The Wire — Killer TV No 3

The Wire HBO

HBO, 2002-2008

‘Ayo, lesson here, Bey. You come at the king, you best not miss.’ – Omar

Dominic West, John Doman, Idris Elba, Frankie Faison, Larry Gilliard Jr, Wood Harris, Wendell Pierce, Sonja Sohn, Michael Kenneth Williams, Lance Reddick, Clarke Peters

Identikit: Despite internal divisions, the Baltimore police department elevates its battle against drug crime above street-dealer level by targeting the bosses of the Barksdale gang with the use of wire taps.


FIRST of all, there was the cast – no big name stars to buff and glam-up the characters. Then, there was the style – accurate, realistic, with many stories written by Ed Burn, former Baltimore homicide cop and teacher. Finally, there was the ambition of the series, led by showrunner David Simon but with a writing team including acclaimed crime fiction masters George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane and Richard Price. Over five series the drama focused on different levels of Baltimore society and the drugs food chain – the cops, the docks, politicians, schools, newspapers – in a powerful depiction of the never-ending, fractious and seemingly pointless struggle to contain the drugs epidemic. It was realistic (sometimes the street patois was so accurate as to be impenetrable, even to the characters!), and it gave us a gallery of unforgettable characters – Omar Little, Jimmy McNulty, Stringer Bell, Bubbles, Avon Barksdale, Kima, Bunk, Lester and more. It was never a ratings blockbuster (peaking at 4million in the US, against 26million for, gulp, CSI) and it took several episodes before most viewers could get into what was an epic TV experience. But once you did, The Wire was one of the most compelling and vivid dramas ever broadcast.

Music: Way Down in the Hole, performed by The Blind Boys of Alabama (series 1), Tom Waits (series 2), The Neville Brothers (series 3), DoMaJe (series 4), Steve Earle (series 5)

Classic episode: Old Cases (series 1) – Bunk and McNulty investigate an old crime scene. Using no dialogue in this scene other than the word ‘fuck’ repeatedly, we see the two old pros uncovering truths no one else had spotted.

Watercooler fact: The Wire featured in minor roles several real-life Baltimore figures. These included former Maryland Governor Robert L Ehrlich, former police chief and convicted felon Ed Norris, and Virginia Delegate Rob Bell. ‘Little Melvin’ Williams, a drug lord arrested in the 1980s, had a recurring role at the start of series 3, and longtime police officer Jay Landsman played Lieutenant Dennis Mello.

Hill Street Blues — Killer TV No 4

hsb6NBC, 1981-87

‘Oh, my gawd! Here it is Christmas Eve, and I’m gonna get shot in a moose suit.’ – Andy Renko

Daniel J Travanti, Veronica Hamel, Michael Conrad, Bruce Weitz, Joe Spano, Charles Haid, Michael Warren

Identikit: Chronicling lives of police officers at a station house in an unspecified US city, exploring their work at the front line of law enforcement and the subsequent conflicts with their private lives.


Creator Steven Bochco was king of the cop show during the 80s and 90s, and this series about the characters in a city police precinct was adored by a dedicated following. US magazine TV Guide once voted it best ever cop show, but today it looks a little polished and tame in comparison to more recent grit fests, such as The Shield or Southland. Unlike those recent cable network shows, which were free of network TV’s censorship and advertising demands, NBC’s Hill Street Blues was a little wholesome to contemporary eyes. But it was still a shift towards more realistic, multi-storylined drama, with handheld cameras, African-Americans among the main characters, slang dialogue, a backdrop of urban breakdown and social hardship, along with a attempt to show characters not always going by the book. Skilfully balancing human drama and a little humour, Hill Street Blues took us through a day at the station from roll-call to late-night sign-off, portraying the officers’ trauma and problems in dealing with prostitution, drug racketeers and killers. There was also a gallery of well-liked characters, from station Captain Frank Furillo and his legal adversary come romantic partner Joyce Davenport, to Detective Mike Belker (who bit those he arrested), SWAT squad Lieutenant Howard Hunter, toothpick-chewing Neal Washington and streetwise Sergeant Lucille Bates. It also gave us a great theme tune, the roll-call segment as an intro to each episode and many powerful stories. The series picked up eight Emmys in its first season (only surpassed by The West Wing), and American network TV wasn’t the same thereafter.

