Warning: plot spoilers for pilot (already aired).
It’s hard for me to take a lot of these detective shows or cop shows very seriously. I think they’ve become glamorized, and I think violence in general has become glamorized, and one of the concepts in Kojak is to solve problems without using violence.
— Ving Rhames, Daily Herald (20 March 2005)
When I need something, something strong,
Baby, I’m reaching out for you.
You fight the fight when I’m too weak.
And when its tenderness I need,
You take me where I want to be.
— Tweet, “When I Need a Man”
The new Kojak (co-executive producer Ving Rhames) is all over his own style. The first shot of the credits for USA’s updated series has him smoothing his bald head, ducking as if to admire himself in a mirror, showing off his great face and inviting you to do the same. Just before he walks off screen, he pops the trademark lollipop into his mouth — it’s a jaunty, self-knowing move. It’s so Kojak.
And so it seems, for a minute, that Rhames is going to take possession of the role that Telly Savalas owned so completely in the ’70s. Not so fast. This year’s model is not only smooth and cocky, he’s also brutal, insidious, a cop for a post-9/11 community. Despite Rhames’ assessment in the Daily Herald, this Kojak is grimly violent. The first scene shows he’s comfortable with abuses and lies to get what he wants. Set in the New York City interrogation room where Theo and crew do their business, the scene offers up a putz with information the cops want. Crocker (Michael Kelly) gives up, handing over the questioning to Kojak. His quarry bites: “What kinda name is that, Kojak, for a fine, Nubian prince like yourself?” When the lieutenant counsels him to give up the name he’s after, the guy can’t help himself. “Let me tell you something about threats,” he goes on. “They only work if you can go the whole nine. Otherwise you’re just talkin’ tough, see?” Yeah, well, Kojak does see. And with that, he slams this guy’s head into the table and makes a few more threats. Guy spills his guts. End of conversation.
Subsequent images come with music to mirror both Kojak’s old and new sorts of cool: a foot chase on the street features a version of ’70s soul (and ends with the cop mashing his gun up against a carjacker’s head, with a mother and child out of focus and whimpering in the passenger seat); when he visits with his lady, ADA Carmen Warrick (Roslyn Sanchez), they share an affection for sultry jazz; and when he’s debating with his best friend and recently reassigned boss Frank (Chazz Palminteri), the beat picks up. In all instances, he’s the focus, the quietly seething center around which all rhythm and action swirl.
The two-part pilot episode makes this relation between Kojak and World repeatedly clear. When he takes time to relax, Shaft-style, in a bluesy club the evening following his carjacker takedown, the frame cuts repeatedly to the case that will be his next — a serial killer whose targets are prostitutes with children. Kojak leans back, the killer roughly tapes a woman’s face, her eyes wide and scared. Kojak closes his eyes, the woman’s bound body heaves. The call comes in, the connection is made, and he’s prowling the apartment building, looking for witnesses. A lackey cop informs him that a canvas of the neighbors has produced nothing, and he barely pauses: “Someone always hears something. They just don’t know it yet.” Predictably, when Kojak comes asking, you know it. The first neighbor he talks to is an occasion for more Kojakness: the guy pretends ignorance, only to find himself pushed into the bloody corpse on the bed until he remembers the white guy in a baseball cap he saw last night.
Standing over the body, the team — revealed in the usual one-shots, each face granted its moment to register a reaction — looks partly bored, partly cynical, and partly intrigued. They run through the facts — the prostitute worked out off her bedroom (team member Messina [Chuck Shamata] cracks, “At least she was a stay at home mom, you gotta give her that”), the killer is creative (he shoves razor blades into his victims’ mouths, then tapes them shut so they drown “in their own blood,” a slow, very acutely felt death).
Kojak’s judgment is swift: “I want this freak off my streets.” Frank, for his part (as the wise and practical-minded advisor, not the crotchety captain), cautions him not to get too wild during the investigation. “Don’t get dumb on me, Theo,” he says. “It’s about perception, keep a low profile.” Right. It’s only minutes before he figures a way to use the tv reporters (by reading a note “from the killer” that Kojak has actually written himself, taunting the villain for proclaiming ambitions he rejects out of hand.
Kojak’s insight into what makes this particular bad guy tick is the typical sort; he reads the clues better than anyone else (including cops from a competing precinct, who’ve been chasing him for weeks), and leads directly to the guy’s self-revelation. That this happens via tv makes the initial insight both smart and mundane, though the show — overly fond of slow motion and close-ups for emphasis of what’s obvious (gruesome injuries, livid faces, implements of destruction) — underlines the latter, pulling out from Kojak’s tv press conference to show the killer watching his own tv, revealing his cigarette smoke, ancient armchair, and predictable agitation. His capture is only a matter of time.
Kojak hardly cares that he’s lied or sent the “public” into a panic (“Oh boo-hoo,” he snipes), but his showdown with the killer, a pasty white guy named Howard Fletcher (Tom Rooney), is routine. Even Howard knows he’s a cliché, whining about his own prostitute mom, weeping at his sister’s suicide by razor blades, and then busting out laughing: it’s all a show, with video monitors recording and refracting every moment of his confession. He was doing “good work,” he says, saving the children from their bad moms. (As he so eloquently translates it for you: “I am the evidence,” meaning, it’s all his hooker mom’s fault.) Here’s the mild and familiar rub in this Kojak. For all his proper moral coding (he supplies bats to a local kids’ team, looks after the children of the first prostitute he finds dead, and reveals his own father was murdered in a diner when Kojak was a child), he’s also a little “dumb” in the sense that Frank suggests, willfully ignorant of the rules when it suits him.
And so, with another 40 minutes or so to fill, the pilot lets loose with the other, meaner, scarier Kojak, plying his vengeance for the good of the community who’d rather not know what he’s doing. For Kojak, this involves a “dragon.” As he tells Carmen, there’s one in every case that eventually emerges from its cave for him to slay with his big sword (to be cute, perhaps, she offers to help him “hold up” his sword). The trick is to wait for it.
The wait here is mercifully short, but the dragon is pretty easy to spot. He’s a cop, Danny (Dean McDermott), who’s committed a copycat murder, for his own reasons, that Kojak deciphers when everyone else is content to lay it on Howard, because Howard’s easy and deserves the rage heaped on him by the victims’ families in court (which you hear about via tv reports — lots of meaningful background tv here, including Katie and Matt in the morning in the squad room). Your man Kojak is appalled when he learns this supposed model detective, all clean cut and impressive, sees the junkie-whore’s life as unimportant compared to his career and all the criminals she’s helped him put away over the years (with false testimony he bullies her to provide). Like Howard, he claims he’s been doing “good work,” and like Howard, he has no remorse. “You’re gonna let me walk,” he informs the burly Kojak, who pulls his gun, rises to mash in Danny’s face or worse, then collapses back onto a park bench, seemingly defeated by the raucous and relentless logic this punk of a policeman runs on him.
So far, so cop show cop. Kojak’s part of the system, much as he bends it, and so he sees here the kid is right; the systems is rigged to protect cops, to cover up for them. The show doesn’t quit with that cynical though. It pushes on to the next self-righteous, global cop presumption, that when the system doesn’t afford you the justice you want, you step outside it. The show doesn’t seem precisely celebratory concerning Kojak’s decision to murder Danny by pounding his face in with his big fists, but neither does it wholly condemn him. You know he’ll feel haunted by his action — for a minute by the image of Danny’s partner, looking down on him from a bridge over the murder scene, and maybe longer by his own conscience. His violence is an effect of the system he despises and perpetuates. He is the evidence of its ongoing failures.