Crime Story, Part One: Impressions
December 7, 2007
Recently, over a long weekend, I finally tackled a project I’d been trying to get to for years. Or half a project, anyway: I watched the first season of Crime Story, the 1986-1988 period cops vs. mafia television series that’s had a devoted cult following for two decades, largely because its executive producer, Michael Mann, is considered the modern master of the urban crime movie.
I’m not the diehard Mann obsessive that two of my film critic friends are. One of them went to the lengths of renting the old VHS releases of the whole series from a legendary video store in the Valley, a few at a time, and dubbing a set of copies. (He still hadn’t gotten around to watching them by the time the DVDs came out.) But I am a middling-to-high Mann enthusiast, and I’d been guessing that this show might stand alongside St. Elsewhere and The Paper Chase as one of the best TV dramas of the eighties.
Another friend, a longtime TV collector who knows nothing about Michael Mann, chimed in with this blunt assessment of Crime Story: “The first ten or so episodes in Chicago are great. Then after they go to Vegas, it starts to suck.”
I tried to put those words out of my mind as I watched the twenty-one episodes from the first season. I was sure that, with my familiarity with Mann’s big-screen oeuvre, I’d suss out familiar Mannian themes and styles that my collector friend wasn’t hip to. There were some. But in the end, I couldn’t really disagree with him. After the pilot, a two-hour TV-movie directed with non-stop energy and real epic grandeur by Abel Ferrara, it’s a slow downhill slide.
I think I understand what went wrong. Mann, if what I’ve read about Crime Story is correct, was given carte blanche to develop his own show after turning Miami Vice into a huge hit for CBS. Anticipating (with a certain amount of hubris) a multi-season run, Mann plotted an epic story arc in which the showdown between Chicago supercop Mike Torello (Dennis Farina) and his nemesis, mobster Ray Luca (Tony Denison), would span most of the nineteen-sixties and seventies and eventually roam across much of the United States.
But Crime Story, unlike Miami Vice, was a moody, diffuse show, at a time when only a handful of prestigious dramas (none of them in the action genre) were beginning to work with season-long, multi-episode storylines. The ratings plummeted; the hefty budget was chopped. Instead of sticking with what they were doing right – gradually building the fascinating character of Mike Torello, a stone-faced cop with a complicated inner life, and charting his Melvillian (in the sense of both Herman and Jean-Pierre) obsession with Luca and its impact on his relationships with his wife and girlfriend – Mann and company hit the fast-forward button. Years worth of plot were crammed into the final ten episodes, at the expense of logic and continuity.
One of the later episodes, “The Suspect” (notable for Julia Roberts’ early role), is a model of clumsy exposition. Within the space of a few minutes, we learn that a) Torello has a girlfriend we hadn’t heard about before; b) she’s also the estranged wife of his squad’s FBI liaison; and c) said FBI liaison has been molesting his teenaged stepdaughter. Spread out over a whole season, this storyline could’ve same impact as the breakdown of Terence Knox’s character in the first season of St. Elsewhere – a spectacle in which a familiar, sympathetic figure unravels into a horrifying mess in what feels like real time. But in its extant form, “The Suspect” is a big non sequitir.
So is the final episode of the first season, “Ground Zero,” in ways I won’t ruin for anyone who hasn’t seen it. It follows upon a climactic showdown between Torello and Luca in the penultimate segment, “Top of the World” (directed by Mann), and was clearly meant to serve as a series finale. Even though I knew essentially what would happen in the bizarre final minutes of “Ground Zero,” I was shocked by the tone of what transpires. On paper, it sounds like laudable high-concept existentialism, but in execution the excruciating, Bowery Boys-worthy dialogue between Luca and the oafish stool pigeon Pauli is so jokey and flip that the ending plays as a gigantic fuck-you to loyal viewers. And I write that as someone who’s ecstatic to see chances taken with important TV moments like these, as long as the writing is up to the challenge: think of the last final minutes of St. Elsewhere, or Newhart.
I have no idea how the writers undid this mess to set the unanticipated second season in motion, nor am I in any particular hurry to find out. But I do consider it one of the funniest ironies in TV history that, a year later, the wild cult sitcom Sledge Hammer used up its last punchline parodying (cleverly) this nonsensical ending in its presumed series finale, and then found itself in the identical predicament – brought back from the Nielsen grave and with a whole lot of ’splainin’ to do at the beginning of the next season.