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Crimetime After Primetime.

If you've looked at the TV page of your local paper, you may have noticed that late-night programming (the 11:30 p.m. to 12:30 am. Eastern time slot) has become a volatile and hotly contested TV battleground lately. Everyone is jockeying for advantage in the wide-open, post-Carson era. Only Ted Koppel stands as an island of stability.

The CBS network, as you may have noticed, has historically stunk up the late-night airwaves. This, we must recall, is the network that gave us "The Pat Sajak Show," in which the "Wheel of Fortune" pit boss tried to be the new Johnny when the old one was still around. But he wasn't even the new Merv Griffin. It quickly became apparent that Sajak was nothing without Vanna and the promise of large cash prizes. Before Sajak, CBS filled the late-night hour with reruns of its old cop shows ("Cannon," "Kojak"). Before that, I must confess, I can't remember what was on late at CBS ... but I'm sure it was horrible.

In the current state of market flux, the Big Eye network is trying to buy itself some late-night clout by luring Mr. Late Night himself, David Letterman, from the GE-NBC television family. As of this week, the figure of $14 million was being bandied about. CBS would give Letterman the 11:30 p.m. Eastern slot, opposite his old buddy, Jay Leno. That prospect I greet with distinctly mixed critical feelings. For one thing, I fear that the CBS late-night jinx may drag Letterman down. It could be that, just as you got to suffer to sing the blues, the dangerous edge to Letterman's humor might actually thrive on his hostile, perennially dissatisfied relationship with his corporate masters.

But I have reservations mainly because in the past two seasons, CBS has finally done something at least interesting, if not always successful, with the late-night slot. These days the weeknight midnight hour is occupied by something they call "Crimetime After Primetime," a cute name for a rotating collection of five detective, quasi-noir, action-mystery serials.

"Crimetime" is part of the answer to my unregenerate lament, "Where have all the cop shows gone?" (Cable is the rest.) But the story of how "Crimetime" shows came about is more interesting and revelatory than most of the stories themselves.

"Crimetime" is one of the first fruits of the new era of electronic globalism. All five of the shows are international coproductions: Canadian, Spanish, French, German or Israeli partners put up the bulk of the production cash. And the productions are low-budget with no famous actors and on locations far from the reach of the Hollywood trade unions.

All of this means that CBS can fill the hour for less and sell the ads at a higher rate of profit. And our partners in the new world order get a genuine kiss-kiss, bang-bang American thrill, cheap. The shows themselves are, for the most part, pretty standard post-Miami Vice video fare -- lots of artsy shadow-and-light photography, art deco design, cool clothes, rock |n' roll and a bristle-bearded, brooding hero. You know the routine.

There is a multicultural globalistic twist to the "Crimetime" serials. Each episode of each show has at least one scene that was shot in two versions, the European version featuring frontal female nudity. They are easy to spot. Some generic blonde takes off her bikini top. We get the back view and the reaction shot. Viewers in France, Spain and elsewhere get the front view from the other camera. Who's the winner? I won't touch that.

Monday night is "Sweating Bullets," featuring a ponytailed and frequently shirtless former Drug Enforcement Agent named Nick Slaughter, who has retired in disillusionment to run a small detective agency in fictional Key Mariah, Fla. He has a girl Friday named Sylvie, who, in a genre update, frequently punctures his macho posturing with feminist analyses. But that is just to ease any vestigial guilt we, or the producers, might feel about all those babes-in-bikinis shots.

On Thursday night's "Silk Stalkings" there is no such moral cushion, just the bikinis and the stratospheric miniskirts. "Silk Stalkings" features a male-female team of Palm Beach homicide cops investigating sex murders of the rich and famous. Needless to say this show, inspired no doubt by the sleazy Palm Beach-based Pulitzer divorce trial of the late-1980s, made a lot of indirect hay from the William Kennedy Smith trial, which again opened a window on American ruling-class decadence, subtropical division. "Silk Stalkings" also runs during prime time on Sunday on the USA Network on basic cable.

"Dangerous Curves," on Wednesday nights, features a Dallas-based, salt-and-pepper, female private-eye team of ex-cops employed by a sophisticated and well-connected displaced French aristocrat (for the European crowd). There is little that is truly sexist in this one. And Lisa Carter, the white half of the detective team, has a refreshingly authentic hush-my-mouth accent and good-old-girl manner. But the plots have been mundane and muddled, and I rarely stay interested into the second half.

"Dark Justice," on Friday nights, features Bruce Abbott as Judge Nicholas Marshall, an ex-cop and ex-prosecutor. As he tells us in each week's introduction, Marshall played by the book until his wife and child were killed by criminals who were set free on a legal loophole. Now he's a mild-mannered judge by day but a wild-haired, motorcycle vigilante by night, tracking down the bad guys who escape from his courtroom and administering justice by any means necessary. That's the whole show. Everything depends on our being hammered again and again with the melodrama of Marshall's tragedy. From there on its just a series of shopworn caper stories.

"Dark Justice" is a Spanish coproduction (the hero looks suitably Iberian) and last year it took viewers on a weeks-long, shaggy-dog subplot journey through Spain, just in time, I presume, to boost Olympic year tourism.

"Forever Knight," the Tuesday night spoke of the wheel, however, is genuinely interesting in its own right, as artifact, if not as art. This one (on Canadian location and with a German distribution deal) features Wyn Davies as a vampire who is trying to turn mortal. A doctor is helping wean him off blood and slowly exposing him to sunlight. Meanwhile he works as a homicide cop (the night shift, naturally) to atone for all of the human lives he's destroyed. Nick, as he's known in this 1990s Canadian incarnation, has been a vampire since 1228, and each episode weaves one of his nightmarish memories from centuries past in and out of the contemporary story line. It's a haunting concept. And it sometimes works disturbingly well, on a couple of levels.

For one thing, the age of AIDS and addiction is an interesting time to contemplate the myth of vampirism -- the original high-risk, substance-abuse problem. Nick has grown weary of the twilight world of eternal death in life. He started feeling remorse and a desire to feel other human feelings. And with the desire came an expansion of his humanity. Now he is trying to turn his life around. There are a lot of 12-step parallels here. Nick has admitted he is powerless over human blood and that his long, long life has become unmanageable. By the time we meet him he is engaged in a fearless moral inventory of his past life and has begun trying to make restitution. But it is all very, very hard, even one night at a time. And I can't help but wonder what resonances the German viewing audience may pick up from the guilty, tortured soul of a character weighed down by centuries of shedding innocent blood. Nothing else on the "Crimetime" lineup even brushes those kinds of questions.

"Forever Knight" is a new production this year. Some of the really lame turkeys have come and gone already. So there is hope that "Crimetime's" international experiment in 21st-century pulp programming could turn up another low-grade gem or two, if it stays around.
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Author:Collum, Danny Duncan
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Television Program Review
Date:Jan 15, 1993
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