"Inside the creative universe known as dramatic television," a narrator intones in a voice as deadly as if his subject were chemical terrorism and not the creative universe known as dramatic television, "art and commerce constantly clash." And so begins Anatomy of a Homicide: Life on the Street, a PBS special that offers not only the novelty of a look inside the, uh, creative universe known as dramatic television, but the even greater novelty of an "hour" of commercial network TV (43 minutes with the Styrofoam peanuts removed) rerun intact on the public bandwidth: "The Accident," a Homicide episode about a man pinned between a subway car and platform and taking just about the length of a Homicide episode to expire, is offered entire within the two-hour program, and it is reason enough - indeed the best reason - to tune in.
Though not without its revelations (including that "The Accident" was inspired by a segment of HBO's Taxicab Confessions) and certainly illustrative of the massive amount of invisible work that goes into the creation of a little thing I like to call TV magic, the framing documentary will be of interest primarily to Homicide-heads (e.g., me) and inveterate fans of "Making Of" featurettes, of which this is a somewhat more thorough and polemical - but not significant, nor especially splendid - variation. As to the promised clash of art and commerce and the "story of risk, ambition and creativity under pressure" this purports to be, no sparks are seen to fly; and for all the Homicide team's talk of what the network wants (the "satisfaction factor": evil in chains) or won't allow, the argument as glimpsed here boils down mainly to niggling over language ("I'll take the 'crap' out; you've got to give me at least the first 'take a dump'") and the pressure to secure the cooperation of the Baltimore transit authority. In fact, notwithstanding the aesthetically hilarious executive ultimatum that the show must beat Nash Bridges in the ratings to survive, the actual import of Anatomy of a Homicide is that even a commercially unsuccessful program - though it's a strange algebra by which something watched by 10 million people every week is reckoned a failure - can, if the notices are good and the brass willing, last six seasons on a major network without ruinous compromise.
Experience, of course, tells us that this is an exceptional case. A quick death and a quiet one is overwhelmingly the name of the game for low-scoring series, and it's a game that networks are more or less condemned to play, given their titanic payouts, fat payrolls and ever-diminishing claim on the attention of the American couch potato; this is the price you pay for the price NBC pays for ER. Where survival is so precarious, it is only natural for producers to propitiate the suits, to attempt to accommodate their scientifically determined notions of popular taste; and even Homicide (suddenly bereft of Andre Braugher and Reed Diamond and coming off a two-year story arc that wrote, dramatically speaking, an effective finis to the series) now seems ready to make nice - dipping its detectives in pheromones (love is in the air), dying the gray out of Richard Belzer's hair, awarding a guest spot to Aerosmith's Joe Perry, who can be glad he has rock stardom to fall back on. Not that you won't still realize an excellent return on your invested time.
The particulars of television production - including, you should not be surprised, the struggle of principled producers and talent against the money-bound conservatism of "the network heads" - are also the stuff of the very fine Sports Night, a TV show about a TV show that, unlike most of TV's many, many shows about TV shows, actually is about putting on a TV show. (Larry Sanders is the other obvious exception, and clearly a formal model for this series.) Where the jobs held by most sitcom characters are typically no more than expedients to put them, as it were, in humor's way, and often are not even that (does anyone care, or even remember, that Ray Romano plays a sportswriter on Everybody Loves Raymond?), and the workplace even in workplace comedies no more than an arena of mutual annoyance and potential hilarity, work is central to Sports Night. While the more hormonal human affairs that course through its neatly interlocking complex of offices, corridors, control room and studio certainly season the proceedings, this is primarily a show about people who love their jobs - can such things be? - and do them well.
What's funny about that? Nothing inherently. Though it's been constructed and promoted as a situation comedy, Sports Night (created by Aaron Sorkin, who scripted The American President) is no sidesplitting yock fest; whole scenes unwind jokeless, apparently on purpose. The dialogue is (for TV) highly stylized - clipped and echoic, written in Front Page rhythms and delivered in a kind of office deadpan, one line following so quickly upon the last that there is scant room for the canned laughter; indeed, the last episode I saw - which dealt with sexual assault - dispensed with it altogether. The show engages serious issues, goes loaded for ethical bear, and if it has a weak spot it's that the moral crises it provokes are resolved in ways that are not always quite credible (albeit they are credibly enacted), but are, in both popular and "network head" terms, satisfying. It's a softhearted series, with a gooey center, and if that keeps it on the near side of genius, there's something to be said anyway for softheartedness - and gooey centers.
Though I know almost nothing about sports and care about them even less (while remaining, I assure you, quite secure in my masculinity) and find the business of television - and I probably should not admit this - scarcely more compelling than a Burpee catalog, I am happy in this bustling half-hour, and drawn mightily to its highly attractive cast. Robert Guillaume, who long was Benson, is here as the world's best boss (next to Homicide's Yaphet Kotto, whose flexibly stern paternalism Guillaume adopts and adapts), along with Peter Krause, up from Cybill, and associate producer Josh Charles, whose nose is made sport of, as co-anchors; Sliders' Sabrina Lloyd as a production assistant; Joshua Molina, in the oddball slot, as another associate producer; and, shining brightly in the center of it all as the show's producer, Felicity Huffman, of The Spanish Prisoner and Showtime's saucy Bedtime. It's a big year on TV for blonds, I might note - Huffman, Faith Ford, Christina Applegate, the recently axed Sue Costello, the Olsen Twins, Bo Derek - though what this says about where we're headed as a people, I'm sure I can't say . . . Or won't.
A Soldier's Sweetheart, a Showtime movie based on a short story by Tim O'Brien about a medic who imports his Cleveland Heights girlfriend into wartime Vietnam, is several things rare for television: quiet, measured, picture-oriented, open-ended, unjudging, unpredictable and profoundly mysterious (qualities, to be sure, of a really good X-Files, but not significantly more common for that). Given the setting, the circumstances and the style, it is fairly evident fairly quickly that before we are turned back into the safety of our ordinary living rooms something . . . bad . . . is going to happen, though exactly what is not evident at all, and what does eventually transpire is too singular, too marvelously strange, to be called tragic.
Directed and adapted by Thomas Michael Donnelly, the film, though on the surface strictly, even unpleasantly, realistic - it includes as convincing a re-creation of a "gaping chest wound" as I hope ever to see again - courts the fabulous: It's a campfire tale, a ballad of dark, persuasive magic in which the forest transforms a curious child into a woodland wraith. Kiefer Sutherland is the still point from which we view the alterations, Skeet Ulrich the soldier whose bright idea undoes him, and Georgina Cates the flame reshaped in the night and the jungle, in the proximity of nothingness. They're all up to the job and, appropriately, lost in it.
© Robert Lloyd 1998 and 2011