Right off the bat, you get a strong feeling that Crime & Punishment, a crisp, self-conscious new cop show, could use some of the wrinkled authenticity that Jerry Orbach is bringing these days to that other ampersanded drama hour, Law & Order. In November, Orbach, a lanky bloodhound among veteran New York actors, replaced Paul Sorvino as the police detective paired with costar Chris Noth. I’d had my doubts about this new matchup; the moody, rangy Noth had always benefited from the contrast supplied by amiable, roly-poly costars (George Dzundza had waddled around in a bulging trench coat the season before Sorvino arrived). The teaming of two such similarly heavy-lidded, tall drinks of water as Orbach and Noth seemed like a potential mistake.
Instead, the casting has proved to be inspired. Orbach has restored to Law & Order the grit it was starting to lack at the end of its ‘92 season. As Det. Lennie Briscoe, Orbach displays a smoky voice, impatient manner, and perennial air of hangdog cynicism that adds some realistic rust to L&O’s gleaming efficiency. He has also added new depth to Noth’s prematurely world-weary Det. Mike Logan, who now seems intriguingly callow and caught off guard whenever his new partner gets tough with a suspect.
Both Law & Order and Crime & Punishment are the creations of executive producer Dick Wolf. Wolf established his career working on stylish crime series — Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice are two of his previous credits. The success of L&O has enabled him to launch other shows, but last season’s Mann & Machine — futuristic tripe about a tough-guy cop partnered with a babe-alicious robot — was a particularly silly misstep. It’s obvious that with Crime & Punishment Wolf wants to get back to meat & potatoes (sorry, meat and potatoes): terse thriller plots, with the good guys as rough mannered as the bad guys.
C&P stars Jon Tenney (Equal Justice) and Rachel Ticotin (Total Recall) as Ken O’Donnell and Annette Rey, Los Angeles police detectives who are both so improbably good-looking they should be Gap T-shirt poster kids, not cold-coffee-guzzling cops. Tenney and Ticotin maintain admirable poker faces as they murmur Dragnet-style, just-the-facts dialogue, and the cases that their O’Donnell and Rey investigate are equally blunt. In this week’s debut, they solve the murder of a parking-lot attendant and the kidnapping of a corporate executive. Soon after the series moves into its regular Thursday-night time slot, they hunt down the killer of a 13-year-old boy.
Wolf is a producer who loves gimmicks in his shows, whether it’s crime-fighting robots or Law & Order’s rigid two-part structure (apprehension of suspect in the first half hour; trial of suspect in the second). So what makes Crime & Punishment distinctive? Wolf’s most intrusive notion yet: Periodically in every episode, various characters look straight into the camera to answer the questions of an unseen creation who is referred to in the C&P production notes as the Interrogator. Speaking in a low, even tone supplied by James Sloyan, the Interrogator asks the cops how they felt at this or that moment and questions criminals about their motives. In a later episode, he even asks the murdered 13-year-old what it feels like to be dead.
Wolf has said that the Interrogator is ”the voice of God…the voice of the audience” asking the questions that are in our heads as we watch. But it’s more like the voice of a pretentious psychotherapist who refuses to just shut up and watch the show like the rest of us. The Interrogator’s segments stop the action dead and ruin any ambivalence or subtlety we might read into the characters. With everyone’s motives spelled out, the emotional complexity of Crime & Punishment is nil, and the result is just a better-acted, better-plotted variation on Hunter.
Last year, I suggested that Wolf entitle his next series Death & Taxes. Given how hokey his new show is, though, I’m beginning to think it’s more likely he’ll come up with an entry about a sexist pig of a policeman joined by a wise guy of a partner and call it Pork & Beans. Law & Order: B+ Crime & Punishment: C