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The Boston Phoenix It's A Small World

"The Corner;" "The Beat;" "Wonderland"

By Robert David Sullivan

APRIL 17, 2000:  "I'm nostalgic for a good homicide," wisecracked Detective John Munch (Richard Belzer) as he poked around a murder scene on UPN's new cop series The Beat. Munch, of course, was a character on Homicide: Life on the Street, a series so beloved that when it was canceled last spring after a healthy six-year run, fans complained that NBC "never gave it a chance." With his Beat cameo, Belzer can probably lay claim to putting the same character in a record number of TV series. Munch has appeared on Law & Order and The X-Files, and a cop who looked exactly like him turned up on Mad About You. Now he's investigating New York's finest perverts on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Belzer is probably looking for an opening on Sex and the City.

Munch/Belzer may be the most visible inhabitant of a parallel universe that you can find somewhere on your cable box at almost any time of day. Its "big bang" was the first joint episode of Law & Order and Homicide: it would take about three degrees to connect that cast list to practically any ensemble drama on TV that doesn't take place at a high school. This universe is centered on the urban corridor from Boston to Washington. It's a violent place, but the murders are as likely to be committed by snooty women with trust funds as by young men from broken homes. Its leading citizens are no-nonsense types, but they like to talk about The Meaning Of It All whenever they get into a car. They confide so much in their colleagues that they can't form any other lasting relationships.

For want of a better name (and because TV Land is taken), let's call this place Munchland. After all, John Munch personifies its reigning philosophy: cynical and irreverent but totally dedicated to "the job." And Munch is a conspiracy buff, so no one would better appreciate the idea that everyone he's ever met owes his or her existence to a handful of TV producers.

At a minimum, Munchland takes in the polished Law & Order shows by Dick Wolf and the grittier series produced by Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana (Homicide, Oz). It also includes David Chase's The Sopranos, which provides a perspective from the other side of the law and the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. Allow for cops who love to speak in jargon and "skells" who like to speak in riddles and you can add Steven Bochco's NYPD Blue. Then you might as well let in the smart, fizzy creations of Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Sports Night), plus the loud, hypersensitive characters of David E. Kelley (The Practice, Ally McBeal) and the stressed-out public servants of John Wells (ER, Third Watch). Now pick up a newspaper and try to find a juicy story that wouldn't fit at least one of these series.

They're all glued together by a group of actors who move from show to show, killing or grieving several times a year, and by the frequent use of black humor to keep viewers from reaching such despair that they switch to the mirthful antics of Barbara Walters. Each series is also focused on a single profession, and often a single location. Despite countless efforts, there has never been a really good drama series that brings together a bunch of friends or family members who all have different careers. ABC's Wasteland was the most spectacular flop with this premise last fall; the year before last, it was NBC's Trinity. A couple of weeks ago D.C. (Sundays at 8 p.m. on the WB), about a diverse group of young professionals in the nation's capital, premiered to poor reviews and worse ratings. It seems that viewers will tolerate a sit-com about a bunch of people who would never associate with one another in real life, but phony friendships just won't fly in a drama series. D.C. was co-created by Law & Order czar Dick Wolf, but loyalists of Munchland are likely to be more interested in three new drama series that are closer in tone to the sacred Homicide. Each tries to cover a little piece of ground that's been overlooked in the previous Munchland sagas.

The best of them is HBO's six-episode The Corner, which airs Sundays at 10 p.m. beginning on April 16 -- a little something between the season finale of The Sopranos and the summer return of Oz, and an alternative to ABC's frequently preposterous The Practice. Depicting a black neighborhood in Baltimore that's been ravaged by the drug trade, The Corner is based on a nonfiction book by David Simon and Edward Burns, who also wrote the book that inspired Homicide: Life on the Street. On that series, we often saw drug dealers scatter at the sight of a police car; here, the camera follows the dealers instead of the cops. The Corner also resembles the prison drama Oz, except that it follows the visitors home instead of focusing on the lost causes behind bars.

It's ironic that such an unblinking look at poverty can be seen only on a premium cable channel. But it makes sense that both HBO and Showtime are more inclusive than free television: they don't need to sell advertising time (what fast-food restaurant would want to be associated with crack dealers?) and, unlike PBS, they don't have to worry about offending genteel suburban contributors and right-wing members of Congress. Since we're already considering school vouchers and free laptops for the poor, why not give vouchers for premium cable channels that actually serve inner-city residents?

