy, nobody shone a blacklight onto a Luminol-spattered desk. Instead, cops walked around looking for a jogger, and they talked to a guy trapped by a subway, and they talked to a suspect and pulled records, and they talked to each other.

But that simple description belies what else was going on -- because the cops in the subway split up, one talking to the victim, one to the suspect -- and as the show went on, the cops began to develop sympathy for each of their witnesses, each getting one side of the story. Meanwhile, the other cops out looking for the victim's wife (so she could say goodbye) talked over what it would be like to be in that guy's situation, and engaged in one of the most mundane of police tasks, all set against a dramatic background.

And what I remember, most of all, beyond the chilling and sad feeling the episode gave me, was over and over the indirect emphasis the show placed on how circumstances placed Vincent D'Onofrio in that situation. His character mentioned, at one point, that he only rode the subway that one day just to make a point, and why'd it have to be that day?

That episode aired in 1997 -- four years before September 11, 2001, when thousands of people would or would not go into work at the World Trade Center, but two years after Oklahoma City, when hundreds of people would or would not go in to work at the federal building. It wasn't "ripped from the headlines" or playing on any obvious connections to any one news event; instead, it took a simple story and used it to elaborate on a theme that touches everyone's life -- how the random actions, the coincidences, the minor decisions that suddenly loom large can affect our lives.

What if Vincent D'Onofrio had been a few minutes late that day? What if he'd called in sick? What if his wife hadn't gone jogging? What if the suspect had opted to go to a different platform?

What if people had called in to work on September 11? What if they hadn't stopped for gas near Lee Boyd Malvo in Washington, D.C.?

On top of that, the cop who was picked to talk to Vincent D'Onofrio -- Andre Braugher's character -- had himself suffered a stroke that nearly killed him, long before, on the show, and so was fully aware how a day can begin one way and end an entirely different way, so Andre was not just investigating a murder -- a murder that hadn't happened yet -- but also was confronting his own past and impulses and motivations.

Anyone can write a cop show; I outlined one in this post without even thinking about it. But to write a cop show that forces a viewer to sit down and watch -- eyes glued to the screen -- and makes a viewer think about their own lives and the chances that may have been taken, without even knowing it, and forces a viewer to shudder a little as he watches the leaves on the trees shake in the wind, a little, just the way they did at the end of that episode, that takes talent. The Subway Episode of Homicide was the single most riveting, daring, creative, and unsettling episode of a cop show, ever. It had no car chases, dramatic confrontations, gun shots, punches, lawyerly speeches, jurors, judges, or any of the usual tropes of the genre.

It just had a guy who didn't know when he woke up that he was going to die that day, and some cops who had to investigate his death before it happened, and some quiet moments with mundane tasks that, as all great writing does, rose beyond the circumstances of the characters to resonate with the lives of anyone who watched it, making it The Best Episode of A Police Show, Ever.

So, the next time you're watching Gary Sinise suddenly look up from his desk and say: "What was that? What did you say about the rock band The Archies? Play that song again... yes. That part. Sugar sugar. That's it! She knew he was diabetic!" stop thinking about the inanity that passes for cop shows these days, and think, instead, about the kinds of shows that used to be on television, and maybe, then, stop watching these dumb shows and insist that networks put on good shows, shows that I would like, too. Sure, they may be cancelled by the Fates as soon as I start watching them, but we'll get a couple of good episodes out of them first.

Bonus! Someone put them on Youtube!

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

Part 6:

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val said...

It was wonderful. And yet, though nominated for an Emmy, it didn't win.

I love Vincent D'Onofrio now, didn't know him when it first aired, but I just wept.

Husbands Anonymous said...

Yeah, I loved that show- the tension in the character's face who was threatened with a stroke every time he got tense- one of the best tension inducing plotlines ever.
Another show I enjoyed which didn't last, was "The Hat Squad".
Mainly because of the hats. Otherwise, it was pretty generic.
The Wire was also great- you had to translate all the slang.
"Tru Dat" etc...
I remain a cop-show addict.