Stunning and Sticking
The syndicated series Cops proved that blue-collar cops keep viewers hooked, whether the show’s beat officers are chasing down DUIs, bagging teenage felons or shmoozing with the unseen television crew in their car. Cops triggers a visceral voyeurism by teasing out viewers’ expectations honed by the “if it bleeds, it leads” programming of late night local news that guns will flash, bullets will fly, and maybe, just maybe, someone “real” will die. Whether anyone does or doesn’t isn’t the point. The longer gratification is deferred, the more intense its anticipation. Of course, transforming that scenario into fiction immediately saps that tension. The standard cop-show answers this problem with an ensemble cast of six or eight or ten, which can offer one (temporarily or permanently) expendable character, thus upping the potential sensationalism stakes from the start.
The Beat, the new series from writer-producer Tom Fontana, doesn’t work in the usual way. Instead, it focuses on just two characters and thus the two visceral questions behind every cop show which main character will eventually die (or hover on the edge of death) and how will the perpetrators of this outrage be brought down possesses genuine dramatic potential. Both Hill Street Blues and Homicide employed casts large enough to cope with the simultaneous shooting of two or more characters, and run intensive investigations into those shootings, and still provide the minor key counterpoint of everyday eccentricity that textured the drama into a semblance of “real life.” The Beat‘s isolated partner dyad lacks this padding.
Derek Cecil, Mark Ruffalo, Heather Burns, Poppy Montgomery, Tom Noonan
On the other hand, as The Beat so accurately records, for the blue-collar cop, most every scene ends in an anti-climax. The crime is either defused, or passed on up the food chain. Both options end in the drudgery of paperwork, nicely emphasized in the first two episodes of the show, where clean-cut Mike Dorrigan (David Cecil) conscientiously but grudgingly fills in the forms while his edgier partner, Zane Marinelli (Mark Ruffalo), dances out the door. Here, this faithfulness to real world cop work saps one of the customary sources of drama, in this case the feel-good satisfaction of closure.
Fontana and his longtime producing partner Barry Levinson (Homicide and Oz) could have delved into the compensatory sentimentality of the (failed) Brooklyn South and Third Watch to reanimate the beat cop. But they don’t, as their repeatedly teasing treatment of the closure question suggests. In the first episode, Mike talks a shotgun-toting Peeping Tom into surrender. We catch the conversation, but when the denouement the moment of surrender comes, the camera (and thus the audience) is fussing with the wailing reinforcements and buzzing evacuated residents, arriving in the street below. As cops and crowd ready for the spectacle of a siege, Mike and the perp walk unarmed the from the building’s front door, the image an ironic elision of both character-building “moment” and audience satisfaction. The second episode replays the familiar cop show scenario with a threatened suicide, but twists it: the man scrabbles from the narrow parapet when Mike not only talks temptingly of urinating, but also provides the requisite encouraging example of bladder-release. But we see no hugs or tears, small-screen suicide staples. Nor do we ever know why the jumper wanted to jump. In this blatant denial of conventional audience satisfaction, the ambition in The Beat is momentarily clear. But can it work as TV drama? Or does the show simply mark a way-stage in the evolving stylistic odyssey of Fontana and Levinson?
The making of drama out of loose ends pushes the onus onto story, characterization, and visual appeal (which, in this case, takes the form of innovation). In Homicide, Levinson began to explore visual keys to character, magnifying mise en scene with radical breaks in shooting conventions, especially for the small screen. “Crossing the line” (where one moment the actor is facing screen left, the next moment right, the next moment left, and so on, all within a sustained speech) signified a character’s ambiguity, his/her working through a train of thought. In moments of intense emotion, the directors and editors on the show fragmented a character’s single action into a stuttering series of overlapping jump cuts. Both techniques visually squeezed the viewer into the character’s mind time, where real time slows and the next step is unknown.
