A 28-year-old woman is stabbed in the chest and left for dead in the lobby of her Manhattan apartment. A corpse boiled to a crisp is found at the bottom of a manhole on Fulton Street. A man hangs by his hands from the Henry Hudson Bridge, a slack noose around his neck, while tourists on a Circle Line cruise boat snap pictures from below.
This is life and death as seen in the daily workaday world of the New York City Police Department. Starting tonight and running Tuesday nights from 10 to 11 for the next six weeks, it's also the focus of NYPD 24/7, a seven-part documentary by the same crew from ABC News that so eloquently captured life and death at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Hospital in 2000 in a similar prime-time, nonfiction series.
Like the program on Hopkins, NYPD 24/7 uses no on-camera reporter or network correspondent to tell us what we should think. The style is video verite edited for the shortened attention span of prime-time TV. The voice of Dennis Franz, who plays a fictional detective on the ABC drama NYPD Blue, is used for narration, providing transitions and orientation amid the swirl of images, actions, sounds and events.
Prime-time exposure for documentary series is one of the more positive byproducts of the reality TV mania that has taken hold of network programming the last four years. If CBS' Big Brother is the low end of the fly-on-the-wall genre, ABC's 24/7 series resides on the higher end - near the point on the programming compass where the immediacy of reality TV meets the power of the documentary to show us the world through the eyes of others.
But understand that nothing gets into prime time without playing by razzle-dazzle, show-biz rules. And NYPD 24/7 makes some serious compromises at the expense of telling the kind of representational truth traditionally associated with documentary filmmaking.
The tilt toward Hollywood begins with Franz. In Hopkins 24/7, the narrator's role was filled by Sylvia Chase, an ABC News correspondent. Journalist out, actor in.
On paper, it might not seem like much more than a slight nod to marquee value, but a pattern of shaping the real world of New York cops to fit the narratives laid down in dramas such as NYPD Blue and NBC's Law & Order is all too apparent in the stories NYPD 24/7 chooses to tell.
Tonight's first hour features a homicide detective, Steve Di Schiavi, who might remind viewers just a bit of the very detective, Andy Sipowicz, played by Franz in the make-believe NYPD Blue.
Furthermore, both the case on tonight's show and the way it unfolds are straight out of Law & Order. We begin in the lobby of a swank Manhattan apartment building where a young woman has been viciously assaulted with a knife. Her ex-boyfriend, a yuppie banker, lives in the same building. As the victim fights for her life in intensive care, Di Schiavi and his fellow detectives track down leads. Dick Wolf couldn't have scripted it any better for one of his many Law & Order series.
Much of the second hour (which airs next week) features Detective Nicole Papamichael, a member of the vice squad whom viewers meet as she goes undercover as a prostitute in a sting operation. In the opening of the hour, Franz describes her as "one of the vice squad's greatest assets - an undercover with legs."
The very first look we get at Papamichael is an extreme close-up of her high heels, ankles and legs as she walks up a set of station-house stairs in her short-short hooker's skirt. Even the female detectives on Steven Bochco's NYPD Blue get to wear pants most of the time. This treatment harks all the way back to Angie Dickinson as Sgt. Suzanne "Pepper" Anderson on NBC's Police Woman in the 1970s.
This is compelling television, no doubt about it. And the filmmakers do regularly go beyond the usual concerns of prime-time drama to explore more complicated truths of police life, such as burnout, rage, fear and social class. At those moments when they get the mix of story and truth-telling right, NYPD 24/7 is powerful stuff.
But ABC News went a little too far this time in bowing to the gods of entertainment, to the point where one never stops wondering about what is not on the screen because it was deemed too dull for prime time.