Intense 'Brooklyn' is top TV Drama: The new show from Steven Bochco is racially loaded and intended to trigger strong emotions. Get your snack later, you won't want to miss this opening.

September 22, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Inside the precinct house under the big American flag, it's morning roll call in Precinct 74.

"Doyle. Roussakoff."

"Sarge, here."

When outside on the streets, a crack addict with a gun suddenly goes berserk and starts blowing people away right in front of the cop shop.

Bam, bam, bam.

"Hill Street Blues" meets "Apocalypse Now" for one of the most powerful openings of a new series in television history when Steven Bochco's "Brooklyn South" debuts tonight on CBS. If you watch no other new series this fall, don't miss this one.

And be there at 10 sharp. Don't be standing in the kitchen thinking you can squeeze one more cracker's worth of Cheez Whiz out of the tube and then you'll come in after the opening credits. This really is appointment television.

The opening sequence of cops pouring out of the precinct house and the gunman blasting his way through several blocks of chaos is so precisely constructed by Emmy-Award-winning director Mark Tinker that it is more a matter of choreography than staging, like the battle scenes in "Apocalypse Now."

To the 'rescue'

The opening runs uninterrupted for eight of the most intense TV minutes you'll ever see before the credits roll. It's urban America today as the American frontier of the 19th century, and the cavalry is still wearing blue.

That's the other reason not to miss this series: "Brooklyn South" contains one of the most provocative discourses on race that you are going to find anywhere in media or society.

If the cops are the cavalry, who are the Native Americans? Who are the "savages" that have to be subdued to make the frontier safe for "decent folk"? Again, the answer involves skin color. The gunman in the opening sequence of "Brooklyn South" is black.

The opening credits do not begin until he is subdued at 8 minutes and 15 seconds into the hour. After the credits and commercials, we are right back on the frontier with the handcuffed and wounded gunman being dragged into the roll call room of the precinct house, trailing a path of blood.

In the original version of the episode, a group of all-white cops surrounds the gunman, kicking, slapping and verbally assaulting him as they vent their rage about the white cops and civilians he killed on the streets. The gunman dies surrounded by white cops shouting such things as, "Die, scumbag."

The original version was so racially loaded that Bochco and partner David Milch re-edited the scene after television critics questioned them sharply about it following a sneak preview in July.

The version that will air tonight adds some ambiguity, including the presence of a black, male police officer who appears to be a defender of his white colleagues.

But, despite that and some softening of the actions of the white police officers immediately preceding the gunman's death, the opening, as well as the rest of the hour, is wall-to-wall with matters of race.

Milch says he and Bochco are consciously trying to trigger strong emotional responses in viewers with such scenes. They succeed and then some.

Rethinking the scene

But the producers also contend that their series is structured so that, after the viewer feels good about seeing the gunman abused, he or she then starts to think about that feeling and question themselves about it.

Maybe. Either way, it makes for a very intense and socially relevant brand of prime-time entertainment.

As entertainment, "Brooklyn South" pretty much gets top grades across the board. There's a strong ensemble cast led by Gary Basaraba as Sgt. Richard Santoro, Jon Tenney as Sgt. Francis X. Donovan, Dylan Walsh as Officer Jimmy Doyle, Michael DeLuise as Officer Phil Roussakoff, Yancy Butler as Officer Anne-Marie Kersey and James B. Sikking as Lt. Stan Jonas.

Sikking ("Hill Street's" SWAT leader Lt. Howard Hunter) has never been better than he is here as the WASP lieutenant from Internal Affairs investigating the working-class, ethnic cops involved in the gunman's death.

The music, the look and feel of "Brooklyn South" are "Hill Street Blues" updated for the '90s. The rich, deep texture is provided in large part by the superb visual storytelling of Tinker, who cut his directing teeth on "Hill Street."

But a series like this is so much more than entertainment. In challenging the audience, it becomes sociology.

A cop's head is shown exploding from a sniper's bullet in the opening sequence, and the mystic chords of memory from Dallas, Nov. 22, 1963, sound in your head.

Civil rights leaders arrive to protest the death of the black gunman tonight, and echoes are heard of the continuing, real-life debate over the alleged beating and rape of a Haitian security guard by officers in Brooklyn's 73rd Precinct last month.

"Brooklyn South" opens on a reassuring note of "Morning in America" as the officers straggle in for the start of roll call. It leaves us an hour later lost in the dark night of urban violence and racial tension.


What: 'Brooklyn South'

When: 10-11 tonight

Where: WJZ (Channel 13)

Pub Date: 9/22/97

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