Monday, July 16, 2007

Crime Story

The Eighties is remembered for such police dramas as Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice, but there is one that has largely forgotten when it should not have. Crime Story was one of the most revolutionary television shows on the air in the Eighties, far more so than its sister series Miami Voice.

The executive producer of Crime Story was movie director Michael Mann. who was also the executive producer on Miami Vice. With the success of that show, NBC gave Mann licence to create a new show as he saw fit. Mann had an idea that he had considered doing as either a feature film or TV movie, but concluded it might be best done as a TV series. The idea was to follow a major crimes unit starting in Chicago in 1963 to Las Vegas in 1980, all of in the space of 20 episodes. Mann had gotten the idea from Berlin Alexanderplatz, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's epic, German, 15 1/2 hour film which followed its lead character, Franz Biberkopf, through the ear of the German Weimar Republic. To develop the project, Mann brought in writers Gustave Reininger, a former Wall Street banker who had written L' Ordre et la sécurité du monde and episodes of Miami Vice, and Chuck Adamson, a former Chicago police officer who had acted in Mann's movie Thief. Adamson put Reininger in contact with police detectives in Chicago, who sent Reininger to talk with organised crime figures while wearing a wire. Mann's bold vision for a show that would span seventeen years was effectively quashed when it was figured that a budget would not permit the necessary changes in cars, fashions, and so on through the years. It was then decided that the series would be set in Chicago in 1963. That having been said, the show did move from Chicago to Las Vegas in its first season. What is more is that time seemed to past more swiftly on Crime Story than on other series. Starting in in 1963, by the end of the first season it was apparently early 1965.

As the head of the Chicago Major Crimes Unit on the show, actor Dennis Farina was cast as Lieutenant Mike Torello. Like Adamson (with whom he had worked), Farina was a former Chicago police office and had even worked in Chicago's Central Investigative Unit, the real life counterpart of the show's fictional "Major Crimes Unit." He had previously appeared in Mann's movie Thief and the movie Manhunter (the first adaptation of Thomas Harris's Red Dragon, which introduced Hannibal Lecter to the world). Dennis Farina was not the only actor with real life experience pertaining to his role. John Santucci, who played archvillain Ray Luca's right hand man Pauli Taglia, had been a jewel thief at one time. Anthony Denison was cast in the role of Torello's archnemesis Ray Luca, a petty hoodlum who rose to the top of Chicago's crime organisation known as the Outfit. He was based on real life gangster Tony "The Ant" Spilotro, who made a similar rise to the top of the Outfit and who would eventually find himself in Las Vegas (Spilotro was also the basis for Joe Pesci's character of Nicky Santoro in Scorsese's movie Casino).

When the show began Crime Story focused on the Major Crimes Unit in Chicago in 1963. It was the Major Crime Unit's duty to investigate major crimes, in particular those linked to organised crime. On the show the unit was headed up by Lt. Mike Torello. Torello was assisted by Sgt. Danny Krychek (Bill Smitrovich), who was also his best friend. The Major Crime Unit often went to lawyer David Abrams (Stephen Lang) for help with legal matters. On the opposite side of the law was Ray Luca, a street thief who rapidly rose to the top of Chicago's Outfit. Luca's right hand man was Pauli Taglia, a hoodlum who wasn't too bright but more than made up for his lack of intelligence with almost unwavering loyalty. With the episode "Kingdom of Money," which aired January 30, 1987, the show moved to Las Vegas. Ray Luca, anxious to take over casinos in that city, made the move by convincing the Outfit it could be a very lucrative venture. At the same time, the Department of Justice hired Mike Torello to head a team that would investigate mob ties in Las Vegas. Somewhat unrealistically, nearly the entire Chicago Major Crimes Unit made the move to Las Vegas (in the show's defence, it should be pointed that hiring an all new cast would have been very expensive for a show that already had a big budget). David Abrams went with Torello and the former members of the Major Crimes Unit as the new Justice Department team's lawyer. Many have assumed that the move to Las Vegas was made to increase ratings, although it appears to have been planned all along.