Classic episode: Grace Under Pressure (season 4) – Sergeant Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) dies while making love to Grace Gardner (Barbara Babcock); Fay Furillo (Barbara Bosson) is arrested for prostitution by a rookie cop; and Sandy (Linda Hamilton), the girlfriend of Officer Coffey (Ed Marinaro), is raped.

Music: The series’ famous piano theme was written by Mike Post and was a hit on Billboard’s Hot 100.

Watercooler fact: Steve Bochco followed the huge success of Hill Street Blues by having a hand in creating LA Law, Hooperman, Doogie Howser, MD, NYPD Blue and Murder One – but also the misfiring Cop Rock, a police procedural that combined with Broadway singing and dancing. The series’ theme song, Under the Gun, was performed by Randy Newman and Mike Post was the show’s music supervisor, but the misguided venture was unanimously found guilty of being rubbish by a jury critics and became infamous as one of the mega-flops of the 1990s.

Shades of Blue, Jennifer Lopez

Shades of Blue Season 01 - Episode 01 'Pilot' Pictured: (l-r) Ray Liotta as Bill Wozniak, Jennifer Lopez as Detective Harlee Santos, Robbie Tann as Earl (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC) © 2016 NBCUniversal All Rights Reserved.

Watch out, he’s behind you – Ray Liotta as Bill Wozniak and Jennifer Lopez as Detective Harlee Santos

Jennifer Lopez and Ray Liotta hit the mean streets of New York as corrupt cops

★★★ Sky Living, starts Wednesday, 13 July, 9pm

SHADES OF BLUE wants to be a gritty cop show, but it comes out as grit-lite, a bit like a Glock handgun with the safety on.

Shades of Blue Season 01 - Episode 01 'Pilot' Pictured: (l-r) Jennifer Lopez as Detective Harlee Santos (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC) © 2016 NBCUniversal All Rights Reserved.

Shooting star – Jennifer Lopez

Starring Jennifer Lopez and Ray Liotta, it’s made by NBC, one of America’s mainstream networks, rather than the pay channels that produce most of today’s cutting-edge dramas, such as AMC (Breaking Bad), Netflix (Orange Is the New Black) and HBO (The Wire).

So, while Lopez and Liotta play corrupt New York detectives, they’re kinda nice with it. Liotta’s character, Matt Wozniak, does deals with drug gangs, but it’s not just about getting rich for Woz. He also arranges it so that the drug barons keep the dealers away from parks and schools.

JLo, Drea de Matteo and Ray Liotta

Shades of Blue Season 01 - Gallery Pictured: (l-r) Vincent Laresca as Tony Espada, Dayo Okeniyi as Michael Loman, Drea de Matteo as Tess Nazario, Ray Liotta as Bill Wozniak, Jennifer Lopez as Harlee Santos, Hampton Fluker as Patrick Tufo, Santino Fontana as Stuart Jeff Riedel/NBC © 2016 NBCUniversal All Rights Reserved.

Thin blue line – Vincent Laresca as Tony Espada, Dayo Okeniyi as Michael Loman, Drea de Matteo as Tess Nazario, Ray Liotta as Bill Wozniak, Jennifer Lopez as Harlee Santos, Hampton Fluker as Patrick Tufo, Santino Fontana as Stuart

And while Harlee Santos, JLo’s character, is also on the take, she needs the dough because she is putting her daughter through a fancy music school.

They are rogues rather than top-division baddies in the league of Walter White or Vic Mackey.

Still, Shades of Grey has its plus points. JLo is a decent actress, The Sopranos‘ Drea de Matteo is on hand as a streetwise detective, while Ray Liotta really gives the drama some power and menace. How strange that he made so few big movies and TV dramas after Goodfellas. [Read more…]

The Night of, Sky Atlantic

The Night of

Light touch – the cops spot Naz

Taut, detailed and gripping account of a young New Yorker accused of murder

★★★★ HBO in the US, Sky Atlantic in the UK, coming in September

THE PREMISE is nothing to write home about. Young guy on a night out ends up being accused of a murder he may or may not have committed. 

