Nice to look at, hard to watch

Plot, dialogue fail to work with visuals

Fall TV

September 27, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

A plane knifes diagonally across a darkening twilight sky, the distant roar of its engines blending into and then being replaced by the faint sound of a singer wailing through an electronic haze. The camera follows the plane as it disappears off the television screen.

The scene is only nine seconds long, but it represents so much of what is right and all that is wrong with the pilot for Robbery Homicide Division, the new CBS cop drama from producer Michael Mann (Miami Vice), starring Tom Sizemore.

Visually, tonight's pilot is just this side of fabulous - an hour of television worth seeing if only to appreciate how cinematic and sumptuous the medium can be in the hands of a producer who really understands the language of pictures. And, always, the pictures are mixed with music so arresting and relentless as to almost overwhelm.

But after you've been dazzled, razzled and sensually ravaged by the imagery and sounds, you're left wondering what, if anything, it was all about. The answer: not much.

Robbery Homicide Division is all visual and audio sizzle, with no metaphysical steak. The images and sounds serve no deeper meaning or higher purpose than to blow you away like someone on a drug trip. Not that there's anything wrong with letting television flow all over you this way - just don't confuse it with art and tell me what a great cop drama Mann has created.

The scene with the plane serves no narrative purpose. It comes between an incredibly violent scene of a family being slaughtered on the kitchen floor of their suburban home by a gang of masked intruders and the arrival of Detective Sam Cole (Sizemore) to investigate the murders. The screen could have just as easily gone to black and come back with the arrival of Cole and the other members of his elite Robbery Homicide unit. I mean it in the best sense of the term, but the scene is really eye candy; it doesn't even help establish mood in any meaningful way.

Mann and director Steve Gyllenhaal do effectively establish an overall mood for the pilot with lots of neon, nighttime streets, rap music, cynical dialogue, dead bodies, blood and guns - lots of blood and guns.

The opening scene takes place in a nightclub populated mostly with Asian-Americans. The music is so loud, you'll be reaching for the volume control. There's a fight among four women in the club, and a group of people find themselves standing outside on the street when a car slowly drives by with a man leveling a machine gun out the window. The camera shifts point of view so that we are looking into the barrel of the gun as it fires. Welcome to the world of Michael Mann and Robbery Homicide.

I like Sizemore (Saving Private Ryan) as an actor, especially when he's part of an ensemble. But here he is too much the acting franchise. Five minutes into the pilot, I came to understand how unduly influenced he is by Al Pacino.

From the quizzical looks and double takes as he questions a suspect, to the belligerence-heading-toward-rage when he thinks he's been insulted, this is a chunky Al Pacino in his early middle years. And, I have to be honest, by the end of the hour, you're wondering if Sizemore has any original moves.

There's a final scene of Detective Cole sitting alone in a barroom when a female squad member walks in. The shot is all mirrors and last-call saloon emptiness. I was impressed by how carefully Gyllenhaal arranged the canvas of that shot to suggest texture and atmosphere to the eye. But neither the dialogue nor the acting meshed with the visuals to deliver any kind of clearly distilled, powerfully felt emotion.

I remembered another such shot at the end of an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street with Detective Stanley Bolander (Ned Beatty) in an almost empty bar pouring out his heart to a bartender played by a little-known actor named John Waters, who wiped at a glass distractedly and barely bothered to even act like he was listening. Existential loneliness oozed off the screen as blues played in the background on the barroom jukebox.

That, my friends, was a great cop drama.

Robbery Homicide Division premieres at 10 tonight on WJZ (Channel 13).

`Hack'

Hack, a new cop drama from CBS, has two of the finest actors ever to portray television detectives in Andre Braugher (Homicide: Life on the Street) and George Dzunda (Law & Order) in its cast. Unfortunately, neither is the lead in this crackpot series about a disgraced cop turned cab driver who every week finds someone in his cab who desperately needs his vigilante help.

David Morse is the lead, and while he's no Braugher or Dzunda, he has generally acquitted himself well in series television. I hope he can live down this disaster.

Hack premieres tonight at 9 on WJZ (Channel 13).

`That Was Then'

Last week, WB gave us Do Over, a sitcom about an unhappy salesman in his 30s who is accidentally electrocuted but instead of dying is transported back to high school. Tonight, ABC gives us That Was Then, a drama about an unhappy salesman (James Bulliard) in his 30s who is accidentally electrocuted but instead of dying is transported back to high school.

What are the odds that two networks could each make such a horrible show in the same year?

That Was Then premieres tonight at 9 on WMAR (Channel 2).

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