Law enforcement series find fertile ground on city streets
With its mean streets, melting pot diversity and critical-mass density, the milieu of New York is almost synonymous with crime drama. As if the city wasn’t steeped enough in this gritty genre of cops, coroners and DAs — especially as they inhabit TV’s primetime landscape — this fall, a record six cop shows will be shot in whole or in part in the Gotham metropolitan area.
Producer Dick Wolf is adding a third series to his “Law & Order” franchise on NBC. “Criminal Intent,” like the 12-year-old original, will be shot entirely in Manhattan. (“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” is shot in North Bergen, N.J.)
ABC’s “NYPD Blue,” starting its ninth year, has already shot a week’s worth of exteriors and will shoot additional second-unit material off and on throughout the year. The net’s “The Job” begins its second season on Big Apple locations, and NBC’s “Third Watch” is entering its third.
“If you want to do grand tales of law and order, or good and evil, or crime and punishment, New York has it in the air and in the water,” says Ric Meyers, author of “TV Detectives.” “If you really want to get grit under your fingernails, and expose the grit in people’s souls, you go to New York.”
Wolf, a producer who has become the city’s unofficial ambassador for N.Y. location shooting, says, “The reason I’ve been shooting in New York continuously for the last 14 years is it’s the greatest backlot in the world. Unless the d.p. is legally blind, there’s no such thing as a bad shot.”
Today’s crop follows a long line of classic police shows set, or shot, in Manhattan. From “Naked City” to “NYPD,” “Kojak” to “Cagney & Lacey,” New York has proved to be fertile ground for the conflict between good and evil.
City as character
“It’s a film noir town,” says Meyers. “Filmmakers just fall in love with New York because it reflects the inner workings of the characters they’re trying to portray.”
There’s also a rich film pedigree that’s seeped into the national subconscious, in which this most black-and-white of American cities forms an uncanny atmospheric background for evil that’s not only dark, but close at hand.
The cruel irony of New York life is its loneliness rubbing up against human proximity. Warner Brothers of the ’30s and ’40s gave us closer views of violent outcasts who were spectacularly alive, like James Cagney in “Angels With Dirty Faces,” or caught in the tentacles of corruption, like John Garfield in “Force of Evil.”
But while the Warners films had a tendency to portray gangsters as glamorous underdogs with a code of honor, during the Eisenhower era of prosperity and conformity, when television came of age, TV shows like “Naked City” — while a natural outgrowth of the gritty social realism of their forbears — addressed themes of law and order in a more responsible fashion.
When TV crime shows left New York to capture a broader national zeitgeist, novelty and trendiness supplanted the no-nonense approach of N.Y. cop shows. “I Spy” probably would not have aired without the ’60s’ civil rights movement; “The Mod Squad” turned hippie rebellion inside out; Jack Lord’s pompadour in “Hawaii Five-O” would not have been so emblematic without the narcissism of ’70s self-regard; Robert Blake sported a parrot and offered homespun homilies in “Baretta”; and “Miami Vice” might not have had such gaudy panache without the glitter of South Florida.
Baltimore, Chicago, San Francisco and L.A. have offered their own bloody settings for crime drama, but for stark human essence there’s no place like New York.
“The logistics of living in the city make for a lot of conflict, and that conflict makes for interesting TV,” says Mark Tinker, exec producer of “NYPD Blue.” “Plus, when you have that many people together, there’s crime.”
Torn from police files
Wolf’s staff has long been accused of combing through the city’s major tabloids, the Daily News and the Post, for script ideas. Peter Jankowski, exec producer of all three “L& O” series, says the claim is “not that far from the truth.” Their constant stream of offbeat murders, weird crimes and stranger-than-fiction suspects is possible grist for every show’s storyline.
Peter Tolan, executive producer of Denis Leary starrer “The Job,” says “the population of New York has been extremely helpful. It just seems that here, the criminal element is much more imaginative.”
For example, a real-life incident about a man whose murdered girlfriend’s head turns up in a stove-top pot will find its way into a “Job” storyline this season.
Reports Ed Bernero, exec producer of “Third Watch”: “New York has a look that you can’t get anywhere else in the world. Just the quality of light in the city; it’s a much more subdued light. I don’t believe anyplace that fakes New York. We do a lot of shots down avenues and down streets. There’s a life and a vitality to the city that exists in few other places.”
“The city itself is a major character for us because it legitimizes our purpose,’ says “The Job’s” Tolan. “There’s nothing fake about it.
“It’s the atmosphere. The depth of New York, the size and scale of it — you can’t approximate it and you can’t build it on a backlot.”