I have a new favorite prime-time drama: Sidney Lumet's "100 Centre Street."
Yes, that Sidney Lumet, the 76-year-old director of such splendid feature films as "Serpico"; "12 Angry Men"; and "Dog Day Afternoon." He created this exquisitely stark series about the grit and grind, life and death, inside New York City's criminal courts at 100 Centre Street. It's A&E's first weekly drama, and I hope it runs forever.
The series is so dark it's almost film noir, from the lonely jazz trumpet notes wafting over the opening credits to the deadly consequences that result when characters give in to their passions. I mean, this is as dark as "Homicide: Life on the Streets" and then some. I love it.
The center of this universe is located in the criminal night courts of judges Joe Rifkind (Alan Arkin) and Attalah Sims (LaTanya Richardson). They are the best of friends, but they couldn't be more different ideologically:
Even though he was a street cop who worked his way through night school to a law degree, Rifkind is so liberal as a judge that those employed in his courtroom refer to him as "Let-'em-go-Joe." His liberalism grows out of compassion and a belief that humanity is good.
In contrast, Sims believes there's a thin line between civilization and anarchy, and her courtroom is an outpost on the urban frontier that she intends to hold at all costs. Her sentences can be harsh, and courtroom workers refer to her as "Attallah the Hun."
"Listen, if I can make it, anyone can," Sims, an African-American who grew up in rural Georgia, tells Rifkind. "Like the old song says: Straighten up and fly right."
"You're a tough broad, Attallah, but that's why I love you," Rifkind says.
"And your bleeding Jewish heart is going to drop you in it one of these days, and I love you, too, Joe," she replies.
Her words are prophetic. Tonight, Rifkind sets a street thug free, and the punk guns down a female police officer during her first night of duty. The press, the police and the politicians all want his head, while Rifkind anguishes over the consequences of his actions.
Other stories are played out in the battered halls, grimy cells and municipal-gray offices of 100 Centre Street.
It's the first night on the job for Asst. District Attorney Cynthia Bennington (Paula Devicq), a Yale Law School grad and daughter of privilege who finds herself fumbling badly in Rifkind's court.
She's reassured by Bobby Esposito (Joseph Lyle Taylor), an experienced assistant district attorney who's dealing with his own demons. Tonight's include the arrest of Esposito's older brother, a Wall Street broker with a drug habit, and a desperate plea from his working-class parents to risk his career by destroying evidence.
Like Rifkind and Sims, Bennington and Esposito also appear to be opposites. As he puts it: "You don't look like you're part of this world. Pimps, hookers, rackets, murder, arson, it's not a very polite world we're in here."
"So?" she says.
"Well, I don't mean to presume, but you look, well, I guess the word would be `genteel'. I mean, we spend a lot of time in the gutter on this job. I was brought up there, but you weren't."
At "100 Centre Street," that exchange is called flirting.
Other featured players include Manny Perez (Ramon Rodriguez), a young attorney in the Legal Aid office. In next week's episode, Perez spends his dinner hour one night in bed with another attorney while his young wife frantically tries to reach him, and someone winds up dead as a result.
Did I say "almost film noir" earlier? Make that pure film noir. And what a pleasure it is to see a television show with a moral center and a message that says you pay for your sins.
The prime-time drama that "100 Centre Street" most resembles is NBC's "Law & Order." That's not surprising, since several directors and writers have worked on both. But make no mistake, Lumet is the author of "100 Centre Street," and he imbues it with a wisdom you won't find in "Law & Order." He created the series, wrote and directed the pilot, will direct several future episodes, and, as executive producer, ultimately will control every word and image.
Lumet is a cultural giant whose roots reach back to the golden age of television drama in the 1950s. He understands the courtroom as an arena of human conflict and knows the difference between the law that's often practiced there and the ideal of justice.
"100 Centre Street" is a gift from Lumet. Treasure it.
What: "100 Centre Street"
When: Tonight at 9
Where: A&E cable channel
In brief: A new TV drama worthy of the great film director who created it.