o, it’s 3030,” booms Del the Funky Homosapien. “It’s all heat in this day and age. / I rage your grave, anything it takes to save the day. / Neuromancer, perfect blend of technology and magic. / Use my rappin’ so you all could see the hazards, / Plus entertainment where many are brainless.”
Under these opening lyrics, the first scene of Robbery Homicide Division unfolds, pulsing and impressionistic, set in a blue-lit dance club. The camera more or less follows a couple of girls as they flirt, slink, argue, and leave, as the lyrics offer further comment: “I used to be a mech soldier but I didn’t respect orders. / I had to step forward, tell them this ain’t for us. / Living in a post-apocalyptic world morbid and horrid.” And here it comes: the girls exit to the sidewalk, not to a blast of fresh night air (they are in L.A.‘s Koreatown, after all), but to a driveby. After a precious few slo-mo shoot-em-up seconds, they’re bloody and crumpled on the sidewalk, as a siren sounds.
You have to hand it to Robbery Homicide Division. It knows just where it comes from. Creator/executive producer Michael Mann, the force behind Crime Story and Miami Vice, here delivers another hyper-stylized series about tetchy cops in sharp clothes and great light, and set against moody dance tracks. Other soundtrack choices—Spanish-language hiphop, scratch tracks—grant the characters a world with real referents, instead of appealing to a carefully researched broad demographic. (The third episode opens with stunning crosscutting between “another day at the office” images and the brutal murder of two trainee cops, under DJ Shadow’s magnificent “Blood On The Motorway.”)
Like Mann’s other shows, this one brings gorgeous surface: shot on high definition video, the colors are almost painfully rich and the edgy, blurry, spinny effects are often thrilling. Sometimes the shots are so close that you just need to keep up. And, as often noted, Mann’s self-consciously timely tv is dated by definition. Of RHD, the New York Times’ Elvis Mitchell writes, “The electronica gloss and high-definition video photography will whisper early 21st century when the show gets its inevitable run on Nick at Nite” (13 October 2002).
RHD is indeed corny and self-important, like most every cop show. It is also blessed with a first-rate cast and Tom Sizemore, who can be a lunatic on his good days. His Detective Sam Cole knows that in his business, good intentions and ethical lines don’t hold. The fearless and ever-surprising Sizemore plays Cole like he’s still working off excess energy from his performance as NBK‘s sleazebag Scagnetti, slightly straightened out. Cole is strange and compelling, because he’s got this dead-on intuition thing going (so far, less excitable than Vincent D’Onofrio’s Goren), but also because he adapts his sense of mission and strategy to each case he works. If the cases are predictable, he is not.
Cole oversees a tight unit in L.A.‘s Robbery and Homicide Division: self-assured veteran Sergeant Simms (Barry “Shabaka” Henley), pathology expert Detective Sonia Robbins (Klea Scott), relatively straight-laced Detective Richard Barstow (David Cubitt), and gang expert Detective Ron Lu (Michael Paul Chan). They all call him “Boss” (or when feeling especially amiable, “Hoss”), but don’t be mad at them. As of three episodes, the characters remain demarcated by their relationships with one another, on the job, with no visible lives off the job (which is fine—better not to follow everyone home to a succession of domestic clichés). They might still evolve beyond their superficially trendy diversity, mostly because each performer brings serious chops.
Moreover, their on-the-job interactions show complications and, in the case of Cole, intriguing perversities. The premiere episode suggests, for instance, that he takes a slightly nasty pleasure in his work: on the Koreatown crime scene, his deliberations are jaunty: “Nine shells, three 3-shot bursts, good weapon handling, pop pop pop, pop pop pop, pop pop pop. Where’s this wit?” at which point he lurches away to find the witness, who will end up being the actual target, with the girls bystanders who “caught strays.” (Not to mention that it takes Cole’s keen eye to notice the seeping bullet wound in this guy’s chest, before he even realizes he’s been shot, at which point he keels over dead—a bit of creepy crime scene humor.)
