Media Circus

Steven Bochco's hard-hitting "Brooklyn South" is still one step ahead of the headlines. But is he fanning the flames of American prejudice?

Published September 22, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

"Brooklyn South," Steven Bochco's new CBS drama about beat cops in Brooklyn, N.Y., opens with an either disturbed or chemically jacked-up man, who is black, walking down the street shooting people at random with a handgun. He's on his way to the 74th Precinct station house to settle a beef, and as the cops rush out to intercept him, he starts picking them off. Somebody in an apartment window above decides to get into the act and takes a shot at the cops, too, so there are bodies and bullets flying everywhere. The disturbed man is wounded just outside the police station and, with no ambulance around and fearful of the sniper above, the sergeant on duty orders the suspect brought inside the station to wait for the EMTs. Once they have him inside and out of the sergeant's view, the angry cops (who are 99 percent white) stand over the bleeding suspect jeering, "Cop killer!"; one cop roughs him up, knocking him out. Then they all get nervous and split, leaving the suspect unattended and unconscious.

Amazingly, this pilot episode, which airs Monday, was written and filmed before the Aug. 9 incident in another Brooklyn police precinct in which Haitian immigrant Abner Louima was allegedly beaten and sodomized with a plunger handle by a group of white cops while in custody, then left injured and unattended for hours on the station-house floor.

This isn't the first time Bochco and "Brooklyn South" co-writer/co-producer William M. Finkelstein have seemingly foretold a high-profile incident of white-on-black police brutality. Six months before the March 1991 videotaped beating of Rodney King by LAPD officers, Bochco and Finkelstein's debut episode of their ABC series "Cop Rock" depicted a Los Angeles -- and an LAPD -- polarized by racial and class animosity. In a scene that was shocking for its time, a brutal, bigoted, arrogant white cop -- a hero to his brothers in blue -- takes matters into his own hands when an attempt to arrest a (black) suspected cop-killer goes wrong and it appears the bust will not stick in court. The cop stands the handcuffed suspect up against a wall, shoots him dead and tells his black partner, intimidatingly, "You're not here."

Since his groundbreaking "Hill Street Blues" in the early '80s, Bochco has been producing provocative dramas about cops that are also in large part provocative dramas about race, how it underpins and pulls at everything in American society. After all, nobody knows the consequences of racial and economic inequality better than the cops who deal with them first-hand. And nothing gets people to soul-search about racism more effectively than a community-polarizing case of police brutality or deadly force.

At a time when network cop shows existed in a sugar-coated approximation of the inner city and its problems, "Hill Street Blues" depicted an economically depressed urban police precinct with head-spinning realism. "Hill Street" took place in a once-vital urban center abandoned by white politicians and business leaders; the only whites who still lived there were too poor or too old to leave. A large number of those arrested were black or Latino. There were several black cops on the force. And there were bigots on the force too, flaming Nazis like Lt. Howard Hunter and jovially ignorant good old boys like Andy Renko, who was always unconsciously insulting his black partner. In a chapter about "Hill Street Blues" from his 1985 book "Inside Prime Time," sociology and media professor Todd Gitlin wrote, "'Hill Street Blues' was a show that knew race and class tear this society apart, that behaving decently under these conditions is an everyday trial, and there are no blindingly obvious solutions for the accumulated miseries of the ghetto. The show's racial byplay honored the everyday street sense of race without sliding into race baiting."

Yet, despite such striving for realistic "racial byplay," Bochco and company have often been called up short by a less than stellar racial mix behind the scenes of their shows. There was one African-American director on "Hill Street" (Thomas Carter) and no black or Latino writers. In "Inside Prime Time," Gitlin reports that "Hill Street" cast members Michael Warren, Taurean Blacque and Rene Enriquez were unofficial script monitors on the alert for stereotypical dialogue, characters and situations.

There was also a widely reported 1994 incident in which Bochco associate David Milch, the co-creator of "NYPD Blue," made what were interpreted as racist remarks at a question-and-answer session before an audience of aspiring television screenwriters.

In his book "True Blue: The Real Stories Behind 'NYPD Blue,'" Milch recounts being asked at the session about the amount of screen time given depictions of Andy Sipowicz's racism on "NYPD Blue": "I explained Steven's and my belief that not to portray racists in a series about New York cops would have made the show incredible. I said it wasn't difficult for me to portray Sipowicz in this aspect of his nature, that I could identify racist impulses in myself."

After that, writes Milch, "The tone of subsequent questions became combative."

