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.