Television

The Way of All Perps

If you believe Steven Bochco, they really deserve to die.

About 10 minutes into the premiere episode of Steven Bochco’s initially thrilling CBS crime series, Brooklyn South, I found myself wishing deeply unpleasant tortures–specifically, tortures involving the nonbusiness end of a toilet plunger–upon the psychopathic black perpetrator who commits the heinous crimes that open the show. This, of course, is what the reactionaries who work on the Bochco police-drama assembly line want me to feel: Nothing like a vicious black perp to get the fear-juice of white America flowing.

In the course of a nearly balletic opening sequence rare on television for its terrifying power, the black perp shoots a bunch of cops over some absurd grievance. This shootout is different from other televised shootouts in that it isn’t sanitized or truncated–no bang, bang, you’re dead on Brooklyn South. Here you feel in your stomach the helplessness of cops under fire, a feeling made worse when another black perp, capitalizing on the chaos, shoots a plainclothes cop in the head. The cop loses, with a sick pop, a piece of his skull–think Zapruder–before collapsing to the ground. (There has been an artificial controversy in the press over this particular sequence, which is no more or less repulsive than many other things produced under the auspices of the network entertainment divisions over the past couple of years.) The black perp–the first black perp (so many black perps, so little time)–is eventually shot, subdued, and dragged by the police into the precinct house, on whose floor he expires. Before he does, however, a group of officers gathers around to hurl imprecations at him.

E ven in real life, my inclination is to sympathize with the police, though I do tend to be skeptical of police tribalism, especially as it manifests itself in New York City, which I have from time to time covered as a police reporter. With Brooklyn South, as well as with its older cousin, NYPD Blue (it is only a matter of time before Bochco is forced to situate a police drama on Staten Island), what skepticism I possess is swamped by the sheer righteousness of Bochco’s men in blue, and the breathtaking venality and perversion of all the perps. All Bochco’s perps (or “skels”) deserve good plungings–or beatings or bitch-slappings or whatever else they get. This is the lesson Bochco’s most successful creation, Detective Andy Sipowicz, teaches the American home audience each Tuesday night, and it is a lesson perfectly in tune with the current crime debate in this country, which no longer revolves around questions such as rehabilitation vs. punishment, but around questions such as, which causes more (deserved) pain, lethal injection or electrocution?

But I digress. The point is, I’m easily manipulated, and I was hoping Mr. Perp would be suitably punished. Alas, he isn’t, because this is TV’s 74th Precinct, not New York City’s actual 70th Precinct. It is now widely known that in the 70th Precinct a gang of police officers recently took Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who may or may not have been fighting with police officers outside a Brooklyn nightclub, into the precinct’s bathroom and, once there, allegedly inserted the handle of a toilet plunger into his rectum, tearing his bladder, then shoved the presumably shit-covered handle into his mouth, breaking his teeth. On Brooklyn South, however, the 74th Precinct’s officers choose to forgo vengeance. “Leave him alone. Let him lay there,” one officer advises his fellows, who duly leave the perp to die.

T he rest of the episode centers on the Internal Affairs investigation of how the suspect came to die in the precinct house. The actor who plays the creepball Internal Affairs lieutenant (a Bochco staple) is James Sikking, who played the role of the SWAT lieutenant on Bochco’s Hill Street Blues. His presence serves to underscore the fact that Brooklyn South, after its tense and frightful opening sequence, lapses into a formula Bochco introduced us to several years ago: the weekly recounting of the humble, human, and sometimes baroque problems of a group of fine, if unrealistically buff, police officers. The ensemble cast is outstanding, except they lay it on a bit thick with the New York accents. They cannot, however, overcome the staleness that creeps onto the screen after the death in the precinct house; staleness that is derived in part from the fact that we know these cops are too good to murder a subdued perp, and if they did do it, he had it coming anyway. No moral shading, please, it’s TV.

Brooklyn South is likely to get a fair amount of attention from the superficial similarities the opening episode shares with the actual Louima case. I called the show’s spokeswoman to see if CBS would work the connection. “We’re trying to stay away from it,” the spokeswoman, Pam Gorode, told me. “One is an hour of entertainment, fiction; and one is unfortunately reality.”

Itold her she didn’t have to worry, since unlike the cops in the real Seven-O, the cops in the fake Seven-Four do the right thing. “Well, that’s an opinion,” she said.

The CBS jitters are unwarranted, no matter what the flacks think, for the same reason that the Louima case has not become a deciding issue in New York City’s mayoral race: The television viewer at home (who doubles as a voter, though less and less) has been conditioned to cheer the everyday trampling of such things as constitutional rights and minority faces on television’s various police dramas.

Police series need just two elements to make it to air–a clinically gory murder, and an emotionally satisfying end for the evil perp. (This is why police dramas remain a growth industry for black actors. The credits for Brooklyn South list such parts as “Skel #1” and “Skel #2,” as well as that famously meaty role, “Skel #3.”)

Having just emerged from a weekend spent mucking through a stack of videotaped episodes of new crime dramas, I can report two things: Brooklyn South is the best of the lot, and this year might mark the first time that the murder rate on television outpaces the country’s actual (and falling) murder rate.

Few crime dramas can go even a half-hour without a gruesome murder. And so we have CBS’s Michael Hayes, starring that old sourpuss David Caruso as our hero, a federal prosecutor more saintly than Jesus, who reopens the case of a raped and murdered waitress. On ABC, there’s Cracker, staring Robert Pastorelli as a police shrink who is chasing a serial killer who is bent on electrocuting men–contrived plot-twist alert!--because her father abused her sisters but wouldn’t abuse her, or something like that.

I made it all the way through Cracker because of the intriguing press release attached to the videocassette that stated, “Please note: … There will be minor content changes. Most notably, the electrocution scene will be modified.”

The show’s spokeswoman, Melissa Burton, told me that the network’s standards and practices people were reviewing the scene–in which a man strapped to a bed is momentarily electrified–for taste. “I’m just assuming there’s going to be less electrocution,” she said.

It’s an even steeper slope after that: NBC’s Players, starring Ice-T as a felon on the FBI payroll, is too stupid to watch. But no more stupid than CBS’s Dellaventura, which stars the blowhard Danny Aiello as “Snake” Dellaventura, private eye and avenger of injustice. The real Dellaventura, according to the New York magazine profile that made him famous, is a brick of a man. Aiello is a puff pastry, and the most improbable scene has him running up a flight of stairs. Dellaventura contains wonderful snippets of dialogue, such as, “He still carries a piece of lead somewhere close to his heart–and he has a heart the size of Manhattan.” And this, also from Aiello’s mouth: “Some writer once said there are 8 million stories in the naked city.”

It would be better for everyone if the networks stopped telling them.

“Shots fired”–the boys in blue hit the streets in Brooklyn South (29 seconds):
Sound03 - TV-BrooklynSouth.avi or Sound04 - TV-BrooklynSouth.mov; download time, 2 minutes at 56K Sound01 - TV-BrooklynSouth01.asf for sound only

“Leave him alone, let him lay there”–the cops and the perp in Brooklyn South (28 seconds):
Sound05 - TV-BrooklynSouth2.avi or Sound06 - TV-BrooklynSouth2.mov; download time, 2 minutes at 56K Sound02 - TV-BrooklynSouth02.asf for sound only