Milch acknowledges in "True Blue" that he finally did himself in with his explanation of why there were so few African-Americans writing for TV dramas: "I proposed that in the area of drama, it was difficult for black American writers to write successfully for a mass audience. When they wrote out of the complexities of their own experience ... the result might be powerful and compelling as art but not commercially successful." Then, by way of illustration, he told the audience about a writing seminar he organized a few years earlier to "expose minority writers to the process of writing for television ... Of those who'd attended the seminar, four (of 15) had gone on to success as television writers, but none of these were black."

One result of the outrage and embarrassment over Milch's remarks (the Washington Post's headline read, "Black and 'NYPD Blue': Co-creator tells seminar, 'I'm racist,'" prompting the Rev. Jesse Jackson to pay a call to the president of ABC) was that "NYPD Blue" hired a regular black writer, David Mills. Another result was that Sipowicz has been made to suffer more obviously for his racism; his use of the "N" word was shown to diminish him in the eyes of his wife and his African-American lieutenant and cost him any chance at career advancement.

Milch was back on the hot seat this past July after the pilot of "Brooklyn South," which he co-produced and co-wrote with Bochco, Finkelstein and "NYPD Blue" consultant and former cop Bill Clark, was screened for TV critics at the networks' annual summer press tour. At a press conference, Milch faced one critic who implied that the show was racist because all but one of the featured actors playing cops are white, while all of the perps in the pilot are black or Latino. Without conceding anything, Milch announced that the producers had planned to introduce another featured black cop character in the second episode but were now adding him to the pilot in order to correct "an ineffective dramatic impression."

OK, it's true -- most of the cops on "Brooklyn South" are white. And it's not pleasant to watch their treatment of the African-American cop-killing suspect, nor is it particularly cheering to watch that wall of white and blue hauling in criminal after criminal of color. But let it also be said that New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir ordered a complete shakeup of the 70th precinct after the Louima incident, calling for more minority officers to be assigned to the predominantly white squad. In "Brooklyn South," Bochco, Milch, Finkelstein and Clark, who've made a career of cop-watching, have realistically depicted the racial makeup -- and the dangers inherent in that racial makeup -- that lead to alleged incidents like the beating of Louima. Calling the result "racist" is like breaking your mirror because you don't like your face.

In New York City, police and Haitian community activists have expressed concern that the similarities in the "Brooklyn South" story line might add to tensions over the Louima incident. But Bochco told the Los Angeles Times on Aug. 21 that "we're already five episodes into our show and we're not changing anything ... We're telling good stories about complicated police and community issues."

One of those complicated issues is whether the criminal justice system, rotting from racism within and public distrust without, can ever be rehabilitated. "Hill Street" was the first show to depict cops losing their authority and in all of Bochco's cop shows since, a cop's job has been portrayed as a thankless one undertaken only by the incorrigibly idealistic or the hopelessly masochistic (of course, on "NYPD Blue," Sipowicz and Simone manage to be both at the same time).

With its emphasis on beleaguered foot soldiers, "Brooklyn South" does often seem like "Hill Street" for a freer era of TV (the cops can say "asshole" now instead of euphemisms like "hairbag") and an even more disillusioned time. "Brooklyn South" is no mere "Hill Street" retread, though; Bochco and his posse are genre writers in the best sense and their cop shows, set in a teeming urban frontier, are the Westerns of today. (To drive the point home, there's even a musical quote from "Bonanza" in the middle of Mike Post's "Hill Street"/"NYPD"-cannibalizing "Brooklyn South" theme song.) The crackling pilot of "Brooklyn South," especially its harrowing opening sequence, draws you into the unpredictable, pitiless universe of the beat cop -- the modern deputy with his tin star, trying to keep the peace in a badlands where he's mistrusted and despised. On this show, blue is a lonely color; to the citizens they've sworn to protect, all cops, white or black, upstanding or wrong, are perceived as bad cops.

Of the ensemble cast, you will love Gary Basaraba as no-bullshit desk Sgt. Richard Santoro and you will be intrigued by Titus Welliver as Officer Jack Lowery, the seething screw-up who's about to become the show's Stacy Koon/Mark Fuhrman/Justin Volpe (pick one). As usual, there are familiar faces from other Bochco shows: James B. Sikking, Howard Hunter from "Hill Street," plays shark-toothed internal affairs Lt. Stan Jonas and Michael DeLuise, who played Andy Sipowicz's ill-fated son on "NYPD," finally gets a chance to wear a uniform.

"Brooklyn South" is first-rate Bochco (for third-rate Bochco, see his other new show, "Total Security," which premieres Saturday on ABC). It's a show that isn't afraid to say that race is a messy issue few Americans have been able to sort out -- the show's creators included. As Milch promised at the summer press tour, some scenes in the pilot have been reshot to include Officer Clement Johnson, a black cop played by Richard T. Jones. But even with the addition of this character, "Brooklyn South" is nowhere near "balanced." And that's the point: How balanced is real life?

By Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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