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.
The problem with the certainly stylish Cover Me: Based on the True Life of an FBI Family, a new USA Network series from the pen and the production offices of Shaun Cassidy (American Gothic), isn’t so much its lack of content as its . . . content. The series — in which an undercover federal agent, convinced it‘s the only way to protect his family from harm, engages them as his assistants — is of that class of drama that needs to remind you that it’s based in fact in order to sell the ridiculous premise. (And so badly does it need to remind you that the reminder has been incorporated into the title.) The possibility that such a thing may have actually happened does not make it one whit more plausible — certainly not in the form presented here. But what the series lacks in sense it makes up, partly, in craft; it‘s polished and smooth, and does not scratch going down.
In style and substance the show owes much, probably too much, to GoodFellas — you will recognize the itinerant camera and bright, flashy images, the flamboyant, fast-talking Italian-American lead (but for knowing he’s a Fed, one might easily take him for a pure hood) — and to The Sopranos, another Scorsese-inflected series about crime and family. But where Tony Soprano knows his shit‘s fucked up, Cover Me operates in a state of denial, refusing to admit that by any reasonable standards Dad (played with a kind of speedy, gleeful severity by Peter Dobson) is out of his mind. He’s pleased when his young son accidentally shoots him, because it means the kid isn‘t a sissy. A kind of pimp for justice, he puts the whole family on the street, posing as whoever’s necessary that week to land the big fish. Sexy mom Melora Hardin slips off her wedding ring and goes trolling for lonely old gangsters, while sexy teenage daughter Cameron Richardson (whose sexy teenage midriff and teenage cleavage are given some prominent play) and perky-cute younger daughter Antoinette Picatto chat up their kids. Son Michael Angarano — who narrates the show, set in 1990, from the vantage of present adulthood — just wants to make his father proud. One could make a black comedy of this, or something serious about a seriously odd duck and a family denied any normal concourse with the world — and maybe they‘ll get around to that — but for the moment it’s eschewed in favor of bad-guy-getting and letting love conquer all. “We knew what we were doing was right,” remembers Angarano‘s older self. “We were helping America win the war against crime.” Possibly true, definitely strange.