By Tom Shales
Tuesday, September 21, 2010; C01
At one literally arresting moment in "Detroit 1-8-7," a cop show from ABC debuting Tuesday night, a bad guy looks straight into the camera and growls, flashing a row of gold teeth. It turns out this is not a directorial flourish but instead the remnant of "1-8-7" as it used to be; the original pilot had a show within the show, a sort of "copumentary" supposedly being made by a film crew.
That technique owes something to unscripted reality shows but has also been used enough times in scripted drama to now be officially a cliché. For whatever reason, it was yanked and "1-8-7" re-edited and partly reshot.
Gimmicks come and go; the cop show seems one genre that will never leave -- not as long as people like to sit at home in the suburbs and see what awful things go on in the cities. Cop shows are always set in big cities -- New York, Los Angeles and now Detroit -- and not in Paterson, N.J., or Evanston, Ill., or Upper Marlboro, Md.
Crime has been paying -- paying networks, advertisers, producers and all those involved in crime fiction on TV -- for more than 60 years, and on radio before that, and crime shows were up to old tricks back when the tricks were still new. "Dragnet" (the 1951 original, transferred nearly intact from radio) served as a veritable template for all cop shows to come. With names "changed to protect the innocent" and a dozen other catchphrases, its "dum-da-DUM-dum" musical signature and the trademark terse dialogue, "Dragnet" was a brilliant creation. The show only turned into right-wing fantasy in the politicized '60s. Its best years were far behind it by then.
Last year on NBC and this year on TNT, "Southland" brought new intensity and intimacy to the cop show, fleshing out the lives of the main characters and bringing them to the forefront, and sometimes venturing out of the city into the burbs. Sadly, the public responded with little interest. Less ambitious by far, and less worthy of huzzahs, "1-8-7" (the number is cop code for murder) does have one thing no other traditional cop show has had: Michael Imperioli in one of the lead roles. With him around, you don't need gimmicks.
As Detective Louis Fitch of the Detroit police force, Imperioli harbors the broodingly potent power he displayed in "The Sopranos," but there's also a world-weariness to his characterization that could be mistaken for an actor's boredom with lame scripts -- and a sense the show is heading for a brick wall. Natalie Martinez more than holds her own with Imperioli as another detective, Ariana Sanchez, and Jon Michael Hill is poignantly jittery as Detective Washington, Fitch's inexperienced young partner.
Hill is African American, which unfortunately makes the Fitch-Washington relationship identical to most other white-black (never black-white) crime-fighting teams in movies and on TV; the black guy is always the sidekick. Some stereotypes just cling and cling. James McDaniel, meanwhile, has too much stature to be playing a mere sergeant, partly because we saw him so imposingly play Lt. Fancy for seven seasons on "NYPD Blue."
Now that was a cop show. And "Hill Street Blues" was a damn good cop show. And "Homicide: Life on the Street" -- from which "Detroit" borrows the gimmick of the big white board on which active cases are displayed, then erased when they're solved -- that was a terrific cop show, too. But "Detroit 1-8-7" comes across, despite the strong performances, as wan and halfhearted. Dividing each episode into two cases, and labeling them onscreen (as Tuesday night: "Pharmacy Double" and "Bullet Train") may be convenient, but it seems part of an especially unimaginative approach when compared to, say, the wildly edited mayhem movie audiences saw this summer in the sensational "Takers."
"Detroit" suffers, too, from a sense of costs cut -- especially if you compare it to something like "Hawaii 5-0," the spectacular but ridiculous CBS remake of the Jack Lord blockbuster. "5-0" looks as though more was spent on its first 10 minutes than on an entire episode of "Detroit."
Finally, there's perhaps the coppiest cop show of the century so far, the soppy and self-satirizing CBS melodrama "Blue Bloods," about an entire family -- "the Reagans" yet! -- involved in the crime biz, including Bridget Moynahan as an assistant district attorney, plus Donnie Wahlberg and Will Estes as young cops, and Len Cariou as Grandpa Cop. And the patriarch? That fuzz-lipped stiff Tom Selleck as Frank Reagan, chief of police. It must have been in Selleck's contract that he wouldn't have to do much more than get in and out of cars and make speeches, the first one on the first show a snoozer staged in Madison Square Garden, where graduating cops include one of Frank's boys.
As often happens on cop shows, police brutality is seen as a necessary evil because crooks are so mean and, of course, because the courts have become so lenient. You don't hear TV cops griping because they have to enforce some Draconian law that shouldn't be on the books in the first place, or lamenting vindictive excesses in sentencing. Hollywood, supposedly a frothing cauldron of liberalism, has always been conservative on crime.
In "Blue Bloods," Wahlberg as the family hothead "waterboards" a suspect by nearly drowning him in a toilet. The cop will face possible punishment, we're told, but the audience is primed to take the his side; after all, the criminal is a pervert who locked a little girl in a storage container. Meanwhile there are muttered allusions to such moderately topical matters as "what went on in Iraq" while Wahlberg's character was serving there, perhaps part of a ploy to balance the show's politics.
Another subplot involves an investigation into an ancient secret society among police, of which Daddy Reagan may be a member. But these aren't really "issue issues" dealt with meaningfully and thoughtfully; the crime show has retreated from the bold, brave controversy of the breakthrough shows.
Crime dramas will never go away as long as people turn to television for, among other things, reassurance and comfort. This season's crop might be slightly more reactionary and conservative than last year's, however, because terrorists have made the world seem even less safe. The cop shows still concentrate on good old-fashioned murders and robberies; too much fantasy terrorism can backfire and frighten viewers away.
Police officers for the most part remain salts of the earth, earnestly honest and, of course, true blue. When the Reagans of "Blue Bloods" sit down for a family dinner, they look like they're waiting for Norman Rockwell to rush in and paint their picture.
(one hour) Premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on ABC. Blue Bloods (one hour) Premieres Friday at 10 p.m. on CBS.