City streets, fresh and gritty

September 08, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"Fresh" is one word that's seldom appropriate in describing new network TV series. Primetime today is still mainly dominated by the formulas, genres and looks of the 1970s.

But Fox's "New York Undercover," which premieres at 9 tonight on WBFF (Channel 45), is nothing if not fresh. Visually and culturally, it's one of the most refreshing new series of the fall season.

On paper, it might look pretty much like a boilerplate TV cop drama. It's about two undercover detectives -- J. C. Williams (Malik Yoba) and Eddie Torres (Michael DeLorenzo) -- trying to put the bad guys in jail and keep the boss off their back.

But, on the screen, it's an eyeful and then some.

The series is produced by Andre Harrell (the founder of Uptown Records) and Dick Wolf (who makes "Law & Order" on location in New York for NBC). "Law and Order" has a distinctive and interesting look. But, with "New York Undercover," Harrell and Wolf do for New York what Michael Mann did for Miami in "Miami Vice."

The comparison to "Miami Vice" is impossible to avoid. (I said the series was fresh, not groundbreaking.) Like "Vice," music is everywhere -- driving the action to a jackhammer beat one minute, evoking a lonely, existential, midnight-blue funk the next.

Harrell is the music man. At Uptown, he's launched such acts as Heavy D & The Boyz and Mary J Blige. Teddy Pendergrass appears to close tonight's episode.

Then there's the knockout look of "New York Undercover." It's not the imagery of Rockefeller Center, Central Park and the Plaza that feature films and television shows have colonized our minds with over the years. "New York Undercover" shows us viaducts, bridges, alleys, nightclubs, 125th Street and Harlem in ways that I suspect many in the audience have never seen. Wolf and Harrell let the light in and capture a beauty and energy in all the granite, girders and nightlights.

But the most progressive aspect of "New York Undercover" is its attitudes on race, gender and power.

Detective Williams is African-American and Detective Torres is Hispanic. Their supervisor, Lieutenant Cooper (Patti D'Arbanville-Quinn) is a woman. They are the authority figures in tonight's pilot.

The case they deal with tonight involves a teen-age Puerto Rican girl alleging that she was raped by three black and two white high school football players. There are no easy answers. The script constantly allows for multiple points of view based on the race, gender and other background factors of the characters. If you are not comfortable with multiculturalism and ethnic diversity, this show is definitely not for you.

"New York Undercover" looks like it's going to be a quality drama from a network not much known for quality. But it is not going to be a series for everyone.

In fact, I suspect quite a few viewers over the age of 35 are going to have a hard time getting into it at all. It looks and sounds more like MTV than traditional primetime network series. Maybe that's why Fox is airing it opposite "Seinfeld." This season, "Seinfeld" will be the 9 o'clock Thursday show for the older set.

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