Dick Wolf is at it again. TV’s most law-loving titan sticks his hand in the reality jar and comes up with “Arrest & Trial,” another compelling look at crime across America. This half-hour syndie strip breaks down heinous behavior into two parts — the offense and the punishment — and emerges as a close cousin to the exec producer’s “Law & Order.” It has everything channel-surfing cop-a-holics could ask for: impeccable re-creations, sleazy defendants and an attitude.
Hosted by Brian Dennehy, “Trial” spotlights the minds of monsters and the system that eventually brings them down. Tailor-made for Wolf, who also bows “Deadline” this fall on NBC, it travels through different neighborhoods to look at some of the most ghastly human acts in recent memory. But beyond the seediness, there is a load of expertise that comes from attorneys and investigators who rationalize clues, clarify leads and detail busts they made along the way.
The debut seg tells the story of a married trucker who abducted and raped 23-year-old Joan Franklin at a Vermont rest stop last year. Detectives narrowed the suspect list through pay phone activity and a stolen camera, and the victim left behind locks of hair in his truck, enabling the prosecution to introduce DNA profiling for the first time in a criminal case.
Second episode travels to West Covina, Calif., where four career criminals went on a carjacking-theft-murder spree before ATM and credit card traces led to their arrest.
The prurient nature of “true crime” programming is something college professors and media pundits will examine for years to come. The felon certainly becomes the “star,” but only because his/her story is usually told with such polished production values.
Wolf sidesteps that debate here, mainly because he isn’t holding up these perps as symbols. He simply itemizes their deeds and spends the rest of the time highlighting the science behind their capture.
Through stagings that thankfully don’t look like a bad school play, Wolf, directors Rob Port and Eddie Barbini and the producers have designed a watchable, engaging piece of truth that has its heart in the right place. And the interviews are revealing — whether the players are justifying their hunches or explaining their reliance on surveillance cameras, all of them come off as people who know exactly what they’re doing.
But more than a love letter to America’s police force, the show also establishes the frame of mind needed to succeed at this job; everyone seems extremely cautious and unfazed.
Tech credits are sharp across the board, with Lisa Trulli’s snappy editing and Anthony Jannelli’s terrific camerawork complementing Dennehy’s stoic presentation, Steve Zirnkilton’s narration and the overall docu feel.