Regular airtime: Fridays, 9pm EST (CBS)
Producers: Jerry Bruckheimer (executive), Ann Donahue (executive), James C. Hart (co-executive), Carol Mendelsohn (executive), William Petersen (executive), Anthony Zuiker (co-executive)
Cast: William Petersen, Marg Helgenberger, Gary Dourdan, George Eads, Jorja Fox
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
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The noble white crusader is a familiar fixture in mainstream U.S. television. But when the NAACP and other community and political groups raised a mild and long-overdue ruckus last year, over the lack of minority representation on tv, the networks promised to reevaluate and “do better.” Following this declaration, most tv-watchers knew better than to hold their breath. Still, there was a chance that something new or different would break through. After all, for better and worse, someone renewed City of Angels.
So here we are, three weeks into the new fall season, and the numbers sort of look all right. That is, the numbers of black (and occasional “other” minority) characters on primetime network series look not-terrible. It’s true that these numbers comprise mostly secondary characters City of Angels, Gideon’s Crossing, and Dark Angel being the exceptions that prove the rule but it’s a start. But it’s a start, even if it is a few decades late. Two shows in particular have added black characters in striking not to say peculiar ways. CBS’s The District and C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation feature strategically situated black supporting cast members. I say “strategically,” but I shouldn’t be coy: in both series, the black characters’ inclusion appears cynical, as if they are attempts to preempt the very sorts of complaints I’m about to make.
In the case of The District, it’s hardly surprising that black characters take up a lot of the on-air time, considering that it’s set in Washington DC, one of the few places in the U.S. where the majority population is African American (one school of thought has it that this is the major reason that the District still does not have representation in Congress). In fact, the cast’s racial make-up prompted grumblings before it even aired, specifically, concerns that the show privileged a newly hired white police chief, Jack Mannion (Craig T. Nelson, also listed as a “consulting producer,” whatever that is) over nefarious black characters, namely, a mayor modeled after Marion Barry and an assortment of corrupt cops. Reportedly, the network and producers were surprised to hear about these concerns perhaps they’d been vacationing on Mars but they dutifully took up the task of altering the show to appease detractors. The resulting, revamped District features a basically good black mayor, Ethan Baker (played by the famously decent and outspoken John Amos, who once quit Good Times because of its racist representations: in a word, JJ) and snide references to his badly behaved predecessor. The show also features a DC Chief of Patrol named Noland (Roger Aaron Brown), who’s mad because he’s been passed over for the Police Chief’s position now occupied by Mannion.
Mannion and Noland’s essential difference is coded not as black-white per se, but as new school-old school policing methods. Mannion comes with computers and crime statistics, while Noland has an allegiance to his officers, struggling to forge order and trust between citizens and themselves, in a city only recently relieved of the title “Murder Capital of the World.” As well, Mannion faces a two-pronged problem: the public’s understandable distrust of cops and other officials, and the testy relationship between the municipal administration and federal government (which control’s DC’s budget, and which is most immediately embodied by the great Michelle Forbes back from the Homicide dead as a congressman’s assistant).
Mannion’s politics are ambiguous: he believes in a strong police force, but also has faith in and wants to help the common folks, not just lock them up. He tends toward liberal-leaning hard-assness, as when he frets about gun show firearms-purchase loopholes: “What kind of crazy country are we living in I can’t walk into a video store without ID!” As this eruption suggests, he can be naive, here coded as coming up with the ideas first. So, he wonders aloud about his banger constituents, “What war are fighting in their heads?” or complains about his own force, “Nobody has the guts to say they made a mistake!”, and the show suggests that he’s being insightful. And if he punctuates every statement with an exclamation point, he’s also charming and literate, quoting Catch-22 and winning over the super-efficient Deputy Mayor Maryanne Antonio (Jayne Brook, in yet another role that does not do her justice), and a friendly uniform, Nancy Parras (Elizabeth Marvel), who’s on unhappy desk duty because of a tragic past event she confesses within hours of meeting Mannion. Let’s just say that Nelson’s days as the star of Coach have made him a phenomenal source of team spirit.
As if to underline this very point, Mannion assembles a team, with whom he has a power-breakfast at a local diner each morning. Here we see the Chief at his most profound, as when he declares, “The people on the block! That’s what we’re about!” His team includes PR guy Nick (Justin Theroux); Ella Farmer (Lynne Thigpen), records-keeper extraordinaire and newly single “mom” when her sister is murdered by her own husband in the first episode (Mannion likes her so much he has a washing machine delivered to her apartment so she can come to work on time); good ol’ Irish cop Danny McGregor (David O’Hara), introduced as he wildly shoots 26 rounds into a bison in the zoo (in whose cage McGregor is unexpectedly trapped); and Mannion’s earnest young driver, Temple Page (Sean Patrick Thomas, last seen in Cruel Intentions as Selma Blair’s earnest young lover).
With this coterie in place, Mannion starts turning the police department’s frankly terrible record around. So far, the plots are putting him at odds with Noland, who repeatedly looks snarly and underhanded. Mannion, meanwhile, acts adorably-pugnaciously “large”: he sings “High Hopes” and practices ballroom dance steps in the office and wears big ugly ties. When he oversees department meetings, he instructs Ella to “put up” graphs and maps on a huge screen, then calls on officers to answer questions they’d rather not. Whether the officers look uncomfortable or impressed marks them as good or bad guys, on the team or not. Whenever Mannion begins a speech about his goals, the music swells ridiculously: in another show, this would be a joke, but in The District‘s solemn and self-congratulatory universe, it’s supposed to be inspirational.
