By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
In our current perceptual grammar, video looks like life, while film, which used to be used to bring the far corners of the real world close, has become a distancing medium, the stuff of which art is made. Where film is glamorous and mysterious, videotape is just what we use to record a trip to Disney World or an FBI sting -- most of us by now have seen ourselves on a television, if not On Television -- and is relatively, and perhaps increasingly, unconvincing as a dramatic medium. (Notwithstanding soap operas and sitcoms -- which, with their three-wall sets, responsive studio audiences and more or less real-time performances, are, after all, constructed to suggest an actual evening in the theater.) Attempts to use video for prime-time dramatic series -- anyone remember Beacon Hill? -- have been, in this country anyway, rare and short-lived.
The message of these mediums -- as different as painting and photography, and engaged in a similar dialectic -- informs The Beat, the latest series from the team of Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana (Homicide: Life on the Street, Oz), which explores the personal and professional lives of two young cops patrolling New York City‘s Lower East Side: Police business is shot on video (though the image has been processed somewhat in order to make it not look exactly like Cops, and so, ironically, less phony), while the personal stuff is filmed, as movies are. It’s meant to visualize two sorts of information, two ways of seeing, of processing the world, though the characters are constantly being distracted out of one mode into the other -- the picture switching from video to film, or vice versa, sometimes for a single shot -- suggesting that, even as they compartmentalize, cops are always people, and yet, as people, might at any instant become cops. The film-video mix is, of course, not new -- it‘s a familiar trope of music videos, and has filtered down into advertising and Oliver Stone movies -- but I can’t remember it ever being used quite in this way, or so rigorously, or to actually make a point about human psychology (and not merely a point about media). It‘s not a huge point. When you first realize what’s up, you think, “Oh, cool,” and then it briefly seems sort of obvious and dumb, a gimmick, and then you pretty much stop noticing and just pay attention to the characters.
Like the producers‘ other series, The Beat is exceptionally well-cast, with a lot of satisfying secondary eccentrics and with leads who are attractive without being clones of the latest print-ad ideal, and who seem comfortingly familiar -- on one level, partners Mike and Zane are just CHiPs’ Ponch and John -- but not too hopelessly generic. Mike (the Irish one, played by Derek Cecil) goes by the book, and hopes for advancement; Zane (the Italian one, played by Mark Ruffalo) is impulsive and happy on the street. Mike drinks a little too much. Zane‘s dad is in jail for killing Zane’s mother. Each has his own sort of girl trouble. As often happens in a screenwritten world still recovering from Quentin Tarantino, they are saddled with an excess of strained casual banter (over the term for the dot on an “i,” how much cold water a person can drink, whether the pregnant lesbians in a pregnant-lesbian porn mag are really pregnant lesbians) in order to signify “authenticity”; but there is, fortunately, a lot else going on.
Because they‘re beat cops and don’t have to stick around to solve cases, but only stabilize the mess at hand, they can run through several incidents in a single episode (in the first, written by Fontana and directed by Levinson, they deal with a traffic accident, a peeping Tom with a shotgun, a teenage suicide and a child molester), which, added to the domestic turmoil and the inevitable sexy stuff, makes for a well-packed hour. As in Homicide and Oz, these incidental matters decorate long arcs: rising tensions over the death in custody of a black suspect (race is high on the Levinson-Fontana thematic agenda); a pigeon killer; Mike‘s impending wedding to med student Elizabeth (Poppy Montgomery); Zane’s determination to prove his father innocent and his strangely co-dependent relationship with the chemically unbalanced Beatrice (Heather Burns), who throws his stuff out the window when she isn‘t setting the window on fire. Fontana sees the series as being about “the joy of life” (as opposed to Homicide, which was about “the meaning of life”). An interesting way of putting it, but I can see what he means: These characters, for all the mayhem that surrounds them, or which they occasionally themselves create, are more hopeful than not, are young and still open to possibilities. They believe that things can be, will be, good. An uncynical cop show -- how very old-fashioned.
In the end, The Beat is well-enough written and played to work without the video variations, but the visual strategy does affect the way you read the drama -- which on paper is not all that different from NBC’s cops ‘n’ firemen series, Third Watch -- and, frankly, any messing with the form is worth applauding. Television style was for a long time largely incidental, a byproduct of technical or procedural innovation (as in the three-camera comedy), or an expression of budgetary limitations and the public‘s endless willingness to settle for flat lighting and static master shots. But the tube has smartened up considerably over the last few years, with serious attention being paid to color and framing, camera angles and movement, lighting and sound effects, to the point now where “stylishness” has become almost a cliche. “Stylish mystery” -- I mean, the red flags go right up.
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