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Howard Rosenberg TELEVISION

This 'Reality' Hybrid States Its Case Well

June 14, 2002|Howard Rosenberg

Television's funhouse mirror turns short into tall, thin into fat. So naturally prime time's felonies and body counts are mounting even as the national crime rate shrinks.

The major broadcast networks will start their fall campaign with 19 crime-related hours, and more are scheduled to arrive at midseason. Packing heat is a tradition on TV, where crime has always paid. That's also so for feature films, going back nearly a century to that one-reeler "The Great Train Robbery."

Television producer Dick Wolf ("Law & Order," "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent") makes fabulous money tailoring TV to viewers hot for stories spun from the same violence many of them claim to abhor.

Americans "watch for the same reason they watch 'ER,' " Wolf said from New York, where his NBC trio is filmed. "Life and death are the highest stakes of all." Next to TV ratings, as he well knows.

Viewers love what they hate. Go figure, but they enjoy seeing in entertainment--which is an abstraction to them--what they recoil from in real life. That appeal extends widely in 2002, from such highbrows as ABC's "NYPD Blue," HBO's "The Sopranos" and Wolf's enduring "Law & Order" prototype to "The Shield," a new cop series whose revolting antihero has earned a loyal following in his first season on cable's FX. Inspired by the Rampart police scandal, the show's central character is an LAPD detective whose corrupt and murderous acts are mimicked by his closest colleagues. Although these thugs with badges are heavy-handed, their conduct somehow goes undetected by the department's foggy honest cops.

A kinder, gentler, smarter LAPD is surely ahead in Wolf's "Dragnet" remake, a series set to begin on ABC in January.

But is he TV's doyen of depravity or what? The Wolf series to watch Sunday is "Crime & Punishment," starting a 13-episode run on NBC that marches viewers through the trenches of criminal law.

Called a "drama-mentary" by NBC, this is another of those "reality" hybrids, but a very good one that promises a summer of arresting insights.

Any similarity here to Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" is, well, minimal. Although criminals starring in these abridged real trials probably share Raskolnikov's belief about exemption from moral law, they earn no purification through suffering. And San Diego is not Russia's 19th century St. Petersburg.

Its district attorney's office, though, tries cases that produce fascinating TV in a series functioning as entertainment while affirming the rewards of cameras in courtrooms. California and 36 other states wisely allow them, subject to the discretion of individual trial judges.

Another is Arizona, locale for "State v.," a five-week prime-time series (starting Wednesday) resulting from ABC News cameras getting intimate access to courtroom action, lawyer strategies and even jury deliberations in a number of homicide cases.

Rigid as stone, though, is the federal system. It stubbornly bans TV from its courtrooms, much to the dismay of those believing that only rarely would cameras interfere with a defendant's right to a fair trial.

Wolf mounts this soapbox fervently. Why not cameras as a surrogate eyewitness when "you can walk in off the street into any trial in the country?" he argues. "This is supposed to be a free society. I can't believe the people who came up with this judicial system felt that the widest number of people should not be able to see a trial."

If "Crime & Punishment" witnesses are basking in their 15 minutes of TV glory or notoriety, they hide it well in the first three episodes. Nor do you sense grandstanding by judges, or by attorneys beyond the usual shows they put on for juries. That's because the TV technology here is unobtrusive--three small, stationary cameras operated by remote control at various spots in the courtroom--and easy to ignore.

Cameras are excluded from showing jurors but capture many revealing trial nuances, as in Episode 2's flickering nervous eye contact between the mother of a sexually abused child and Assistant Dist. Atty. Jill DiCarlo when a prosecution witness is grilled aggressively by a defense attorney.

We're front-row voyeurs here, at times watching geysers of raw emotions in private, unguarded moments (no one appears in the series without giving permission) that don't seem faked. "Bill's more of a purist than I am and won't re-stage anything," Wolf said of executive producer Bill Guttenberg, a filmmaker whose numerous awards for his documentaries include an Oscar for "You Didn't Have to Die."

And speaking of high drama, Episode 3's murder trial ends with a thunderous jolt that critics would dismiss as excessive and unrealistic were this fictional "Law & Order."

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