June 4, 2008
Debuting today on the website is the last of the dispatches from the archives that got killfiled when the late, lamented Television Chronicles magazine received its cancellation notice back in 1998. It’s a lengthy production history and critique of the hybrid 1963-64 police procedural-slash-courtroom drama Arrest and Trial, now remembered mainly as a footnote in TV history due to its structural resemblance to Law & Order.
As a footnote is arguably how Arrest and Trial should be remembered. It’s not a classic on the order of East Side/West Side or The Invaders. When I took on the show, it was on the assumption that its blatant emulation of elements of Naked City (in the arrest half) and The Defenders (in the trial half) would mean it might rank alongside them. As I actually watched and wrote about Arrest and Trial, I realized that the attempt to combine the disparate virtues of those two classics had created something of a misshapen mess – and I wondered if the series was worth the amount of time and the number of words I’d devoted to it. But as Timeless Media began releasing Arrest and Trial on DVD last fall, it seemed like a good time for me (and perhaps my readers) to reconsider the series.
In polishing the piece a bit and revisiting some of the episodes, I’ve been reminded of the virtues that do make Arrest and Trial eminently watchable. Ben Gazzara was one of the most inventive actors of his generation, with an intimate technique well-suited to the small screen. The show’s sizable budget permitted more location shooting than just about any other Universal TV production ever managed, and so Arrest and Trial offers a terrific tour of 1963 Los Angeles. (And as I know the city better now than I did ten years ago, I’d love to have time to watch the episodes again just to try to figure out where each one was filmed. If anyone Angelenos who are seeing the show on DVD care to, I hope they’ll post some notes along those lines in the comments here.)
I was also struck by how Arrest and Trial‘s image of law enforcement is so far removed from both our actual and fictionally represented experiences that it’s like something beamed in from another planet. The Civil Rights-era plainclothes detective (played by Gazzara) who heads up the first half of Arrest and Trial is not just soft-spoken and empathetic – the kind of guy whose shoulder you just want to lean your head on – he’s also a frank advocate of the policeman as social worker and psychiatrist instead of head-buster. You can imagine how real-life cops of the twenty-first century would guffaw if they somehow found this program in their Netflix queues. Today our police have dropped all pretense of having a relationship with civilians that’s anything but adversarial – and our cop shows and cop movies, both those that demonize and even those that glorify the police, get a visceral charge in depicting the collateral damage that their subjects inflict on anyone unlucky enough to get between a cop’s foot and an ass that needs kicking. I live in a city where the police department has enacted blatantly unconstitutional policies against its citizens, over and over again, and been rewarded not with censure but with municipal and judicial approval. So seeing Arrest and Trial again after ten years moved me unexpectedly. It was a reminder of one way in which we’ve lost our way since the sixties. Or, if that’s too naive, it’s a depiction of a civic ideal that we might never have had – but that we should still be trying for.
To date Timeless Media has released two DVD collections of Arrest and Trial, containing 18 of the series’ 30 episodes. Of the thirty, four episodes are essential: “Journey Into Darkness,” “Funny Man With a Monkey,” Sydney Pollack‘s “The Quality of Justice,” and “The Revenge of the Worm.” Thus far only the first two are available among the DVDs, so one hopes a third volume will emerge.
If you make it all the way to the end, don’t neglect the episode guide, which contains a lot of wonky trivia – episode budgets, shooting dates, unused episode titles, uncredited writers and actors – gleaned from the series’ production files.