Television's most bountiful genre in weekly drama remains crime, which multiplies in prime time far out of proportion to its actual menace to society. How fortunate that it yields some of the small screen's best work.
Joining this elite group Sunday is "Street Time," a fine Showtime series about parole officers and parolees, following by just three weeks the premiere of HBO's superior new crime venture, "The Wire."
"Street Time" broadly tracks "Straight Time," a 1978 film about a habitual criminal who leaves prison only to return to his old haunts and be dogged mercilessly by a nasty parole officer.
A major difference is that "Street Time" focuses about equally on ex-con Kevin Hunter (Rob Morrow) and parole officer Jimmy Liberti (Scott Cohen). And although Hunter is getting sucked back into drug smuggling, he's more sympathetic than Dustin Hoffman's parolee in the movie. Liberti's hassling of him tilts much nearer to job-hardened tough love than the villainy of M. Emmet Walsh's corrupt parole officer in "Straight Time."
Hunter and Liberti do not occupy this risky tinderbox alone. While Hunter is awash in temptation, Liberti is drawn to the evening, walking streets seething with night crawlers and other activity. Also prominent are the two men's families, plus Liberti's fellow parole officer, Dee Mulhern (Erika Alexander).
Watch out, especially, for parolee Sam Cahan (Red Buttons), an elderly ex-mobster with one wobbly foot in kindly codgerdom, the other.... Well, let's just say he's a human shell game and that his battles of wits with Liberti are a twisty highlight of the first three episodes.
"Street Time" is crime and grime deluxe, its major characters densely written, its acting excellent from top to bottom, its tone gray, as if director Marc Levin's fluid camera had consigned to a smoky haze this urban odyssey created by executive producers Stephen Kronish and Richard Stratton.
Within this milieu are a pair of protagonists with flaws like potholes, with Morrow on point as a college-educated felon and Cohen underplaying persuasively while dotting every I as the complex Liberti.
The story's catalyst is Hunter's parole and resumption of activity with his crooked brother and their fugitive pal, coinciding with his attempt at a relatively normal home life with his common-law wife Rachel (Michelle Nolden) and their young son.
Rachel is a measure of the show's good writing even for supporting characters. Not merely another long-suffering spouse, she's blemished herself, at one point trying to get Hunter as stoned on pot as she is, while knowing that a drug trace in his required urine tests will send him back to prison.
Liberti is especially intriguing. From the shadows of his life comes a cash-eating gambling habit that threatens his family; he also has a rigid side, as when, his mind on Sept. 11, he stalks and comes down hard on an Arab parolee he believes to be a terrorist.
"It really bothers me the way you lump people together," says his boss (Allegra Fulton). "My grandparents were lumped together once, on a cattle car in Poland."
That strong third episode rebounds from a second one, whose pace slows notably. Levin is too cute with some of his transitions in the premiere, moreover, as when fast-cutting from a thug breaking down a door to Liberti's son in a karate match. Plus, having Hunter and Liberti encounter each other while walking their sons to the same school seems just too convenient.
A more significant parallel is executed masterfully, for both parolee and parole officer are demon-battling junkies, one apparently hooked on crime, the other on gambling.
"I get my money, and I'm done," Hunter insists when reluctantly agreeing to one last drug score with his brother. "I'm through," Liberti assures his bookie later, after collecting his winnings.
The likelihood that neither is through makes "Street Time" all the more seductive.
"Street Time" premieres at 10 p.m. Sunday on Showtime. The network has rated it TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17).