Sweeps spell crossover time for cop shows

Preview: When folks of `Law & Order' and `Homicide' play off against each other, good drama erupts.

February 17, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

If this is a "sweeps" ratings period, it must be time for a "Law & Order"/"Homicide: Life on the Street" crossover aimed at pumping up ratings for the Baltimore cop drama.

But wait. Before you get all cynical about such TV contrivance, this crossover, titled "Sideshow: Part One & Two," is one worth your time.

Not only are both hours splendidly written, superbly directed and, for the most part, well-acted, they are also fascinating in the sociology they contain. "Sideshow" is the start of prime-time, network drama interpreting, deconstructing and re-imagining the particulars of the Clinton sex scandal through fictional story lines.

You might have thought the long, national nightmare was over with last week's Senate vote to acquit Clinton, but pop culture's real work of shaping historical memory through narrative, song and image has only just begun.

"Sideshow: Part One" begins tonight in New York on the turf of "Law & Order," and Rene Balcer's script wastes no time in whacking viewers over the head as to what it's really about.

A young couple and their two kids are at Battery Park in New York waiting for the national monument there, a naval fort, to open. It's 7 a.m., and they are more than an hour early thanks to Dad. Mom is not a happy camper and needs to find a restroom.

"Hey, kids, look. This is called the Castle Clinton. It's an old naval fort," Dad says.

"Is it the president's fort?" one of the kids asks.

"No, it's named after -- actually, I don't know who it's named after, but it's not the president," Dad says.

"Well, there's the restroom," Mom says spotting it across a mall. "They should name that after the president."

That's the last shot Clinton takes in the two hours that conclude Friday night in Baltimore. The real target is Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor. Balcer and David Simon, who wrote Friday's episode, craft a narrative that demonizes Starr better than all the president's men could.

By the time Independent Counsel William Dell (George Hearn) starts threatening to destroy the reputations of Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) and Maryland State's Attorney Ed Danvers (Zeljko Ivanek), there's a good chance you'll be convinced that Bill Clinton was the victim of a power-mad, vicious, egomaniacal reactionary given all-but-absolute-power by misguided legislators. Compared with the special prosecutor in "Sideshow," the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy seems like a pussycat -- and a fair-minded pussycat at that.

The trouble starts back in Battery Park when the boy, who has wandered off as Mom heads for the restroom, comes upon the body of a young woman. The victim is an assistant director in the Social Security Administration office in Baltimore.

Before long, NYPD Detectives Lenny Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) and Reynaldo Curtis (Benjamin Bratt) are working the case with Baltimore Detectives John Munch (Richard Belzer) and Rene Sheppard (Michael Michele). Together they discover that the victim had just recently been transferred from the White House, where she worked with the Council of Economic Advisers.

"So Baltimore wasn't exactly a step up?" Briscoe asks in his wise-guy, rhetorical way.

After more investigative scoops involving sex, single women and members of the administration, Munch proclaims that the scandal "reaches to the highest levels of government." He stops just short of asking, "What did the president know, and when did he know it?"

One of the delights of "Sideshow" is in seeing Briscoe and Munch together again -- cynical, existential schleppers pursuing the truth despite their grave doubts that any such thing actually exists. I can't remember the last time I laughed out loud during an episode of "Homicide," but I did watching Munch go head-to-head with the federal bureaucracy in "Sideshow." And having Briscoe there to comment on the mismatch only made it funnier.

The one criticism I have of the two-hour package is Michele's stiff performance. She just isn't ready to run with such big dogs of prime time as Orbach, Bratt and Waterston -- I don't care how pretty she is.

Beauty might be truth when gazing on a Grecian urn, but not when it comes to watching gritty, prime-time, police dramas that make us believe through their commitment to realism.

Crossovers

What: `Law & Order'/`Homicide: Life on the Street'

When: 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. today and Friday

Where: NBC (WBAL, Channel 11)

Pub Date: 2/17/99

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