Maintain Low Tones
“Where’s your fuckin’ wife?” The parole officers visiting Gulf War veteran and parolee Burt Kent (David Vadim) are running short on patience. He’s missed work and now he’s acting funny. Morose and agitated, Burt sits in his kitchen, evading their gazes and refusing to answer their queries, shuffling and looking at his hands. Strewn over the kitchen table between him and POs James Liberti (Scott Cohen) and Ron Skouras (Rob Smith) are half-empty Chinese food cartons and a pizza box. His eyes are red and his face gray. Maybe it’s his Gulf War Syndrome kicking in. The officers exchange looks; plainly, he’s in some kind of trouble.
And so what? The parole officers in Street Time are used to dealing with losers and deadbeats, people feeling too fearful, angry, and worn down to make a change. Constrained by curfews, spot checks, and drug tests, they can neither reenter their old lives nor embark on new ones—they’re in limbo, not inside, but doing street time. Showtime’s original series, executive produced (and often written or directed) by ex-parolee Richard Stratton and extra-smart independent filmmaker Marc Levin (Slam , Thug Life DC , Gladiator Days ), takes these feeling seriously, as they’re experienced by the parolees and engaged by the officers assigned to their cases. In Street Time, everyone is, eventually, caught in between past and future, unable to inhabit the present.
While the series earned respectable reviews last year, the second season seems to be stepping up its game. Guest stars in 2002 included Dash Mihok, Hector Elizondo, Swoosie Kurtz, Keith Carradine, poet Saul Williams (who starred in Levin’s Slam), and Laker Rick Fox (playing basketball star involved in a fatal drive-by shooting), and the coming season promises appearances by Billy Dee Williams and Serena Williams, as well as Robert Forster as a paroled cop-killer and Judd Hirsch as a Hassidic parolee, not to mention the hiring of Barry Cole and the Roots’ Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson (another previous collaborator with Levin) as music supervisors.
The new season’s premiere, “20 Hits,” aired 6 August (the time changed from Sunday nights, so it no longer competes with HBO’s The Wire, still the finest show on tv, a fact overlooked yet by the Emmy nominators), displays a bumped up pace and energy, even in those early moments at Burt Kent’s house. James, a 10-year veteran of the parole department, was last season plagued by a gambling addiction and difficulties in his marriage to Karen (Kate Greenhouse). In this scene, he’s the rational voice, trying to restrain the increasingly out of control Skouras, who bullies Burt just because he can.
Such obnoxious posturing is in character for Skouras, who forced one particularly fragile parolee, Sky Nighthawk (Gail Maurice), to have sex with him; the bureaucracy was only beginning to look into this abuse, but in the meantime, his coworkers, especially Dee Mulhern (the excellent Erika Alexander), have been treating him like the skeezy scumbag he is. (He, in turn, has gone so far as to file a sexual harassment complaint against her.) In a bizarre karmic turn (of the sort the series tends to provide), Skouras meets his match in the depressed and drug-addled Burt, who finally can take no more, and shoots him, blam blam, in the chest, muttering, “Stupid cop. Don’t like your attitude, douche-bag!” With this, Street Time lurches into a weird other ambit: Skouras’ blood squishes as James grabs him up, begging him not to die, and Burt beats it out the front door.
From here, the episode picks up its usual structure, cutting among storylines, including that of former marijuana smuggler Kevin Hunter (Rob Morrow), the character most closely affiliated with creator Stratton’s own experience. Released after completing a five-year stint in prison, he attempted to make a “legitimate” go with a nightclub, a convenient location for continued drug trafficking, as encouraged by his money-lusty brother Peter (Christopher Bolton) and common-law wife Rachael (Michelle Nolden). Following the cocaine overdose death of a city councilman in the club’s office (a death overheard by the DEA via a bug in the office), Kevin is back in jail, awaiting word on his parole.
Much of the developing drama of last season had to do with Kevin’s relationship with his PO, the increasingly volatile James; their kids attend the same school, they’re both fighting demons and distrust the “system.” Their shared wariness highlights the thin line between cop and criminal, within hypocritical social and penal policies. In “20 Hits,” their camaraderie deepens, against their better judgments. Though they’re unable to articulate it, both men know the DEA is using them, in different ways, toward ends that have nothing to do with their well-being.
The characters of Street Time often find it hard to say what they mean, out of self-defensive reserve as much as fear or misgiving. Given that so many drama series are premised on exposition via dialogue, Street Time‘s alternative strategies are not a little refreshing: cinematographers Bert Dunk and Jonathan Freeman find powerful ways to convey relationships and concerns visually—even aside from the handheld camera that prevails in all current cop shows. The look of the show is dark and angsty, with claustrophobic framing in offices and apartments, clubs and streets. One particularly effective moment in the season opener shows Kevin in a space clearly marked as “limbo”—in a holding cell before a parole hearing with his lawyer, he changes from his orange jumpsuit to a suit; behind him, the wall is stenciled, “Maintain low tones.” In the moral and legal morass of “street time,” no one likes a boat-rocker.
Thus, Dee and James’ instant apprehension when they learn that Ann Valentine (Allegra Fulton), has been replaced by Lucius Mosley (Terrence Dashon Howard) as supervisor of the Special Offenders Unit. The one thing they all agree on immediately is that they don’t trust one another. Te first order of business is the investigation of Skouras’ murder and Burt’s capture. (This even as the other POs agree on Skouras’ lack of character: “The guy was unstable,” offers one in defense of James’ witnessing of the murder; “He was a piece of shit,” confirms another.) Lucius’s arrival looks bad for James. “They’re gonna investigate your ass,” warns his partner Dee.
Their own efforts to track down Burt begin with interviews; they call in a room full of offenders, anyone with an ear to the street. Looking out at them, “antsy and freaked,” the officers know they’re fearful that “we’re gonna be all over them, and they’re right.” Distrust flows all ways. And yet, Lucius observes with a sage stillness, “Sometimes you get more by trusting these people than by busting them.” The good POs know that already, and Dee and James resent this “paper pusher from Washington” presuming to tell them how to do their jobs.
As before, their jobs are stressful and unpredictable, premised on lack of trust, that is, assuming offenders as well as supervisors, are lying. Street Time makes these tenuous relationships visible, exposing their weak points and their necessary strengths, the institutional and individual racism, classism, and often brutal misogyny that prop up the penal system, as well as the POs’ and offenders’ efforts to work through and around such prejudices. When, at the end of “20 Shots,” Dee and James finally do locate Burt, he’s reached his absolute end, strung out, furious, and confused except for one thing: this military veteran trusts no one. That he’s also killed his wife and left her body parts in the freezer suggests the extent to which he’s absorbed the very order and rules he so resents. She deserves it, he reasons. She was his and she cheated. He trusted her. And in this indeterminate universe, trust is costly, for everyone.
As it begins a new season, Street Time looks to be amplifying its ambiguities, which is not to say that it clarifies them or invites you to feel comfortable with them. Instead, it pushes you to feel costs.