Two cops are in a patrol car. They are, we're told, in "East New York" because that's the name of the new Sunday night series on CBS.
The much older cop is driving. He's played by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the acclaimed Lackawanna raised writer/performer of his acclaimed "Lackawanna Blues."
"What's your favorite TV cop show?" he asks his much-younger partner. Then he tells him his: "Barney Miller," which he finishes off with an inept impression of Chuck Berghoffer's famous opening bass line on the show's theme music. That's not enough for him, though. He gives another of his faves: "Car 54 Where Are You?" whose theme he also sings for us.
William Finkelstein, the writer and showrunner who invented "East New York," is 70 years old. He, no doubt, remembers – as do I – a once famous piece in the New York Times wherein a New York City cop informed the paper's readers that, yes, "Barney Miller" was the favorite cop show of actual NYC cops: "Life is more like 'Barney Miller' than 'NYPD Blue,' " he told us, "but our jokes aren't nearly as funny."
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This is Finkelstein's little meta joke on the "East New York" audience. Finkelstein is a gifted and honored TV writer and friend of the late Stephen Bochco from Bochco's all-important stable of terrific TV writers. Finkelstein's credits include "Brooklyn South," "Murder One," "NYPD Blue" "Cop Rock" and "L.A. Law," from which he took home a couple of Emmys. If you ask me, his most interesting TV show by far was the now-forgotten marital collapse drama "Civil Wars."
That's the great joke about cop shows. We smart aleck couch potatoes are always happy to praise to the skies the obvious good ones – "Hill Street Blues," "NYPD Blue" and their allied legal brethren from Bochco like "L.A. Law." But to cops themselves, "Barney Miller" represented their workaday life better.
Journalists watching Hilary Swank and Jeff Perry in "Alaska Daily" registered all kinds of familiar woes and conditions from their profession in the new show starring Swank as the tough, disenfranchised reporter, and TV vet Perry ("Nash Bridges") as her new editor boss.
It's ironic for a lot of us that at this very moment, this newspaper is moving to a downsized office in Larkinville while we're told that the fictional "Alaska Daily" just did the same thing in Alaska. There's much emphasis in the new series on the crucial role in American life performed by local newspapers – a major theme sounded by our former editor Margaret Sullivan in her new book, "Newsroom Confidential." Without newspapers, civic ignorance is likely to soar, and democracy itself threatens to crumble.
With all that going in, it's hard for a professional journalist not to be pleased at a new, idealistic newspaper show a la "Lou Grant."
Unfortunately, Hilary Swank is not an actress who should be asked to deliver idealistic lines at top volume, as she was in the series' pilot episode. She's a fine actress. The trouble with terrific actresses is that unless they're Meryl Streep, they sometimes go over the top if a director lets them.
It's no small virtue of "Alaska Daily" that Swank's co-star is Perry, a wry and foxy old pro if ever there was one who knows how to set the table for us couch potatoes. He's the kind of TV actor who brings instant believability to TV ambition.
Thank heaven he's there. The great thing about "Lou Grant" is that Ed Asner was such a compelling old vet that he was a pleasure to watch doing almost anything. Perry isn't quite that charismatic, but he's close – very, very close.
There's a good reason why so many of the best newspaper movies before Woodward and Bernstein were about the sleazier members of the profession. Until Woodstein showed us in "All the President's Men" how very much depended on hard-working local reporters in Washington, onscreen journalists were most often painted as monsters of ego and ambition.
"What happened?" you ask. Easy.
In the earliest days of sound movies, the ranks of Hollywood screenwriters were filled top to bottom by ex-"newspapermen," as they were known. They brought as much of their profession's racy cynicism and soul-crushing drama as they could to the screen. And if they settled an old score or two in the process, who on earth would ever know? (You can bet that by the time Ben Hecht and Herman Mankiewicz left this earth, their personal score cards were full to bursting.)
Give me William Finkelstein's gently cynical double-vision about cops any day over "Alaska Daily."
If you want to see a cop show compromised to the point of happy idiocy, don't miss the spinoff to "The Rookie" called "The Rookie: Feds" on Tuesday nights. In the original, Nathan Fillion plays the oldest cop on the L.A. police force. In its new season, of course, he's no longer a rookie. So now he's the oldest training officer in the L.A. police force.
Fillion is an engaging TV actor onscreen who knows how to let ease and charm ooze out of every pore. He's not quite up there with James Garner in that regard, but then, who is? It's the side of the street he walks on.
Standing on the other side in "The Rookie: Feds" is star Niecy Nash as the oldest rookie agent in the FBI – and a former high school guidance counselor.
Nash is way too much of a good thing in every scene of the show, but she knows it. She's there for couch potatoes to smile at indulgently in the transitional period between prime time and bed time.
The show is absurd, but that's the point. Realism is for others.
Its preview episode on Tuesday ended with her retiring to her bedroom while waiting for her in secret was a woman she had just hooked up with.
Amateur couch potato sociologists will no doubt note that TV cop shows have begun incorporating more LGBTQ romances in their shows.
On "S.W.A.T.," Lina Esco played a cop who became the third member of what the show called a "thrupple," i.e., a romantic entity composed of two people of the same sex and one of the opposite sex – in this case two women and one man.
On "NCIS: Hawaii," Yasmine Al-Bustami plays Lucy, an agent who's in love with the FBI agent played by Tori Anderson, who, two weeks ago, professed her love for Lucy by breaking into full-throated song at a staff party.
Back when sitcoms started freeing up the gay characters that had long scared them to death, it helped to lead to a wholesale change in American behavior and social structure.
I'm not sure where this new development on TV is taking us that we haven't already been for quite a while, but it is giving us a whole new kind of female cop than we saw with Pepper Anderson (Angie Dickinson) and Cagney and Lacey (Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless.)
I wonder what the cop played by Ruben Santiago-Hudson on "East New York" would think about all that.
Not to mention Barney Miller. I'm betting he and Fish would trade knowing shrugs on that one.