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Mamet has done a lot better than 'The Unit'

Let's leave Tony Soprano lying at the bottom of the stairs with a bullet in his gut for now. And let's leave his assailant, Alzheimer's-addled Uncle Junior, hiding in the closet in tearful confusion over what he just did to the nephew who may, in fact, be the only one in the world to give a fig about him.

Instead, consider playwright/screenwriter David Mamet.

I used to know a knee-jerk Hollywood-basher for whom Mamet's hilariously sulfurous Hollywood play "Speed-the-Plow" -- full of inflated rhetoric and self-abasement in a Hollywood called "a sinkhole of slime and depravity" -- was a richly chortlesome portrait of need and power among Hollywood's Y-chromosome classes. (The rituals of self-regarding machismo are Mamet's lifelong obsession. Few have been more brilliant about them.)

There, surely, was the last word on whoring in Hollywood. There was no use explaining to the reflex Hollywood-hater at that time -- or later -- that for every great Mamet film script (the wickedly hilarious "Wag the Dog," for instance) there were at least two instances of cynical Mamet hackwork in the movies that were many levels beneath what could be produced by, say, former writers for "Cybill" and "Family Ties."

And now we have what I hope really is the definitive word on writers whoring in Hollywood. It's Mamet's new TV series "The Unit."

It's about an elite squad of Special Forces troubleshooters who travel around the world putting out fires by any means necessary before they singe American citizens. (In its opening scene, the hero -- played by Dennis Haysbert -- saved his men's lives by shooting a donkey.)

It isn't a bad TV show. It's not a particularly good one, mind you, but no series that presents us weekly with Haysbert and, as his wife, Regina Taylor, could ever be thought of as unwatchable.

It's just that the very idea that the man who wrote "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "Speed-the-Plow" and "Wag the Dog" getting a creator credit for the macho jingoism of "The Unit" is morally repugnant in a way that only a good Mamet play would understand.

It helps to understand that creator credits -- "Created by David Mamet" -- are the Hollywood gold standard. Should a series hit, the residuals from a creator credit can royally support all of one's descendents for many generations. It is, as Willie Sutton might say, where the money is.

One might also offer as a mitigating factor that Mamet's sister Lynn was a high-level functionary in Dick Wolf's "Law and Order" franchise as well as a current supervising producer on her brother's show. Television really does run in the Mamet family.

Even so, the idea that Mamet would follow up a little-seen, but first-rate movie like "Spartan" with TV poppycock as formulaic as "The Unit" makes him, I think, the most cynical human being in current America. Slime and depravity can't be far behind.

That Wolf, meanwhile, has decided to mount a series -- "Conviction" -- that gives its characters personal lives after all is, I think, awfully good news. Never mind that everything that's best about "Conviction," thus far, has ripped off Sidney Lumet's sadly little-seen A&E series "100 Centre Street." I'm just happy Wolf has decided that at long last that at least some of his characters are allowed to be human beings away from the job (even if they spend their off-hours talking about the job).

Meanwhile, back at the "The Sopranos," the series that most decisively presented American culture with a TV show that few with any taste whatsoever could condescend to, I'm going to be as avid as anyone else to find out tonight what happens to poor bleeding Tony on the bottom of the stairs.

But what is true now is what was true in its previous season two years ago: the interest is still there but the thrill is long gone. We "Sopranos" watchers are now like the FBI guy last Sunday who came back from duty in Pakistan with a parasite in his stomach but, nevertheless, an undiminished need for a Veal Parm sandwich from Satriale's.

"The Sopranos" is now, no more than so much TV -- familiar, treasured junk food.

Ask David Mamet.


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