What makes HBO’s new series so compelling is that it is superbly written and acted, and very tense. It’s created by Steven Zaillian and Richard Price, which is a formidable team, with Zaillian having won an Oscar for his Schindler’s List screenplay and Price being a superb novelist (Clockers, Lush Life) who’s also written for The Wire.

Price has done the teleplay for the extended opening episode of The Night of, in which we meet Nasir Khan, a young guy who ventures into Manhattan from Jackson Heights in Queens to go to a party. Naz comes from a Pakistani community in the neighbourhood and his parents are not happy about his going.

Without his father’s permission, Naz borrows his dad’s taxi to get there. However, he gets lost and keeps being flagged down by would-be fares because he doesn’t know how to turn off the for-hire light.

Riz Ahmed as Nasir

The night takes an unforeseen turn when a young woman jumps into the yellow cab and asks to be taken to the beach. The woman is beautiful and says cryptically that she can’t be alone on this night. Naz – played with great appeal by Riz Ahmed – is somewhat innocent and gobsmacked by her.

His muslim background also ensures that he does not take drugs or drink alcohol, but before the night is done he has indulged in both back at her Upper West Side apartment, along with having sex with her.

In time-honoured fashion, when Naz comes to he discovers that the young woman has been stabbed horribly to death. Having done as much as possible to incriminate himself, he eventually crosses paths with a police patrol.

It’s a tense watch as the guileless Naz slowly collides with the callous justice machine, the cynical cops, brutalised arrestees and hard-bitten detectives. He’s going to be mincemeat – all because he wanted to go to a party and meet girls.

John Turturro as Jack Stone

About an hour in, we have the drama’s star turn as John Turturro shambles into the precinct as Jack Stone, down-at-heel jailhouse lawyer on the lookout for clients. He recognises a lamb to the slaughter when he sees one and foists himself on Naz, who desperately needs an ally. First bit of advice: don’t say anything to the cops (he already has).

The role of Stone was originally to be played by James Gandolfini, and, following his death, by Robert De Niro. Both would have been superb, but Turturro still sets an already fizzing story alight when he appears.

Richard Price is renowned for doing his research, and here it is the details that bring Naz’s predicament to life. The bickering between the station sergeant and the forensics guys, the lazy detectives trying to get out of attending the murder and so on. All of which makes Naz’s nightmare seem more haphazard and cruel.

The Night of, an eight-parter, is based on a 2008 BBC series from writer Peter Moffat called Criminal Justice, which was also very good and starred Maxine Peake and Ben Whishaw.

However, the new version is a terrific reinterpretation and should become one of 2016’s outstanding crime series.

The Shield — Killer TV No 6

We’re into the top six of CrimeTimePreview’s Killer 50 crime shows…

the-shield

FX, 2002-2008, seven series

‘Good cop and bad cop left for the day. I’m a different kind of cop.’ – Vic Mackey

Michael Chiklis, Glenn Close, Catherine Dent, Paula Garces, Walton Goggins, Michael Jace, Kenneth Johnson, Forest Whitaker

Identikit: An experimental LAPD division is set up to deal with a crime-ravaged district of the city, with a Strike Team that includes leader Vic Mackey, a brutal and illegal operator who maintains order while profiting from drug-protection scams.


logosExploring the bad side of the badge, The Shield was a slickly scripted, pacy portrayal of city policing as a form of urban warfare. Though an ensemble drama, it was the block-like figure of Detective Vic Mackey that dominated proceedings. He was violent, obnoxious, insubordinate, corrupt – but effective. He made enemies on the street and at the Barn (the converted church that served as headquarters), particularly politically ambitious Captain David Aceveda. From the pilot these two butted heads, with Mackey telling Aceveda that he did not answer to the captain, and Aceveda planting officer Terry Crowley to gather evidence on Mackey’s corrupt methods and protection racket for drug dealers. The episode ended spectacularly with Mackie shooting Crowley in the face during a drug siege and making it look like the cop was killed in the shootout. The question of whether Mackey, whose clean-up rate also made him powerful allies in the police hierarchy, would ever have any justice visited on him kept the tension simmering brilliantly for seven series. Mackey was no pantomime villain, however, but a complicated figure of contradictions, loving his children and generous with his assistance to the odd hooker, but happy to set a police dog on a drug dealer. The biggest threat to the Strike Team came from Internal Affairs Department investigator Lieutenant Jon Kavanaugh, played with scary intensity by Forest Whitaker. The Shield was a riveting journey with a great cast of characters, including Mackey’s cronies, such as Shane Vendrell, the strait-laced, pompous Dutch, and Claudette, the star detective unjustifiably kept from promotion to captain. And topping it all was Mackey – ‘Al Capone with a badge’ – who never failed to appal and fascinate.

