Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Credit Where Its Due

Watching a new Cop show is always a risk for the viewer. Such well-trodden ground, so many gimmicky angles, such a weight of cliche bearing down. Are you going to get something revelatory and transcendent like The Wire, or a slight twist on a familiar formula, like the many CSI-inspired shows of the last decade (Bones, Numbers, Lie to Me, The Mentalist etc)?
When CSI premiered, nobody could have possibly predicted the impact it would have, though in retrospect its simplicity and the appeal of its formula seem obvious: a slick Bruckheimer gloss applied to an almost Holmesian procedural. The (generally imaginative) crimes and the style are the franchise's real stars.

Its success has meant that the majority of Cop shows that survive their first Season are in some way echoing it. The influence of more idiosyncratic and difficult shows like The Wire and The Shield is much harder to detect, perhaps because they are both so distinctive and accomplished. Quirkier and edgier treatments of the old genre tend to falter. The Unusuals, creator Noah Hawley's 2009 comedy-drama about the mordant wit of some New York Homicide detectives, was an interesting take, distinguished by some great writing and a fine cast including Jeremy Renner, Adam Goldberg and Amber Tamblyn. Of course ABC cancelled it after a single underwatched Season.

In this environment, a show like Southland seems resolutely old-fashioned, the kind of traditional product of the genre that the combination of CSI and The Wire seemed to have killed off sometime in the last decade. A multi character ensemble drama, following the experiences of several different police officers through different cases (which sometimes link up but often do not), Southland was created by Ann Biderman, a writer on Steven Bochco's NYPD Blue, perhaps the last such old-school Cop drama to achieve true popular success. It recalls lots of other shows from down the years - Hill Street Blues, most obviously, but also the exceptional Homicide: Life on the Street and the more recent Third Watch and BoomTown.
Southland spreads its gaze across a relatively wide range of Cops, following two patrolmen as they cruise the streets of LA, but also focusing on several detectives in the same department. We get glimpses of their personal lives as they deal with various cases. One has a troubled relationship with his young wife, another struggles with a rebellious teenage daughter, yet another cares alone for her aging mother and tries to deal with her own loneliness. Then there is the rookie beat cop - a Beverly Hills Lawyer's son who the others see as a tourist.

So far, so cliche, and Southland certainly does nothing that hasn't been seen before. Its strength lies in in the general high standard of its writing, performances and direction, and the fact that these days its old-fashioned ensemble storytelling seems almost radical. It is never really slick, trusting instead in the virtues that made Hill Street Blues so popular decades ago. If this makes it occasionally hamfistedly predictable, mawkish and derivative, it also works. These storylines feel authentic, and these cops are cynical and bowed by their job in a way that feels real but not utterly stereotypical. The criminal cases flit across the screen in a few scenes, their brevity - there are murders and abandoned children alongside petty drug use and traffic offenses - a sort of indictment of how the prolonged success of this genre has jaded generations of TV viewers. Only fiendishly complex crimes move us now.

The most impressive element of Southland, however, is its opening credit sequence, which is interesting both on its own terms and for its place in the evolution of the genre and, indeed, of the credit sequence. Realist cop dramas once featured credit sequences structured around their casts. Hill Street Blues is a classic example. It intersperses establishing shots of patrol cars in grim, wintry city streets with clips of characters and credits over headshots of the principals. It has an arresting opening - a garage door swings upwards and open and a police car appears under the first few bars of Mike Post's lovely, melancholy theme. This was perhaps the chief innovation of this particular sequence - it introduced melancholy, an ache and introspection into what had previously been a rather bombastic area. Hill Street Blues was many things as a television drama, but it always held that throb of pain, its characters troubled, its subject matter dark. That credit sequence acknowledge this and perhaps readied the viewer for it.

Miami Vice was far from a realist show. It was heightened in almost every respect - ultraviolent, decadent in its glamour, always cool, probably the single most stylish show ever seen on television to that point. In the world of 1980s TV, every episode of Miami Vice looked and played more like a movie than a television show. As such, its credits were unlike those of any other programme. It almost denied the importance of its cast, its narrative and genre. Instead these credits play out like an advert for Miami tourism. This sequence is all about place and atmosphere - a stream of shots of beautiful locations and local colour, such as girls in bikinis, flamingos flocking, pelota, sports cars, modernist architecture, speedboats. As a young boy when the show was at its peak, I loved the credits sequence as much as I loved the show itself. It seemed impossibly exciting. Jan Hammer's great theme was a big part of that. It was cool and modern, just like Miami seemed to be, is what those credits said, just like this show was.

Miami Vice changed TV and especially Cop shows. You can draw a link from it straight to CSI. Another highly influential show was NYPD Blue, which seemed stylistically radical when it premiered in 1993. All those handheld cameras, shaking and juddering around, characters falling out of frame, focus suddenly shifting - it was brand new on television, and it breathed new life into the genre. The credit sequence is influenced by Miami Vice - it wants to suggest the clamour of New York City, the mad rush and tumult of it, and so the first thirty seconds are a furious fast-cut montage of street scenes with abrupt focus pulls, cars and people flitting rapidly through the foreground, the cast interspersed through it as if they too have been caught on camera documentary-style. Then it softens - a muted keyboard replaces the thunderous drums of the first section, and we get a pretty standard selection of credits shots with the cast listed over clips. This lack of focus on the cast would allow it to turnover regularly over the next decade. The drum tattoo returns for the last ten seconds or so, to remind us that this show is different, its urban, its New York.

Homicide: Life on the Street premiered at around the same time as NYPD Blue to much less success, which is a shame, because it was much better. But it was also artier, a dry, witty, blackly funny - though sometimes caustically angry and serious - take on the genre. Its credit sequence, put together by Mark Pellington with music by Lynn F Kowal, is correspondingly arty - all tone, mood and place. The shots of Baltimore are all canted and elliptical, the camera moving in odd directions. The entire sequence is monochrome, the stark black and white of how the Homicide detectives saw their jobs - there are no grey areas with murder. The music never seems to really get started - there are ghosts of melody floating in it, odd ambient sounds. We see the cast, their faces lit in patches in a darkened room. Their names flash at us over shots of pinwheeling lights, a seeming nocturnal cityscape moving this way and that, in the last passage.

Homicide gave birth to The Wire, in a sense. The credits for The First Season of the Wire set out the shows stall instantly - Baltimore, ambiguity, surveillance. By now, credits served as a shorthand for viewers. You could tell how classy and intelligent a show was by the state of its credits. The Wire - muted, subtle and bluesy - was unmistakably something new, for all its formulaic elements.

The credits from the original CSI resembled nothing so much as a trailer. "Who Are You" by the Who plays over the top, as a bombastic series of images is thrown at the screen, colour filters prominent, everybody looking constantly annoyed. CSI is too impressively robotic to allow for anything as a soft as melancholy and so these credits are instead sleek and fast-moving, slick and brutally paced.

Southland seems to have taken its model for credits not from another TV show (though there are echoes of Law & Order here) but from a film - James Gray's 2007 We Own the Night. Gray's film opened with credits formed entirely from vintage police and crime scene photos by the likes of the legendary Weegee, and built up a strange power as its images played out, backed by a Jackie Gleason instrumental. The Southland sequence has learned this lesson brilliantly, taking an excerpt from "Cançao do Mar" by Dulce Pontes and covering it with powerful shots of LA police over the last century or so. it seems more stately and serious than the show itself, and it possesses a rare quality in TV credit sequences these days; beauty.

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