A Prime-Time Tragedy in Two Acts: ‘Crime Story: The Complete Series’

Crime Story became classic television for several reasons, not least of which was its serial structure and relatively slender heroes and villains pool: one good guy, one bad guy and some cronies on either side. Executive producer Michael Mann had been riding high with Miami Vice when he ditched Reagan-era Florida for post-Capone Chicago.

After his leap, Miami Vice died a painfully prolonged and decidedly undignified death while Crime Story showed promise at birth before being struck down in its pre-adolescence by a particularly virulent strain of weak writing and plot twists that could make a soaps writer cringe with incredulity. Despite its shortcomings the show retains its status as a respected forerunner to The Sopranos and to many of today’s best cable dramas.

Set in 1963 the first season follows Chicago Major Crimes Unit Lieutenant Mike Torello (Dennis Farina) as he battles rising mobster Ray Luca (Anthony Denison). The show eschews crime show formulas as the entire first season follows a plot that most shows repeat week after week. Across the 22 episodes from the 1986-87 season we watch as tension builds between Torello and Luca as they draw closer to an inevitable battle of wills.

Torello and Luca are more alike than either man realizes and watching these character nuances unfold remains the first season’s greatest joy. Luca races his way to the top with unkempt ferocity while Torello foolishly sacrifices his marriage and risks his reputation on a man who will always hover just above the law. One is a savage with a gun and a badge, the other a savage with a gun and an elegant suit.

The plot itself is fairly simple––Luca proves himself as a worthy mobster, rising fast in the Chicago ranks to the point that he becomes an obvious choice to lead the a new charge of Chicago blood in Las Vegas. There’s bloodshed, good men dying, innocent people subjected to abject cruelty and the faint shadow of drugs encroaching on old-style crime such as hits and robberies. Luca’s eventually tried on murder charges, which he beats.

He leaves for Las Vegas, followed by Torello, who has been awarded a position with the Organized Crime Strike Force. The first season closes with the viewer in heightened state of anticipation. Sure, there are a few turkey episodes and some poorly executed flashback sequences, but the story––and the acting––make it all worthwhile.

And about that acting.

The first season offers few weighty roles for women. Darlanne Fluegal comes close as Julie Torello, but the character never becomes more than a stock cop’s wife, long on suffering, short on satisfaction. When she tires of the lifestyle she disappears faster than interest in another Rocky sequel. But there’s an abundance of fine male roles––and fine male actors to fill them.

Stephen Lang plays attorney David Abrams, the son of a low-level mobster. Socially conscious, Abrams courageously shifts his loyalties from the mob to the man in a stirring and remarkable first season performance. His second season shift proves less stirring, less remarkable, and, in fact, woefully unbelievable. (A fine actor, Lang at least makes the painfully weak material marginally interesting to watch.)

Ted Levine appears as Frank Holman, an inept con whose failings and flubs would be comedic if they weren’t so hopelessly dumb. By the second season, his fortunes reverse and the character becomes nothing more than an idiotic buffoon who can barely breath without detailed instructions. After a handful of episodes you almost pity Levine for having to continue the role––although, as with Lang, Levine’s such a fine actor that watching him work with bad material is still better than watching bad actors with great material.

Jon Polito gives the most convincing performance of the entire series as the loathsome Phil Bartoli; even his final moments on screen in the first season––as he dies––are beautifully acted and one marvels at his underrated skills. Perhaps one of the more interesting performances comes from Andrew Dice Clay, who plays mobster Max Goldman. Clay not only gives a decent performance in the first season he becomes a real actor by the second.

Farina proves a capable lead, although he lacks the range of Polito and Levine. Denison finds range within his character but is written into some rather dull situations that belie his fine performance. The supporting cast is eminently more interesting than the leads, an interesting––if not entirely unique––situation.

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons Crime Story never caught fire––it could never find the right tone or the right focus. It was too smart for network television, but too risk-averse to make the kind of bold statements you can feel lurking beneath the surface in the better episodes. A contemporary re-write would probably find more time to focus on the B-level characters and their motivations throughout.

That risk aversion comes to light in the second season, in which it becomes evident that even the best actors on the planet could not have saved this series from itself. Once the cast lands in Las Vegas the enthusiasm and intelligence left over from the first seasons last about four or five episodes. You can almost hear the brains and life being sucked out of the show if you listen between the lines.

Where to begin?

Perhaps it’s a secret deal between Luca and the government which makes him untouchable; perhaps it’s a series of dimwit ex machina events that finally see our gang landing in some nameless South/Central American country in pursuit of Luca who––GASP!––has found favor with the local government. (The natives of this land naturally speak in stilted English and use metaphors that are only slightly less tangled than the syntax.)

It’s during those last moments that the show begins to smell suspiciously like Miami Vice, what with drugs, not gambling, playing such a pivotal role in the plot and a phrase that sounds very close to “war on drugs” seeping from Torello’s lips. But that doesn’t matter, by the time the second season comes crashing down, we’ve just about lost all interest in the characters and respect for the writers and some members of the cast. Luckily, the show was cancelled before anyone had to endure a third season and watch these once fascinating characters undergo further degradation.

There are other problems. Todd Rundgren started the series with a fairly accurate and interesting musical direction but his sudden departure made way for Al Kooper whose musical touches were frequently anachronistic if not downright distracting. Whereas Rundgren tried to say within the parameters of time with the music, Kooper threw caution and accuracy to the Chicago wind. (Imagine Little House On The Prairie as scored by Tangerine Dream or Kraftwerk and see how long you keep the dream alive.)

A wide range of actors appeared on the show in guest spots: Pam Grier, Stanley Tucci, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Christian Slater, David Hyde Pierce, Eric Bogosian, David Soul, and Gary Sinise. (Sinise and Soul each directed two episodes.) Perhaps most remarkable is David Caruso, who delivers one of the better performances of his career in the series pilot, included here. It reminds us what a promising and talented actor he was early on. (Inexplicably, Jann Wenner has a small but recurring role. He’s not terrible.)

In short? Crime Story makes a good study in ‘80s television and demonstrates how originality compromised is far worse than straight up mediocrity.

There are no extras on this set and the whole set feels hastily assembled, flimsy.

RATING 5 / 10