The best crime story programming this summer is Crime Story, the bluntly titled 1986 series being rerun on A&E. Exec-produced by Michael Mann, with a pilot directed by Abel Ferrara (”King of New York”), ”Crime” originally aired on NBC and was supposed to be the network’s big fall hit, a sprawling sock-‘em-fest set in early-’60s Chicago. Each week, Del Shannon sang a retooled version of his hit ”Runaway,” and the show revved up its car chases with period gas-guzzlers sprouting bat-wing tail fins. Dennis Farina starred as Lieut. Mike Torello, head of the ”Major Crime Unit.”
The series was a ratings disappointment. Although Farina couldn’t have been more authentic (he’d been a real-life Chicago cop before turning actor), viewers didn’t take to his pre-Miranda tactics like donning a black hood and whaling the tar out of a thug. Seen now, however, ”Crime” is a groovy hoot: Compared with recent hard-boiled flops like ”Big Apple” and ”EZ Streets,” ”Crime”’s big cast and TV-noir atmosphere seem tensile and efficient.
Dig the cast: In the pilot alone, you had David Caruso as a sneering punk pulling jewel heists, with ”Once and Again”’s ”Bill” Campbell, monologuist Eric Bogosian, and scuzzball comic Andrew Dice Clay providing barely a line background parts. Stephen Lang, who spent this past season evading both Tim Daly and the viewing public as the one-armed man in ”The Fugitive,” had a far meatier role here as a tough public defender whose working class liberalism earns the grudging respect of a law-and-order Neanderthal like Farina’s Mike.
In future episodes, you can spot Julia Roberts, Ving Rhames, Kevin Spacey, and Pam Grier in tiny supporting roles, and Anthony Denison giving what now looks like the performance of his career as ”Crime”’s archenemy, the gleamingly pompadoured mobster Ray Luca, who plugs Caruso while being careful not to muss his own sharkskin suit.
Michael Mann, still hot with the success of ”Miami Vice,” used his juice with NBC to keep ”Crime” on the air for two seasons, but I’d be deceiving you if I didn’t say that the second one dragged a bit. (They never shoulda got rid of Darlanne Flugel as Mike’s hot, brainy wife, Julie, during the first season. With Flugel doing the smoldering, Farina for the only time in his career was believable as a chick magnet.)
But when Mike barrels into a blood-spattered double-homicide scene muttering ”Looks like a Jackson Pollock,” you’ll wonder whether novelist James Ellroy was glued to the screen, taking notes for later novels like ”L.A. Confidential.” Like so many good fictional endeavors, ”Crime Story” seems more real than all the facts a series like ”48 Hours” can muster.