Classic episode: On Tilt – the finale to season three saw the Strike Team targeted by an Armenian hit man and Vic taking matters into his own hands, while Claudette endangered her career by pursuing a risky case that made her unpopular with colleagues and the DA.

Music: Hip hop (Master P), pop (Duran Duran), country (Willie Nelson) and hard rock (Kid Rock) all featured during the series. The theme music was composed by Vivian Ann Romero, Ernesto J Bautista and Rodney Alejandro.

Watercooler fact: Kurt Sutter, who produced, wrote, directed and even starred in The Shield (as Armenian hit man Margos Dezerian), went on to create Sons of Anarchy, which stars his wife, Katey Sagal.

Homicide: Life on the Street — Killer TV No 8

70727-1NBC, 1993-99

‘It’s hard to meet single woman on this job. You meet plenty of widows, but the timing just don’t seem right.’ – Det Stan Bolander

Richard Belzer, Clark Johnson, Yaphet Kotto, Kyle Secor, Andre Braugher, Melisso Leo, Daniel Baldwin, Ned Beatty, Jon Polito

Identikit: Police procedural delving into the work of a fictional version of Baltimore’s homicide detectives.


logosBefore The Wire there was Homicide: Life on the Street, based on a non-fiction book by The Wire‘s creator, David Simon. A former Baltimore Sun reporter, Simon spent a year shadowing homicide cops and the resulting book was an unforgettable glimpse at the lives and work of detectives in that city – the slog of investigation, the tricks of the trade, the galling frustration of knowing whodunit but not being able to prove it. The TV series was an intelligent attempt to dramatise the book, and gave us a series that steered clear of stock characters and cop-show cliches. The cases ranged from the heinous to comic, such that involving the body of an old guy who turned out to still be alive. The cops bicker, ramble on, made bad-taste jokes. Filmed on 16mm handheld cameras on location in Baltimore, jump cutting scenes and with wonderfully natural performances from the likes of Richard Belzer, Ned Beatty and Melissa Leo, the series had a distinctive style, while the stories portrayed the camaraderie and occasionally the soul-sapping nature of the job. It included non-traditional elements of detective storytelling, such as unsolved cases and criminals escaping, and had more psychological depth and truth in it than all of the forensic fantasy shows that clog the networks these days.

Classic episode: Three Men and Adena (season 1, episode 5). Three characters – two detectives (Pembleton and Bayliss) and a suspect – in an interrogation room as the officers try to get a murder confession. Intimidation, bickering among the two cops, failure and how inscrutable the truth can be – masterful writing that won an Emmy for scriptwriter Tom Fontana.

Watercooler fact: Despite all its awards (Television Critics Association, Peabody) and critical acclaim, the seven seasons of Homicide always saw the series in a precarious position because of low ratings (it lagged behind the likes of Nash Bridges!). TV Guide called it the ‘Best Show You’re Not Watching’.

NYPD Blue — Killer TV No 9

600x600bb-85ABC, 1993-2005

‘Andy, I don’t know if you should be a cop, but I think you got a lot of guts.’ – Lt Fancy

‘ Yeah well, for a while there, I was wearing them outside my clothes.’

