When in doubt, greenlight a police drama. UPN took that advice and — voila! — it finally has a programming pulse. Wrestling may have been the web’s meal ticket until now, but “The Beat” has potential to seriously influence the network’s emerging turnaround. It might not have “Homicide’s” layered texture or the raw edge of HBO’s “Oz,” but it’s another sensible contribution from Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana, two vets who know exactly what they’re doing.
On paper, “The Beat” is just another cop show. Macho men who look great in blue patrol New York City’s streets while coping with their own issues. Its execution, however, is sharp: Besides the jerky, “NYPD Blue”-ish camera movements, Levinson, who directed the debut, and Fontana, who wrote it, have souped up the style with some unorthodox methods.
Bleached-out videotaped segments are used to heighten the narrative, and the effect is stimulating. Whether it’s the sergeant barking orders or an arrest going down, the voyeur technique serves to break up the normalcy and craft a disassociated hyper-reality. It might not work for everyone, but it’s fresh and focused.
Pilot is strong. Officers Zane Marinelli (Mark Ruffalo) and Mike Dorigan (Derek Cecil) are partners who exchange profound and funny dialogue.
Zane is the unpredictable one, a conflicted playboy whose father killed his mother when he was a child. As an example of his relationship woes (that he blames on daddy), he’s involved with Beatrice (Heather Burns), an unstable, medicated waif who yells at him in public, torches his apartment and wears pajamas in public.
Compared with them, Mike and g.f. Elizabeth (Poppy Montgomery) are ideal. She’s a loving medical student who’s concerned about his budding attraction to alcohol, and he’s the calm and consummate pro willing to get the whole story before offering up judgment.
As the foursome navigate their lives, “The Beat” hunkers down and deals with topical themes. Protestors rattle the force after a black man dies in custody, a pedophile frequents local parks and a dangerous peeping Tom shoots several rounds through an apartment door after spying on a photographer’s modeling studio.
Gunplay-happy plotlines are hard to come by these days. Between “Blue,” “Law and Order” and “S.V.U.,” the daily papers have been gutted, and every type of case has certainly been copied. But there’s always chemistry, and “The Beat” has plenty of that. Marinelli and Dorigan are decent guys with genuine problems, and their reliance on each other is engaging.
The only concern — and it’s a big one — is whether anyone will find this show, which is nevertheless counterprogrammed well against comedies on ABC (“Dharma & Greg”) and NBC (“Will & Grace”), and newsmag “60 Minutes II” on CBS.
Still, UPN is far from a major player in the promo arena, and it has a long way to go before its programming becomes part of viewers’ must-watch list. But considering its marred history (“The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer”) and the current sked (“Shasta McNasty”), “The Beat” represents a big step in the right direction.
Manhattan locations and taut editing lend plenty to a solid overall production.