Young crowd connects with 'Undercover'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A girl on the TV screen huddles in a dark, New York street corner. A man whose face we can't see is coming after her with a syringe. Salt-N-Pepa's "None of Your Business" thumps in the background as images flash across the tube.

Is it a scary music video for MTV? Nope. It's the breath-stopping, beat-pumping, hip-hop intro to "New York Undercover," Fox's new hit cop show. And more and more young viewers are listening up.

Against NBC's "Seinfeld," CBS' "Chicago Hope," and ABC's "Matlock," "New York Undercover" airs in one of the toughest time slots on prime-time television -- 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. Thursdays. But in Baltimore, where it airs on Channel 45, "New York Undercover" rates a 14 on the Nielsen charts in the men's 18-34 age category, just short of "Seinfeld's" 16 rating. "For the core audience, 'New York Undercover' is pretty darn competitive," says Mike Schroeder, a local Fox executive. And although national ratings are unavailable, the show has just been picked up for another full season, according to Jennifer Price, who handles publicity for the show.

But what makes this show so attractive to young viewers when prime time is already chock full of cop shows?

"The music," says Akrom Omar, a 27-year-old from Baltimore who has his girlfriend tape the show while he's at work.

"It's the kind of music I like to listen to," says Stacey Carmack, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Maryland who recalls every detail of the cameo performance by Boyz II Men when the group sang its hit "On Bended Knee" for the show.

"The music they play is real music," says 14-year-old Nick Nicholas of Baltimore. "It comes off the radio."

A cutting-edge beat is one of the hallmarks of "New York Undercover" like it was for "Miami Vice" in the mid-'80s. And the show's list of guest artists in its first season alone proves it. Teddy Pendergrass, the O'Jays, Boyz II Men and Mary J. Blige are just a few.

"There's no show even close to it," says the show's composer, James MTume. "We play everything from rap to funk to R&B; to traditional to live performance. It's part of the texture of the show."

Each episode of "New York Undercover," a musical guest performs on stage at "Natalie's," a nightclub where the show's detectives, J. C. Williams (actor Malik Yoba) and Eddie Torres (Michael De Lorenzo), go to hang out. While the cops try to solve their personal problems or scope out a suspect for their case, nTC the television audience at home watches a mini-concert.

A month ago, Boyz II Men held that spot, awing fans and those who know how difficult it can be to get hot stars to do a five-minute spot on a show.

"Most of these [artists] are personal contacts of mine," says Mr. MTume, a Grammy winner who played keyboards and percussion with jazz musician Miles Davis for five years and then formed his own R&B; group, MTume. (Remember the steamy hit "Juicy Fruit"? That was his.)

" 'Miami Vice' was such a breakthrough [in the 1980s] . . . not just because of what the cops looked like but what it sounded like," says Mr. MTume. ". . . We're writing music for this generation . . . the hip-hop community.

"This thing is real," Mr. MTume says. "It's actually shot in New York. You see the New York subway and the music hits you differently."

The lead roles are a bit different too. Fox's new program is the first buddy cop show where the two-man detective team is an African-American and a Puerto Rican.

"My friends used to complain that there weren't any minority shows on TV. ['New York Undercover'] gets away from the old stereotypes of cops," says 21-year-old Stacey Carmack of Westminster.

Moreover, says producer Dick Wolf, Williams and Torres are "role models."

"They're young cops with sensitivity," he says. "They don't see blowing suspects away as the ideal solution to community problems." Williams and Torres whip out their guns and flash them around like police on any good cop show but they haven't fired on anyone so far.

Cyerena Moore, who has a 12-year-old daughter, says when the show comes on it's a family affair. "Every week it has a message about sex or drugs or something," Ms. Moore says. "Those nights I think it would be good for her to watch, I let her stay up with me."

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