Dead Dogs Roll Over


Having raised Harry Houdini from the dead on Sunday—the equivalent to Houdini’s shameless conclusion, with the scourge of spiritualism making like Patrick Swayze in Ghost, would be an Albert Schweitzer biopic that ended with him poisoning somebody—TNT has given Burt Reynolds the chance to hang upside down in a straitjacket as the director and star of December 13’s Hard Time. While I don’t normally tout camp value, this first in a three-movie package about a tough cop who sports the dizzying handle Logan McQueen was made for Mystery Science Theater 3000. By now, you’d think Reynolds would have caught on that spoofing blowhard studs is his calling, since he evokes satire just by showing up. But whenever an uptick in his career gives him the leeway to follow his bliss, he starts playing the same dumbass parts straight—and before he knows it, his butt is Astroturf again.

Right from its gaudy intro, Hard Time gives your brain one. “Down here in paradise, we’re at the bottom of the nation,” Burt muses, which I think means Miami. Scumbag Latinos flash their arrogant teeth, taunting Anglo justice. Rumbling suspense music clodhops away like the piano in the Peanuts specials. And let’s not even mention the spunky lady lawyer (Mia Sara) introduced with an admiring pan up her legs, while a saxophone wolf-whistles. Charles Durning, who deserves better, valiantly gums scenery as Lingam’s devoted partner. Robert Loggia, who’s played Mr. Big so often I could weep for him, is Logjam’s criminal nemesis—silky, sinister, and contemptuous of flamenco. (He’s twice shown holding court with his back to the dance troupe performing in his otherwise empty restaurant. Now, that’s satanic grandeur.) Like everyone else on hand but Reynolds, Loggia acts as if he’s clogging a drain, just waiting for the Liquid Plumber to wash him out to sea.

Nor can he, or anyone, figure out the plot—some folderol about a briefcase full of cash, a shooting that keeps getting reprised in Rashomon-for-nitwits flashbacks, and an arrogant African American D.A. (Billy Dee Williams as Johnnie Cochran) out to win points with the voters by railroading Lungfish on a rogue-cop charge. Lest we deduce, correctly, that all the non-Caucasians ganging up on our hero spell white-guy grudges on overload, the script takes care to give Lunkhead a compensatory friendship with a Mammy type who not only greets him with a happy cry of “Lawd have mercy!” but confirms he’s still one sexy dude: “Mm-mmm, check it out.” I’d have left out the “it” if I were her. As for Durning, he’s cast as Lawn-Boy’s sidekick mainly to remind viewers that there are plenty of people older and more out of shape than the star. In comic roles, Reynolds is marvelous at mocking just this sort of macho vanity. Yet here he is at 62, huffing down mean streets after a teenage perp who has to break his ankle in order for Logan to catch up to him—and proving, once again, that in a battle of the rugs between Burt and William Shatner, Shatner might lose.

All the same, is Hard Time any more absurd than last month’s quality-TV blubberfest—Jimmy Smits’s farewell to NYPD Blue? For a while, I thought Detective Simone’s death scene was memorable; then I realized that was because it was still going on. People finish correspondence courses in less time than it took Smits to kick the bucket, while doting photography brought out every possible resemblance to the pietà and the script turned God into the series’s biggest fan—unless that murky figure reminding Simone of all the good he’d done was Steven Bochco, who’s got more cause to thank him for it. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an offscreen business decision—Smits hopes for greener pastures, although after this he may have trouble finding work as anything but a corpse—get such a hagiographic onscreen correlative.

Not that the obsequies weren’t effective. Even a nonfan like me was taken with that rooftop shot of the cast in iconic mourning poses, like the cover of some Meat Loaf concept album about the big sleep. But while the producers of, say, As the World Turns could never be as artful, chances are they’d have been less immodest—which is why it maddens me that fancy soaps-in-all-but-name like NYPD Blue and (though I like it better) ER are so widely assumed to be the gold standard of quality TV, not just well made but beyond the taint of mere entertainment. Honest, people: it’s very easy to be engrossing, not to mention impressive, when you’re thrusting life-and-death situations in viewers’ faces. Then, by extension, the good old soap-opera relationships among the characters get valorized too—perceivable as meaningful rather than silly, even though they’re no deeper than a catfight on Melrose Place. Sure, the form makes a terrific showcase for performers; without NYPD Blue, a prime-time grunt like Dennis Franz might never have gotten to play such a range of emotions, and Franz hasn’t fallen in love with his own sensitivity as a result (though the camera has). The craft on display is often wizardly, too—no one will ever know if the individual story lines on ER are tiresome, because the show’s editing keeps slithering among them with such urgency. But that doesn’t make the shows anything more than high-grade junk—junk whose thoughtful guise and air of hard-hitting intensity lets viewers kid themselves about the bathos that keeps them hooked.

Or did. Bochco had good reason to prolong Simone’s passing, because Smits’s departure, like George Clooney’s slow fade on ER this season, is the sort of transition that can alert viewers to a show’s aging—if not their own growing boredom. Over the years, the Band-Aids required by cast changes often end up obscuring series concepts; especially since they’re so well publicized, you’re aware that these remedies are just desperate resorts to keep the cash cow mooing, come what may. But the effects are most damaging on shows that pretend to raw naturalism. If you’re curious, Rick-not-Ricky Schroder, who started learning to tie Smits’s shoes last week, is perfectly adequate. But no one’s about to judge his work on its merits—and you’d look jumpy too if you knew you’d get the blame for a multiple Emmy-winner going down the tubes.

In any case, this whole once-buzzworthy genre has slid into warhorse status—with ER and Chicago Hope in their fifth seasons, NYPD Blue and Homicide in their sixth, and Law and Order, paradoxically the least enervated of the bunch, in its ninth. The hour dramas that connect with viewers now are teen-oriented romances and fantasies, a salutory development if you ask me; despite their less lofty cachet, they’re often more imaginative. Even Bochco, whose Hill Street Blues got this ball rolling back in 1981, came a cropper with the much anticipated (though not here) Brooklyn South. Only David E. Kelley has managed to keep teaching dead dogs new tricks, although The Practice is drab and Skeletor in a Skirt, a/k/a Ally McBeal, more obnoxious than ever.

Everybody’s unacknowledged weariness with the form may explain the groaning reception given a series I actually kind of like—L.A. Doctors, last seen hanging onto the CBS schedule like Wile E. Coyote in that frozen moment before he plummets Grand Canyon– wards. It’s true that, unlike a Bochco series, you can hardly accuse this one of overdramatizing, but after years of hammers and tongs I think that’s a plus. I like the clunky way it tries to make race a topic (white guilt, how quaint), and it’s also one of the few L.A.-set series that makes me remember what it was like to live there—the affluence, the lovely vague earnestness, the unease. I’m pleased too that Ken Olin has finally decided it’s OK to act Jewish, the way George Segal did. Don’t like the confused way the scripts greet any reminder that Sheryl Lee is in the cast. But she is, and that’s swell too. Anyhow, she’s better off than poor old Bruce Dern, who you’ll be glad to know is set to appear in the second Lambchop McQueen movie as an imprisoned murderer who helps Burt track a terrorist. Actual title: Hard Time: The Premonition. Alternate title: Silence of the Lambchops.