Mannion’s know-it-allness is grating, no doubt. And like many crusaders before him, he maintains this attitude no matter what happens, blaming everyone else for what goes wrong. The show appears to agree with him, presenting his ideas as if they are innovative, confounded only by ornery bureaucrats and resentful cops. Granted, this is not an uncommon view in and of DC, but the fact that Mannion voices it as if it’s his very own new observation is tedious at best, and more often offensive. For just one example, in the 21 October episode, Temple is helping Mannion to clean up a block of crack houses (which Mannion terms, with his usual bombast, a “smorgasbord of crime!”), when a scuffle leads to a dealer being hit by a car. You don’t see the event, but witnesses say Temple pushed him. Mannion believes his driver, which incites “unrest in the community.” To quell it, Mannion visits a black church, reading to the initially rowdy congregation Temple’s favorite Psalm, 91: “His truth shall be thy shield.” They applaud, appeased. Meanwhile, Nick arranges for some secular word-spreading, via an interview for Temple with a Washington Post reporter: soon, everyone believes him. This is all good for the significantly named Temple, yes, but the point, as always, is this: the godlike Mannion is right and everyone will bend to his will.
If The District is irksome for its ham-handedness, C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation is irksome for its ambivalence which is not to say that it ever suggests its crusader is less than right. Set in Las Vegas so that head investigator Gil Grissom (executive producer William Petersen) can make pithy observations about gambling and fate, C.S.I. features a crack forensics team who must deal with a variety of cases and personal traumas: it’s sort of Profiler meets HBO’s Autopsy, with a friendly nod to Jack Klugman’s antiquated Quincy. The team includes Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger), Warrick Brown (Gary Dourdan), Nick Stokes (George Eads), and Sara Sidel (Jorja Fox), brought in to replace a team member (Holly Gribbs [Chandra Wes]) who is killed in Week Two.
This unusual plot turn might be one reason for the series’ terrific numbers it’s CBS’s surprise hit, the highest rated drama of the new season, with Nielsen counting some 15.7 million viewers last week. Indeed, surprise is thematized each week, with the primary gimmick being the show’s presentation of multiple explanations for crime scenes: different scenarios appear in smudgy black and white imagery during different accounts by different characters (the investigators, witnesses, perps). It’s not a bad gimmick, as it draws attention to the subjectivity involved in interpreting “evidence” or other surfaces. Still, and perhaps needless to say, Gil’s reading of a scene is always right, and the show is more about his mentoring of a young or otherwise inexperienced staff than about the actual cases, which can be a tad parlor-gamey, like Murder, She Wrote.
Gil is apparently fatherly by nature, with an investment in rules and codes of behavior. And so, he advises his mentees at moments of potential crisis, deliberately, with only a hint of compassion. That Warrick the team’s only black male member has so far been the one most obviously in need of paternal guidance may only be a quirk of fate (perhaps Nick’s “stuff” is coming up in future episodes). But it’s striking that Warrick’s “bad” attitude and off-duty indiscretions have been the cause of major problems for the team already. The first involves a perp he recognizes as such, and whom he calls “whitey” under his breath, referring not only to the guy’s race, but also to his ‘burban comfort and blatant presumption that he can get over on the brainy forensics folks. Catherine calls Warrick out on his language, but Gil dresses him down for presuming anything based on anyone’s appearance (i.e., this is a lesson in reverse racism). That Warrick ends up being right about this particular presumption is immediately undercut by a more serious plot point, namely, the aforementioned death of new girl Holly. Warrick’s part in this event is dire: assigned to watch her dust for prints at a scene, he leaves her in order to conduct some not-so-licit business (some gambling scheme). When the criminal comes back and shoots Holly, Gil plans to kick Warrick off the team, but at the last minute decides to keep him on.
While you might think this is the end of it, in fact, this storyline comes back again to haunt Warrick in a second major problem. In the 20 October episode, he’s torn between two lessons: 1) Gil’s edict that you must follow the evidence, no matter where it leads, and 2) Gil’s compromise in keeping Warrick on the job. The case involves an elderly black man and his high schooler grandson, one of whom is responsible for a hit-and-run accident which leaves a young scooter-rider dead. Catherine and Warrick both know that the grandfather was not driving the vehicle on the night in question “proved” when they turn on the car and loud hiphop comes a-blasting from the radio (as Catherine says, “Nobody over 19 was the last person to drive this car!”), but Catherine is inclined to let him stick to his story, which they both know he’s contrived to save grandson from prison. You can guess what they decide to do, and that Warrick suffers some more guilt, since he’s had his own second chance after causing an accidental death.
Such complexities are probably good things, and certainly more compelling than anything the reductive world of The District has yet offered. It might be healthy for Gil to concern himself with such merely mortal issues. At the very least, it should keep him from getting too self-absorbed and self-righteous like Mannion. But if either of these shows really wants to be “new,” it might consider storylines in which Temple, Ella, and Warrick do not need to be saved by their crusaders.