Turns out that this target is a shady corporate lawyer involved in drug trafficking; and in the next scene, Cole butts heads with Shady Lawyer’s loyal office manager Claudia (Maria Conchita Alonso, always underused and always great). She’s shredding documents by the handful, but feigns ignorance as to why; this mini-plot-moment allows Sizemore and Alonso to engage in some entertainingly extreme posturing: “I’m straightening up,” she huffs. “Like what?” he shoots back, “The Enron lady?” He encourages her to rethink her loyalties to Shady Lawyer: “You think I took stupid pills on the elevator up here, Claudia? Claudia! Clau-di-a!” Clearly, she’s in over her head.
If Cole’s mastery of such situations is premised on his ability to browbeat subjects and creepy-crawl his way around any given resistance, his uneasy enjoyment of the power dynamics makes for compelling viewing. The premiere episode has him quickly connecting a couple of seemingly unrelated cases, the nightclub shooting and the gang-style execution of a family of new Mexican immigrants, who happen to be living in a house owned by Shady Lawyer.
Clues and contrivances lead the RHD unit to Leon, an ex-cop who hooked up with the Aryan Brotherhood while serving time in Folsom. As he’s now disappeared (“in the wind” is the colorful phrase applied), Cole looks up his ex-partner, Alton Davis (Mario Van Peebles, appropriately ravaged-looking), the two go at it in the usual cop-show shot-reverse-shot pattern: Davis in his car, Cole standing outside, looming and leaning in. Cole observes Leon’s corruption and racism (“He’s a bad man, he’s backslid into a life of crime”), but Davis schools his interlocutor concerning “this pigmentocracy,” where “brothers don’t roll with the ABs” (meaning, his man Leon is no racist and Cole shows his ignorance even suggesting it), and the fact that fraternal loyalty trumps bad decisions in prison.
It’s no surprise that “Alton Davis, Mr. Thin Blue Line and Solidarity” is wholly disreputable and knows the cop game well. Cole runs an interrogation-room scare tactic on him: “You know, and you know we know: tomorrow, you’re worth half of today. You’re a commodity baby, and the value of your ass is declining.” Given Davis’s previous rumination on race relations, you know this particular challenge does not go over well, and he comes back with game of his own. Cole and Davis share an jittery mutual loathing, and the actors are tight with each other’s timing (good news: Van Peebles is scheduled to return in the fifth episode, along with Coolio, Mr. Celebrity Boot Camp Champion).
So far, RHD is most concerned with varieties of deviance, the ways that moral categories shape one another. But these thematic interests are more available in its visual stylization than its mostly predictable storylines. The second and third episodes set up standard plots: “2028,” Robbins’ case (though she still takes a back seat to Cole’s affectations), involves a serial rapist of “Mulholland women,” who changes pattern and kills an expensive call girl (this episode is easily the corniest storyline, but allows Cole to show off his galloping disrespect for the rich, in the form of one of the girl’s clients, a wealthy movie producer). And “Mini-Mall” follows the search for a cop-killer, a swaggery banger who committed the crime on panicky impulse. He spends the rest of the episode trying to figure a way out; the Mannish touch here is the killer’s parrot, in scenes intercut with the killer’s takedown: the bird flies in confusion around the apartment, then finally out the window in a burst of freeze-framey, spiritualizing color, just as the banger is shot dead by the cops. Call it overkill.
The inside of Cole’s sketchy head appears in ways that are no less obvious, but make less familiar points. While questioning a Chinese kid (presumed to be the killer by the dead cop’s fellows, based on profiling born of rage and fear). He’s sent SWAT teams to two locations in search of the suspect, each ready to bust in blazing on his signal. Just then, Cole’s eyes catch the first-person shooter video games lined up in an arcade, his temporary command post. He takes a breath and pulls both teams back, drawing attention to the similarities between customary cop activities and video games (that is, such games are not just inspiration for gun violence, but also its reflection—not so many cop shows recognize this). Meanwhile, the dead cop’s buddy stands in the background, the handheld camera catching his look: mad.
Unable to make peace with “the job,” Cole is difficult and ambiguous. The rest of his unit needs to develop (for an impressively well-rounded crew, see The Shield), and RHD will no doubt benefit from plots as adventurous as its look, lead actor, and themes. If Miami Vice mirrored and interpreted its own sense of its time by way of an aggressive, slick, pastel milieu, Robbery Homicide Division speaks to another generation raised on artifice and violence, speed and distrust, a world daily reshaped by instances of dysfunction, fear, and cruelty. Facing this Neuromancer’s blend, Cole is appropriately anxious.