– Andy Sipowicz, on returning to duty after being shot

Dennis Franz, David Caruso, Jimmy Smits, Rick Schroder, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Kim Delaney, Gordon Clapp, Sharon Lawrence

Identikit: The personal and professional grind of law enforcement at the fictional 15th precinct of Manhattan.


logosMoving on from Hill Street Blues, Steven Bochco and David Milch created this much-admired, long-running new show and simultaneously hauled the genre further away from TV’s homogenised world of The FBI, Hawaii 5-O and Madigan. Location shooting, bad language and nudity – the latter of which had the American Family Association frothing – gave the drama edge and depth, and it had a greater level of perspective on the harshness and injustice of police work than was common on mainstream TV at the time. The series hit the ground with sirens blaring. From the pilot onwards, NYPD Blue was focused on the characters. Our first glimpse of the abrasive Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz, another Hill Street veteran) is of him ‘flipping out’ in the courtroom as he loses a case against a mob guy (he appears to have broken the rules in getting Alfonse Giardella to court, anyway). His alcoholism is destroying him and his career, and later Sipowicz drunkenly attacks the gangster. Giardella retaliates eventually by shooting Sipowicz. This storyline, however, is used to give prominence to the characters of Sipowicz and his partner, John Kelly (David Caruso). Kelly is going through an emotionally cutting divorce, and now seems to be losing his work partner too – ‘You were like a father to me, man,’ he tells the unconscious Sipowicz in hospital. Dennis Franz played Sipowicz as the epitome of a hard-bitten New York cop (though with a heart of gold), David Caruso did his finest work here, and there were many standout performances along the way from actors who went onto further excellent series – David Schwimmer, Sherry Stringfield, Daniel Benzali and more. Booze, corruption, marital mayhem and death – NYPD Blue is a powerful drama. It survived Caruso’s departure during season two, with Jimmy Smits stepping in in fine style as Bobby Simone, another character with demons (he’s grieving for death of his wife). Bochco and Milch, with the invaluable input of Bill Clark, a former NYPD officer turned producer, guided the cop show into a grittier, more adult landscape with this indelible series.

Classic episode: True Confessions (season 1, episode 4). No fireworks here, but just a finely crafted episode in which Sipowicz bristles at working for a new boss, the alcoholic, slapdash detective Walker, and Kelly assists a wealthy, battered wife who shoots her husband. The episode, rated by TV Guide in the US as one of the 100 greatest of all time, is also a shock reminder that there was a time when David Caruso used to act, as revealed in the scene where Kelly’s addressing a tenants’ association and chokes up at the memory of his father, who was the victim of a shooting.

Watercooler fact: Dennis Franz was the only cast member to stay on the beat for the entire run of NYPD Blue, appearing in all 261 episodes.

Boardwalk Empire — Killer TV No 11

BoardwalkEmpireS306-power-2

HBO/Sky Atlantic, 2010-present

‘Nucky, all I want is an opportunity.’ – Jimmy

‘This is America, ain’t it? Who the fuck’s stopping you?’ – Nucky

Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Stephen Graham

Identikit: The rise and regime of Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson, the corrupt Treasurer of Atlantic County, who exploits the corrupt possibilities of the Prohibition period of the 1920s.


logosRichly textured and ambitious epic about that unhinged, thrilling period of Prohibition America in the 1920s. It’s the kind of show only HBO and the American cable networks could make, tackling a cast of real characters and big subjects that dwarf any and every series made in the UK. Steve Buscemi is the focus as Nucky Thompson, based on Atlantic City’s real corrupt political figure of Enoch L Johnson, who sanctioned and cashed in on the bootlegging rackets in cahoots with the most lurid gangland figures in US history – Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Arnold Rothstein. The series was adapted by old Sopranos hand Terence Winter from a book by Nelson Johnson. It’s a huge story melding Nucky’s back-room dealings and private life with the quiet but determined Margaret, along with events such as the Black Sox Scandal, the rise of Capone, presidential elections and gang wars. Oddly enough, it is occasionally criticised for its slow pace, but it remains psychologically sophisticated and a mesmerising portrait of a wild age. Winner of 12 Emmys, two for Outstanding Drama Series, and the Golden Globe for Best Drama Series.

Classic episode: Two Impostors (ep 11, series 3). Nucky, Chalky and Capone line up against Sicilian psycho Gyp Rosetti, who’s threatening to dislodge Nucky from Atlantic City. An attempted hit on Nucky, car chases, shootouts. After a slow build, the series delivered full-throttle gangster mayhem. Even Nucky was blasting, and Capone was cool amid the bloodbath – ‘I’ve been on the road for 18 hours. I need a bath, some chow, and then you and me sit down, and we talk about who dies.’

Watercooler fact: The pilot episode was directed by Martin Scorsese and reputedly cost $18million to produce.

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