The Beat accelerates this rendition of these altered states of everyday life. The main action mixes a stylized video for the characters’ professional actions and thoughts, with a lushly polished color film for excursions into their personal lives. The supplementary use of black and white still sequences for Zane’s memories of his traumatized childhood and a blurry blue spy-cam for scene-setting at the precinct both save the two dominant styles (the video and the color film) from alternating with too much predictability. Sometimes the clash jives, capturing the simultaneous consciousness of cruising cop and corner kvetcher. In the opening bar scene of the first episode, the jagged jump from color to black and white catches the adrenaline-fueled transition from bleary-eyed drinker to hard-ass, just-past-adolescent cop. When Zane and Mike drive the streets, the in-car scenes are in color, but as the two cops flip their gaze to the mirror and out the car window, prowling the scene, checking for trouble, the scenes snap to attention in black and white. At other times, the accomplished framing, poised camerawork, and aestheticized distortion of the video (such as the chase-down of the child molester in episode two) reveal those video-style sequences for what they are, high-end fakes of Cops’ panting realism, the cynical manipulation of a familiar TV code.
Thorough characterization and story could punch The Beat past such visual lapses into ad-influenced, if artistic, gimmickry. Levinson has long used apparently inconsequential conversation (most memorably in Homicide) to reveal the idiosyncratic poetry of ordinary lives. For example, the car-bound meditations on the existence of God between Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) and his partner, Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher), and the meandering and cynical monologues of Munch (Richard Belzer) potently mixed half-finished sentences, fragmented thoughts, oblique misreadingss and reluctant revelations into high art.
And the callousness of The Beat‘s youthful protagonists, zigzagging between commitment and rebellion, offers the same commitment to the fertile testosterone-tangled territory that triggered the poignancy of Levinson’s early (and perhaps unsurpassed) movie, Diner. But the actors lumber under such manufactured eccentricities as a discussion of the name of the dot over the lower-case “I,” and the etymology of the word “lesbonic,” while the script never leaves a sharp quip unexplained. Whether due to a deliberate dumbing-down for a perceived UPN audience of young male viewers (UPN Entertainment President Tom Nunan’s self-claimed target audience), or simply due to lack of inspiration, the show’s dialogue ends up patronizing the working-class characters it appears to showcase. For example, immediately following the “lesbonic” discussion, Mike asks Zane if he finds “that stuff” attractive. Zane admits he does. An intriguing moment hovers, offering the audience a tantalizing glimpse into the protagonists’ minds. But instead of offering the few moments’ discussion Homicide might have offered, The Beat surges on, as if the two young men have nothing of interest to say on the subject.
Time after time, the show throws similar chances of nuance and subtlety. Only a thin line of working-class respectability separates many street cops from the lives of those they police. Zane’s disordered childhood and emotional recklessness with girlfriend Beatrice (Heather Burns) hint at the fragility of that distinction, and the threat of falling back into chaos that accompanies social mobility. But instead of exploiting this ambiguity, The Beat hedges it. The first two shows demarcate the distance between cops and the complainants and suspects they encounter primarily via race (two Chinese, an Indian, and an Afro-Caribbean feature as the objects of the cops’ attention), positioning the two officers as a thin white line against an ethnic onslaught of disorder. The rapid-fire cross-cutting between the Asians practicing tai chi and the two white cops pursuing the parkside child molester visually underscores that division, juxtaposing the contemplative withdrawal and inaction of the (Asian) meditators against the successful savior-like intervention of the (white) cops.
Denied the gentle heroism of thoughtful conversation, and gifted the atavistic heroism of controlling “the other,” Mike and Zane also struggle with tired plotlines drawn from back episodes of other law and order shows. Running through the Murdered Parent, familiar from NYPD Blue and the African-American Suspect Dead in Custody from, well, almost everywhere, including the evening news, the show glistens like film school wannabe by way of MTV, where presentational panache far outclasses content. Interviewed in the Boston Herald, Fontana says that he and Levinson talked about how they were “going to get people to stop especially at UPN, which nobody is watching while they’re switching through channels.” The idea was, he says, “to kind of visually stun them and then see if they stick around to see who these characters are.” Okay, the stunning worked. But without more modulated characters, more inventive dialogue, more original stories, and especially, a more subtle interplay between cops and the streets, the sticking is going to be a major problem.
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