'Prince Street' smarts Preview: Emotion floods the surface on sharply cast TV undercover cop drama.

March 06, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Mommy is dropping 9-year-old Carlos off at school.

"Now, Carlos, you remember, you wait for nana. She will pick you up today."

"Last time nana picked me up she drove into a phone pole."

"Carlos, you wait for nana!"

"Carl, Carl, my name's Carl."

"OK, OK, fine, but you wait for nana."

The reason mommy can't pick Carlos up tonight is that she's going to be working late -- posing as an arms dealer to sell explosives to Peruvian terrorists. Just another day in the life of Detective Nina Echeverria (Mariska Hargitay of "Leaving Las Vegas"), a member of a special undercover unit of the New York City Police Department.

And, while my-mom-the-under-cover-cop might read like a bit of a stretch on paper, it works just fine on-screen tonight as an opening for "Prince Street," a smart, stylish and savvy new drama from NBC. If nothing else, this is the most visually exciting and sophisticated cop show since "Miami Vice."

Much of the credit goes to director Roger Spottiswoode ("And the Band Played On"). He launches you into this world of undercover cops with the very first frame and then puts the pedal to the metal on quick cuts and shifting perspectives until you are almost dizzy.

Ultimately, Spottiswoode succeeds in making you not only see the undercover world from the inside out, but also feel some of the disorientation it can cause for those cops who must live and work in this milieu.

But this is a show with more than just good looks. It has some real meat on its acting bones with Joe Morton ("Speed"), Vincent Spano ("Afterburn") and Lawrence Monoson ("A Woman of Independent Means") in addition to Hargitay. All are feature film actors and it shows. Morton and Spano especially have a presence that fills up the small screen in the same way that Ned Beatty once did and Andre Braugher still does on "Homicide."

Morton plays Lt. Tom Warner, the chief of this NYPD undercover unit, which is headquartered in a warehouse with a phony printing business for a front. The NBC press release describes Warner as "the stern yet benevolent commander," which puts him smack dab in the same job pool as Lt. Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson) of "Law & Order," Lt. Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto) of "Homicide" and Lt. Arthur Fancy (James McDaniel) of "N.Y.P.D. Blue").

An exploration of this group of lieutenants in terms of race is too large a project to be treated responsibly in the space of a preview. For now, it is enough to know that, as an actor, Morton is every bit as good as anyone in that distinguished troupe and he's at the center of the pilot for "Prince Street."

Spano, Hargitay and Monoson play the three leading undercover cops in his unit. Spano's character, Detective Al Gage, is trying to infiltrate a money laundering operation run by the Russian mob. Monoson's Detective Jimmy Tasio is torn between responding to a crisis involving Echeverria and rushing to the bedside of his wife who is in labor with their first child.

The only major reservation I have about "Prince Street" at this point is that it is almost all emotion. "Prince Street" just keeps gut-punching your emotions with image after image and relatively little linear narrative.

One of the images is an especially strong one. It involves the camera showing us a dead police officer who had just been shot in the head. It is handled with some taste and restraint and is definitely not gratuitous, but some parents are likely to wonder how this episode earned a TVPG instead of TV14 rating.

For now, it is enough to know that, if you give it five minutes, you will probably get caught up in "Prince Street" and find yourself caring more than you thought possible whether or not mommy makes it back to kiss Carlos good night.

Prince Street'

When: Debuts at 10 tonight; moves to 10 p.m. Wednesdays for the next five weeks

Where: WBAL (Channel 11)/NBC

Who: Mariska Hargitay, Joe Morton, Vincent Spano and Lawrence Monoson

Pub Date: 3/06/97

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