Ed O'Neill, Jeffrey Pierce

Television needs another New York cop drama like it needs another infomercial, but "Big Apple" is a triumph all around. Stylish and well constructed, CBS' last piece of the let's-pluck-the-Peacock puzzle is an accomplishment that ranks with "N.Y.P.D. Blue" and the short-lived "Murder One" in scope and smarts.

This article was corrected on March 15, 2001.

Television needs another New York cop drama like it needs another infomercial, but “Big Apple” is a triumph all around. Stylish and well constructed, CBS’ last piece of the let’s-pluck-the-Peacock puzzle is an accomplishment that ranks with “N.Y.P.D. Blue” and the short-lived “Murder One” in scope and smarts. While nobody in seven years has been able to topple “E.R.,” the Eye web’s gutsy patchwork of crime and punishment should serve notice to NBC’s heroic doctors that there are worthy competitors nipping at their scrubs.

Having already pushed the envelope with “Blue” when it comes to language and adult themes, executive producer David Milch has returned — without Steven Bochco — to familiar, gritty territory. But this time, the words are coarser and the stakes seem much higher: Now that the network has chipped away at Must-See TV with “Survivor: The Australian Outback” and “C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigators,” it’s in a position to contemplate a killer blow. And considering the male demo that will stay glued to March Madness, CBS can self-promote like crazy.

“Apple” is a complex take on three “families”: the mob, the police force and the FBI As directed by Charles Haid, the pilot episode invests as much in its overall look and feel as it does the smallest of subplots, making every minute count and everyone at least seem important.

It’s centered on Mike Mooney (Ed O’Neill), a gruff and impolite detective who argues with his superiors and uses less tact than most of the thugs he’s pursuing. He’s teamed with Vincent Trout (Jeffrey Pierce), an ambitious young officer seeking upward mobility but still reluctant to make a move without his partner’s approval.

On a routine job researching the murder of a woman in a Park Ave. penthouse, their paths cross with federal agents, who are there for completely different reasons. Thanks to informant Terry Maddock (Michael Madsen), feds William Preecher (David Straithairn) and Jimmy Flynn (Titus Welliver) are scrutinizing the Russian mafia by staking out a nearby strip club and its violent owner who may have ties to the victim.

The two mutually exclusive inquests get too crowded, so Preecher and Flynn decide to “deputize” Mooney and Trout, which keeps the twosome under close supervision. Suspicious but eventually warming to the idea, Mooney is supportive of the transfer only because it gives his young colleague a career boost. The FBI’s rationale, meanwhile, seems a little more suspect in light of the fact that they never want outside opinions.

More concerned with arcs than with sensationalism, Milch, co-exec producer Anthony Yerkovich (“Miami Vice”) and Haid have laid the groundwork for a finely threaded project that will require week in-week out viewing. Their deliberately paced storylines will have no problem intersecting, especially since the characters need each other.

The structure is helped immensely by splendid acting, most notably Straithairn as the calm conscience of justice. Like “Murder One’s” Daniel Benzali or the early “Blue” years with David Caruso, he’s the leader who says the right things in the fewest amount of syllables, and his integrity is golden.

Other performances are all top-notch. If auds can get past O’Neill as “Married…With Children’s” Al Bundy, then they’ll see a sharp and showy role. Also terrific are Welliver as the ticked off pro with a grudge, Madsen and Donnie Wahlberg as murderous hoodlums and Kim Dickens as the new crimefighter brought in to replace an outgoing veteran (Glynn Turman).

Haid’s treatment of Milch and Yerkovich’s taut script is perfect for this genre: Temperments are not overblown, the dialogue is utterly believable, and nobody is racing to solve problems or make snap judgments. Other tech credits are superb, from production designer Tedd Glass’ restrained sets and Jamie Bryant’s overcoat-heavy apparel to David Boyd’s slick lensing.

Big Apple

Series; CBS; Thurs., March 1; 10 p.m.

Production

Filmed in New York City by Red Board Prods. and Paramount Network Television. Executive producers, David Milch, Anthony Yerkovich; producers, Nan Bernstein Freed, Matthew Penn; director, Charles Haid; writers, Milch, Yerkovich.

Crew

Camera, David Boyd; production designer, Ted Glass; editor, Andrew Doerfer; costume designer, Jamie Bryant; casting, Judith Holstra, Brett Goldstein. 60 MIN.

Cast

Mike Mooney - Ed O'Neill Vincent Trout - Jeffrey Pierce Will Preecher - David Straithairn Jimmy Flynn - Titus Welliver Terry Maddock - Michael Madsen Chris Scott - Donnie Wahlberg Teddy Olsen - Glynn Turman Sarah Day - Kim Dicken
With: Sebastian Roche, Michael Rispoli, Samantha Buck, Elizabeth Regen, Jack Gilpin, Pasha Lynchnikoff.
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