The Corner is directed by Charles S. Dutton -- a Baltimore native with a long acting career that's included guest shots on Homicide and Oz. It's cleanly directed, but The Corner does not have the strong dramatic drive of, say, a murder mystery. It focuses on a separated couple, formerly middle-class wage earners and now jobless addicts, and their savvy teenage son, who's just starting out "slinging" drugs on the bleak intersection that gives the series its name. You know that things aren't going to get better anytime soon for any of these characters, and it can be depressing to watch them just try to make it through another day.

But the accumulation of details in The Corner is often fascinating. In the first scene, 34-year-old Gary McCullough (T.K. Carter) explains his expensive habit of buying cigarettes one at a time (apparently a common practice at the tiny, Korean-owned grocery in the neighborhood): "Why buy a pack when you only end up giving half of them away?" That sounds shortsighted and mean-spirited, but it's hard to fault the reasoning in this environment. To pick up drug money, Gary sneaks into people's homes and rips out pipes that he can sell as scrap metal; he also steals appliances and sells them back to a neighborhood appliance store that's probably gouging its customers in the first place. It's no wonder that son DeAndre (Sean Nelson) has a tough time talking himself into accepting a menial job at a crab house instead of slinging crack vials.

The most familiar -- but unrecognizable -- cast member is Khandi Alexander (Benton's sister on ER) as DeAndre's sad-eyed, chain-smoking mother. She's the queen of mixed messages, telling her son to get out of the drug trade while she steals from his stash. The night before she's set to enter a rehab program, she throws a drug party, explaining, "You're supposed to come out clean. You're supposed to go in fucked up."

Grim as The Corner is, the series doesn't seem as defeatist as Oz, if only because most of its characters represent identifiable human weaknesses instead of unmitigated evil. It may not be as compulsively watchable as The Sopranos, but I'd be happy to see another batch of episodes next year.

UPN's The Beat (Tuesdays at 9 p.m.) takes place in a more recognizable section of Munchland: the Lower Manhattan neighborhoods where all those stiffs are discovered on NYPD Blue and Law & Order. The heroes are two young patrol cops (Mark Ruffalo and Derek Cecil) -- the kind of characters who, until now, would point to a corpse and take a few lines of abuse from Andy Sipowicz or Lenny Briscoe. On The Beat, which was created by Homicide's Levinson and Fontana, we get to ride with them as they look for child molesters, write up motorists for running red lights, and investigate a rash of pigeon shootings. Perhaps to make up for the less sensationalistic crimes here, the directing style is needlessly flashy, with almost every shot lit differently from the one before it, and constant switching from film to videotape. The first two episodes included an underwritten subplot about blacks protesting the mysterious death of a prisoner in police custody. (That's one good thing about NYPD Blue: when it deals with tensions between the police and the black community, the writers come up with a three-dimensional character to argue the case against the police. Two other good things about NYPD Blue this spring: less emphasis on the main characters' private lives, and the addition of Henry Simmons as Medavoy's quietly effective partner.)

Still, The Beat could grow on me, in part because its appealing leads are like an earthier version of Josh Charles and Peter Krause on Sports Night. Ruffalo is the cowboy type, teasing the more clean-cut Cecil for getting engaged and "putting your balls on ice"; Cecil refers to his partner's "watery little eyes." The Beat also has a better feel for Manhattan apartment life than any other TV show I can remember. (A cop needs to get into a lobby so he buzzes a random resident, shouting, "Police. Open up!" The resident complies, but only after following New York apartment procedure by waiting a beat, saying, "Sorry?", and making the cop repeat himself. You never let someone in right away even if you understand him, and you always let someone in after the second request even if you don't understand him.)

Finally, ABC's Wonderland (Thursdays at 10 p.m.) takes us to a Manhattan psychiatric hospital, where some of the more bizarre murderers in Munchland might end up (like the guy who pushed a stranger in front of a subway train on Homicide). The show was created by Peter Berg (Billy Kronk on Chicago Hope); the cast includes Michelle Forbes (the husky-voiced medical examiner from Homicide). The pilot episode featured a psycho girlfriend trashing the apartment of one of the regular characters. (The pilot of The Beat featured a psycho girlfriend burning down the apartment of one of the regular characters. Women can be strange and dangerous in Munchland, where almost all the writers are men.)

Wonderland tries hard to be intelligent and provocative, but like The Beat, it's hurt by its stylized direction. There are too many shots through glass windows, and the shaky cameras seem to be flinching from the hospital patients. And I still can't get over the moment in the pilot episode in which a schizophrenic randomly shot at strangers in Times Square before being interrupted by a bright yellow screen and jovial announcer screaming, "Wonderland! On ABC! Brought to you by the Saturn L Series Performance Sedan!" This series needs to take a pill and slow down; otherwise viewers aren't going to spend much time exploring one of the scariest regions of TV's expanding universe.

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