There isn’t a scene in the two-hour pilot of Paul Haggis’ crime drama EZ Streets that hasn’t been done in movies, but perhaps because EZ Streets is on television (CBS airs a two-hour premiere Sunday, Oct. 27, at 9 p.m., then moves the show to Wednesdays at 10 p.m.) its cinematic brio feels unconventional, even startling. This is a lyric crime drama, a gorgeous dirge. As the camera glides over the ocean, past barges and docks, to the crumbling slum houses of “E” Street, composer Mark Isham’s plaintive pipes and strings recall the downtrodden Irish of the past; the sinuous tracking shots, meanwhile, recall Scorsese and De Palma, the upstanding Italians of the present. Set among detectives and gangsters in a gray, unnamed port city, the show is marinated in Hibernian melancholy, with a boozy sense of fatalism that makes the very idea of meaningful action seem quixotic.
Depending on your taste, you’ll think EZ Streets is either the artiest and most pretentious genre piece ever broadcast by a network (an opinion voiced by Washington Post critic Tom Shales), or a rare stab on TV at something dense and moody and downbeat, with tantalizing loose ends–the anti-Matlock. I see the merits of both positions, but enjoyed the pilot all three times I watched it, and can’t wait for the series to begin so that some of my approximately 132 small plot-point queries will be answered. At times, Haggis (whose last series, the Mounties-buddy-cop show Due South, was considerably more linear) gets lost in the music of the moment and forgets to give us our bearings. But what’s boring about TV is how most series telegraph their twists; in EZ Streets, even when the material isn’t fresh, it’s spun in ways that catch us off-guard.
The show features dual protagonists, each of whom finds himself in a messy fix. It pains me to reveal that the chief motivation of the first, Detective Cameron Quinn (Ken Olin, of thirtysomething), is to avenge the murder of his partner. (Muddying the old cliché is the fact that it is nearly impossible to fathom what the partner was doing when he got himself killed.) Dogged by a pair of Internal Affairs cops and drafted by a subterranean anti-crime task force, Quinn must infiltrate an upstart Irish mob run by a punk named Jimmy Murtha (Joe Pantoliano), one of those whimsical, viciously charismatic nerve balls like Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death (or Nicolas Cage in the remake).
The second leading man is Daniel Rooney (Jason Gedrick), a 20ish fellow from the neighborhood who spent three years in prison for a robbery he didn’t commit. (He was driving a car for his childhood pal Murtha, who neglected to tell him that a detour into a convenience store was for the purpose of robbing it.) Rooney, an innocent impelled into crime by the force of his environment, has a pale, redheaded wife (Sarah Trigger) who won’t take him back without the cash to support the couple’s pale, redheaded daughter. After a disastrous attempt to go straight and earn money as a fry cook, Rooney falls back into the welcoming arms of his old friend, the psycho gang leader.
A ccording to CBS’ promotional Web site, the core of EZ Streets is how these two loners, Quinn and Rooney, “find themselves inexorably drawn together.” It’s a testament to Haggis’ leisurely way with a narrative that they aren’t so much as introduced to each other in the two-hour pilot. There is a moment when they pass on the street and stare meaningfully into each other’s eyes, as if they have a vague premonition that they’re dual protagonists in a TV crime drama. Otherwise, Haggis spends his time laying an ambitious foundation.
The mournful opening credits play over a speech by the black mayor (Carl Lumbly), who is determined to revitalize the neighborhood by way of “opportunity zones.” The crowd is sparse, though, and kids are looting a building even as the mayor orates across the street. A few scenes later, we see that the mayor is reluctantly beholden to a tony crime lord called Michael “Fivers” Dugan, played by R.D. Call as if he were wearing a thick fright mask of evil. (Dugan grinds a nail into the mayor’s palm in one of the most violent acts I’ve seen on TV.) The gangster is incensed that wild man Murtha–who has a personal vendetta against him–is encroaching on his territory; presumably, this is what sets the entire infiltration plot of the series in motion.
Isay “presumably” because Haggis doesn’t make an explicit connection between Dugan’s threat to the mayor and the crime task force’s decision to put a spy in Murtha’s gang. In general, it’s never clear what’s meant to be teasingly ambiguous and what’s just a lapse in storytelling. Even the final, major revelation–the identity of a body in a barrel, the image that opens the pilot–comes out of nowhere, so that you’ll wonder if you missed something earlier on. (You didn’t; I watched the show three times.)
It’s a good thing that EZ Streets is such a mesmerizing piece of work. The chase leading up to Quinn’s partner’s killing is shot and edited like nothing ever made for TV–a riot of tilting angles, accelerated video inserts, and collisions that knock you out of your BarcaLounger. (The stunning editing is by Ray Daniels III and Elba Sanchez-Short; Ericson Cole is the cinematographer.) And verbally, Haggis is no Aaron Spelling. The gangsters not only talk in metaphor, but they apologize for being overly philosophical; when challenged, they shrug and agree–hey, it’s metaphor. (Quentin Tarantino has altered the language of the outlaw forever; one of the more mannered scenes in EZ Streets features a stool pigeon discoursing on whether Formula 409 or Tide with ammonia is the more effective cleansing agent for bloodstains on car upholstery.)
The actors are wonderful. Olin, with close-cropped hair and a Bruce Willis rasp, does a great haunted, macho wise guy; he could be the star of a drizzly, arctic Miami Vice. With his high-pitched jabber, Pantoliano often stops the show–his very lightness makes him an unpredictable heavy, and he’s relief from all that wintry bleakness. The female characters–among them Debrah Farentino as Murtha’s sultry lawyer and mistress–don’t have much to do yet. But the character parts are played to a T, and connoisseurs of later Method acting will find another delirious turn by Rod Steiger, in whose performance “sense memory” and senility seem vaguely interchangeable.
EZ Streets doesn’t come with the comforts of a conventional TV drama. The universe is cold; families disintegrate; all alliances are suspect; motives are unclear, even to the people who act on them. In the world of television, though, actions move inexorably toward order. Viewers who are drawn to EZ Streets for its bracing lack of cheap sentiment will probably stay tuned in the hope that all will be made right–new alliances formed, the landscape warmed up, the power of the individual affirmed. Haggis could be tying up loose ends from now until the end of the season; he has time and space that even a movie director would envy.