anthony denison

"You Are Not Gonna Watch My Television": Crime Story and the Evolving Art of the Small Screen

(WARNING: the following essay contains heavy spoilers for the first season of  Crime Story: if you intend to watch the show, you may not want to read it)

The moment in Crime Story’s first season when the audience realizes Lt. Mike Torello (Dennis Farina)’s marriage will probably not survive fall sweeps occurs roughly halfway through episode 7, “Pursuit Of A Wanted Felon”, when he returns home to find a strange man on his couch and his wife preparing for an evening out. Torello’s restrained rage results in a memorable one-liner: “You can go on dates with my wife, you can sit on my sofa, but you - you are not gonna watch my TV,” just before he unplugs the device and carries it out with him. Fans of Michael Mann’s Heat will recognize that this scene is nearly identical to one featuring Al Pacino’s Lt. Vincent Hanna: a considerably less straightedged character than Torello, and there the line plays as a slightly sad, but mostly comedic reaction from the eccentric cop. In Crime Story - a series that epitomized the evolution of TV’s formal syntax - however, the line carries with it some deeper implications.

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Crime Story was first and foremost a show about police work. Farina had spent thirteen years with the Chicago Police Department before Michael Mann gave him a part in his 1981 film Thief, and to the role of Mike Torello he brought an effortless feel for the frustrations of the job. Torello, stated many times to be fundamentally a decent man, gains his life’s defining purpose in the feature-length premiere, when a personal tragedy resolves him to take down gangster-on-the-rise Ray Luca (Anthony Denison). Creators and head writers Chuck Adamson and Gustave Reininger based the show on an inversion of what would become the typically Mannian theme of cop vs. criminal: in Heat  and its rough draft L.A. Takedown the hero and antihero, on opposite sides of the law, find empathy through their interactions and grow to respect each other. Torello has no interest in relating to the sociopathic Luca (“a smart, dangerous animal”), he wants only to jail him before he gains too much power.

Of course, anyone would have a difficult time finding ways to personally relate to Luca. Starting as a shrewd burglar who works his way up with calculated deals and following the advice of mentor Manny Weisbord (Dr. No’s Joseph Wiseman, giving the show’s best supporting performance) to assume a more managerial role, Luca primarily struggles with keeping his hands clean. Unlike the antiheroes of Thief and Heat, Denison’s gangster hasn’t simply made some questionable lifestyle choices that have ended up trapping him; he is fundamentally a thug. Yet Luca has a support group much like Torello’s boy’s club in the Chicago PD, professional associates with whom he often shares jokes and moments of triumph: the difference being that the criminal’s friendships are predicated upon success and each man’s utility to the underground enterprise.

Crime Story holds interest for TV enthusiasts for its position as one of the first primetime dramas to heavily emphasize serialized storytelling. Nowadays the structure which Mann, Adamson and Reininger attempted crops up everywhere on the major networks, from extreme examples like 24 and Lost to case-of-the-week procedurals with an overarching narrative thrust, like Fringe. In the cable realm, serial plotting is the law of the land: HBO staked its claim as the home of quality drama with series that emphasized “novelistic” structure, including two all-time TV classics, The Sopranos (which arguably draws a great deal of influence from Crime Story’s treatment of Italian-American mobsters) and The Wire, as well as at least one current show literally adapted from a book series, Game of Thrones. AMC has distinguished itself with two unique approaches to season-long narratives: Mad Men emphasizes an episodic structure influenced by short fiction (specifically the work of Raymond Carver and John Cheever), while Breaking Bad’s improvised plotting de-emphasizes the episode to the point where the series largely improves when watched marathon-style on DVD.  

The creators of Crime Story were perhaps ahead of their time - its contemporary Wiseguy and predecessor Hill Street Blues are the only comparable reference points in terms of story structure - but not always successful in realizing the vision of a “22-hour movie” Mann had originally announced. Near the first season’s mid-point, one gets the idea that the network called up Mann and said the show was too confusing, could we slow things down a bit? Cases-of-the-week became more isolated from the Luca storyline, and episode 11, “Crime Pays”, spent the first half hour recapping the Torello-Luca rivalry before advancing the plot in the last two acts. Even in the season’s last six episodes, when Torello pursues Luca to Las Vegas, the show’s outings remained firmly episodic; with each new hour came another scheme to ensnare Luca, and another inevitable last-minute frustration.  

Yet the series gains all the more distinction for entrenching itself within the TV tradition. HBO’s lack of commercials and refusal to retreat to the days of hour-long standalone stories blurs the line between television and cinema - what keeps each season of Game of Thrones from being a ten-hour film, save the convention of weekly installments? The languages of television and cinema have always been essentially the same, only the syntax of television has evolved. Much has been made of the gap in quality between cable television and mainstream cinema (John Hillcoat said so as recently as the Cannes Film Festival), so much so that filmmakers and television producers have begun to give the impression that good television should be as indistinguishable from feature filmmaking as possible. 

Remarkably, Crime Story accomplishes much of what a film enthusiast would want from a Michael Mann feature. The show concerns itself with authentically researched police work, a stylish, fully realized visual universe (the color schematics are a muted Miami Vice, with the “earth tones” banned from that production rarely popping up among the silvers, pinks, blues, and the glassy walls of Vegas), and thoughtful exploration of familiar themes like corruption, male camaraderie, oppressive institutions, and most notably, Torello’s function as the ironic “last gunfighter” archetype isolated from his dream of domestic contentment by his obsession with protecting the innocent from Luca and his ilk. The television format allowed Mann & co. to illustrate these ideas separately or in tandem twenty times a year. 

Evolving to the serial model of storytelling was perhaps inevitable. The success so many shows have had within this model, however, does not make the episode obsolete. Mad Men proves that a prestige drama can still be inventive and distinguish itself within the hour-long story structure. For all its flaws, Crime Story teaches audiences and creatives that a well-produced series can have it both ways. Fringe’s third season is probably the best recent example of a procedural show that excels both with standalone stories and a constantly evolving seasonal arc.

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To return to the opening of this essay, it’s worth noting that Crime Story didn’t just indirectly address the nature of television. The series’s second episode concerns an insane man who believes his dead mother talks to him through his TV set. Luca’s stereotypical fur-adorned housewife retreats to the comfort of game shows as her marriage collapses, often talking to her set instead of addressing the characters trying to get her attention. A flickering monitor provides a compelling image in the finale’s opening scene, of Pauli Taglia sitting, isolated, in witness protection - an underground bunker. Crime Story might not be as sleek as Miami Vice, but the Vegas arc amped up the glitz and glitter every week as Luca realized that his success had hollowed him out, and his bored opulence drove him to seek ever more violent thrills. Style masks a dark secret, verbalized in Torello’s furious declaration: “I wear my obsession with Ray Luca. I get up and I put it on every morning, like my badge, my suit and my .45.”

Crime Story’s characterization of TV as the window onto a barren American soul might be the show’s greatest unsolved mystery, and a demonstration of the producers’ keen visual layering within an aesthetic to which no one was paying much attention. It’s no coincidence that the finale’s climax contains a striking visualization of a motel murder - corpses on the bed, riddled with bullets, and a blood-spattered television set glowing in silence.  - Brendan