At the time Crime Story was a revolutionary TV series. The show was shot in a deliberately cinematic style reminiscent of film noir. Executive producer Michael Mann and his line producers went to great extents to capture the feel of the era. Music from that time period played an important role in setting the mood. In the latter part of the first season one might hear "The Last Time" by The Rolling Stones followed by "Unchained Melody" by The Righteous Brothers. That having been said, Crime Story was even more revolutionary in having a serialised storyline, combining story arcs with stand alone episodes. Alongside Hill Street Blues (which debuted five years earlier) and Wiseguy (which debuted a year later), it was a pioneer with regards to such serialised dramas today as Lost, 24, and Jericho.

Despite being something relatively new on television, or perhaps because of it, Crime Story never did well in the ratings. Part of this may have been due to the fact that NBC constantly moved the show in its first season. First scheduled on Friday following Miami Vice, it was moved to Tuesday nights after only a few episodes. There it aired opposite the then popular show Moonlighting on ABC (for those who are wondering, it was the show that gave Bruce Willis his big break). It was moved back to its original Friday night time slot, right after Miami Vice, well before the season's end. This probably had the effect of preventing the show from developing a large enough following to guarantee good ratings.

Throughout its run Crime Story featured guest stars who would later become famous. David Caruso appeared in a few episodes of Crime Story, well before finding success with N.Y.P.D. Blue and CSI: Miami. Future movie actor Gary Sinise appeared in a first season episode, as did Ving Rhames. Also in the first season, Soon to be movie star Julia Roberts appeared as a sexually abused teenager. In the first season comic Andrew Dice Clay was a semi-regular on the show. In the second season Kevin Spacey guest starred as a crusading Senator. David Hyde Pierce also appeared in the second season, as did Billy Zane. Of course, some of the guest stars on Crime Story were already famous. Pam Grier, most famous for her Blaxploitation movies, appeared in five episodes throughout the show's run as an investigative journalist. Deborah Harry, only recently after Blondie has split up, appeared in the penultimate episode of the first season. Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner appeared in four episodes of the series.

By the second season the time frame was pretty much 1965. The setting also remained Las Vegas, albeit with forays into Mexico and Latin America. The show also became even more larger than life than it previously had been. At one point Luca and Pauli, on the run from the law, take refuge at an atomic testing site and must survive an atomic bomb blast. This puts them afoul of the Atomic Energy Commission. In other episodes Torello found himself dealing with spies and a corrupt judge. Through it all, however, the focus of the show remained Torello's struggle with Luca.

For its second season NBC moved Crime Story to Tuesday night and left it there. While this made the show easier for viewers to find, it also meant that once more it was airing opposite Moonlighting. More so than many shows on the time, getting good ratings was pivotal for Crime Story. The show was a period piece, which meant that it needed period cars and period fashions. It was also shot on location in Las Vegas, which further increased its budget. Finally, Crime Story had a larger cast than most shows. Much of the time the show followed as many as ten characters, usually more. By the second season its episodes could run upwards to $1.4 million. Without high ratings, this ultimately spelled the end for Crime Story. The show was cancelled at the end of its second season. For fans this was frustrating as the show ended with a cliffhanger, in which Torello, members of his team, Luca, and Pauli, were all trapped in a plane without a pilot. Since the show was cancelled, the cliffhanger was never resolved.

Crime Story would be rerun on both the USA Network, A&E, and AmericanLife after its run. Both seasons are also currently available on DVD. Ever since its cancellation, Crime Story has maintained a following. Sadly, it still has not quite been recognised for its place in television history. Well before 24 and Lost, Crime Story featured serialised storylines. And well before many other shows, Crime Story featured a cinematic style. Although many don't remember it, this is one show that shouldn't be forgotten.

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