Reviews

Brooklyn South: The Complete Series

Stephen Tropiano

The first episode features the sort of graphic violence one would expect to see in an R-rated film.


Brooklyn South

Cast: Yancy Butler, Michael DeLuise, Gary Basaraba, Richard T. Jones, Patrick McGaw, Adam Rodriguez, Jon Tenney, Dylan Walsh
Subtitle: The Complete Series
Network: Arts & Entertainment Home Video
Display Artist: Steven Bochco, David Milch, Bill Clark, William M. Finkelstein
Creator: William M. Finkelstein
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2003-10-28
Amazon

When CBS unveiled its 1997-1998 primetime schedule in May of 1997, the Monday night line-up included Brooklyn South, a new police drama hailed by the CBS Entertainment President Leslie Moonves as "the best new television drama of the season." Moonves had every reason to believe he had a surefire hit on his hands. Brooklyn South was co-created by writer/producer Steven Bochco, who had repeatedly reinvented the police drama, first in the early 1980s with Hill Street Blues, and again in the 1990s with the long-running police detective series, NYPD Blue.

For his first (and what would soon be his last) series for the Tiffany Network, Bochco teamed up with producing partner Bill Finkelstein, NYPD co-creator David Milch, and ex-cop turned NYPD writer Bill Clark, to create a drama about uniformed patrolmen in Brooklyn. The advance word from critics was excellent, but a few months after its debut, CBS realized Brooklyn South was not the hit they had anticipated. At the end of its 22-episode run, the show landed 94th in the overall season ratings, so CBS had no choice but to pull the plug.

The series' release on DVD offers a chance to reevaluate. Like Hill Street and NYPD Blue, Brooklyn South is an example of what critic Robert Thompson, in his book Television's Second Golden Age: From Hill Street Blues to ER, deems a "quality TV drama series." Thompson argues that several shows of the 1980s (Hill Street, St. Elsewhere, and thirtysomething) and the 1990s (NYPD Blue, Chicago Hope, and ER) marked the return of the literary-based drama that made the 1950s television's Golden Age.

Brooklyn South shares many elements with these shows: a large ensemble cast, an amalgam of episodic and serialized storylines, and, at least in the pilot, a "realistic," and sometimes "controversial" approach to its subject. Brooklyn South's riveting pilot gave viewers every indication that Bochco was not only sticking to this formula, but continuing to push the envelope.

The first episode features the sort of graphic violence one would expect to see in an R-rated film. In the opening sequence, a crazed gunman goes on a shooting rampage and kills several pedestrians. He also guns down a cop, whom we witness getting shot in the head at close range, and another officer, who returns to the precinct several episodes later in a wheelchair to work at a desk job. Bochco and his writing team then introduce the first of a series of moral dilemmas that will plague the officers of the 74th Precinct. The wounded gunman is brought to the precinct house where he dies after getting kicked by Officer Jake Lowery (Titus Welliver) while the other cops look on. An investigation, led by Lt. Stan Jones (played by Hill Street alum James B. Sikking) of the Internal Affairs Bureau ensues as local black community leaders demand justice.

The pilot is somewhat misleading because Brooklyn South is not an issue-of-the week drama. Unlike police dramas like the Law & Order and the CSI series, the emphasis is not on the criminals and their crimes, but interpersonal relationships. While some storylines (usually confined to a single episode) address the evils of gay-bashing and anti-Semitism, the focus remains on the officers' private and public lives.

Unfortunately, far too much time is spent on their romantic entanglements. The major plotline of the first season involves Patrol Sgt. Francis X. Donovan (Jon Tenney), who reveals that he is a field associate for the I.F.B. (considered the lowest of the low for "ratting" on his fellow officers). It's a provocative premise, but Donovan is not terribly complex, and the big revelation explaining why he became an informant (to save the reputation of his father, an ex-officer) is hardly original (the first season of NYPD Blue included a similar story with an officer's involvement with the mob).

In fact, the show's decline in viewership in the first few months was most likely due, at least in part, to its dearth of compelling protagonists. An ensemble show that follows 10 or 12 characters on a weekly basis must distinguish them from one another by more than their ranks, badge numbers, and skin colors. The officers of Brooklyn South may be have been the best-looking police squad to hit the airwaves, but it's difficult even when watching the series on DVD to distinguish among Patrol Sgt. Donovan, and Officers Jimmy Doyle (Dylan Walsh) and Phil Roussakoff (Michael DeLuise). They are all nice guys, maybe too nice. More importantly, no one single character emerges with the intensity of Hill Street's Captain Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) or the moral ambiguity of NYPD's Detective Sipowicz (Dennis Franz).

Like all Bochco shows, the production values are first-rate (Mark Tinker's direction earned an Emmy for the pilot), and the show's warm and fuzzy visual style (lots of warm colors and sunlight), which makes the streets of South Brooklyn more inviting than crime-ridden, suits the kind of personal dramas going on inside the station house. While many cop shows, NYPD Blue included, tend to lose their edge after a few seasons, Brooklyn South unfortunately never had one from the start.

Bochco is still one of the best writer/producers of television dramas, and he certainly made some mistakes in the past, usually by experimenting with genres: remember the musical police drama Cop Rock? Or the short-lived dramedy Total Security? This makes it all the more surprising that the major failing of Brooklyn South is its lack of daring.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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