Mensch on the Bench

So Sidney Lumet returns to television. On the one hand, this shouldn’t be such a big surprise. As tiresome as it is to listen to film buffs be snooty about couch potatoes, they must not have been going to many movies lately. The bigger the screen, the dumber the script, and when an effort like Traffic gets the New York Film Critics Circle nod as best picture of the year, they must have smuggled something in from Mexico to smoke before the meeting. Traffik was twice as good when it was spelled with a k instead of a c a decade ago, as a British mini-series set in Pakistan, Hamburg, and London instead of San Diego, Tijuana, and Washington, D.C., without either Michael Douglas or his prenuptial.

Besides, many of Hollywood’s best-known directors got their start on television, back in the days of shows like Studio One. Along with Lumet, there were Steven Spielberg, George Roy Hill, Arthur Penn, and John Frankenheimer. Frankenheimer has come back to television, too, where he can do things on cable, like his Attica movie, Against the Wall, that he couldn’t in Hollywood. And other directors who move effortlessly between small screen and large, like Michael Ritchie, and who have done some of their best work on TV, like The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom. And while I’m on the subject, I might as well mention Ingmar Bergman, whose Scenes From a Marriage was originally a six-hour mini-series on Swedish television, and Marcel Ophüls, whose The Sorrow and the Pity was originally shot for French television (and is now at last available on home video, thanks, um, to Woody Allen).

On the other hand, while he was in Hollywood, Sidney Lumet directed Network. You would think he’d be embarrassed. After all those terrible things Paddy Chayevsky said about television in Network, wouldn’t Lumet have to wear a hood, or at least a Batman mask? But no. Television has such an inferiority complex that it believes its critics. And all the folks at Arts & Entertainment had to do to sew up Sidney was to like his script for the pilot so much that they were willing to offer him thirteen episodes and a new Sony High Density TV camera to shoot them with, 24 frames a second, just as Dr. Jean-Luc Godard prescribed. And so we get 100 Centre Street.

Alan Arkin stars as Judge Joe Rifkind, also known as “Let ‘Em Go Joe” for his wayward-liberal coddling of the perps who stand before him in downtown night court. (You will, perhaps, remember the real-life Judge “Turn ‘Em Loose Bruce” Wright.) Before he was a judge, he was a cop, and before he was a cop, he was a flower child, and his whole approach to jurisprudence is accommodating and humane. And so, of course, he will be punished in the two-hour pilot. He lets a young punk walk, who promptly sticks up a bodega and shoots and kills a young policewoman who is not only out on her very first call but also just happens to be the daughter of Arkin’s ex-partner back when he was a humane and accommodating police officer. The mayor, the P.B.A., and the tabloids promptly make their ugliest noises. And Arkin has no one to turn to except . . .

Except LaTanya Richardson, as his fellow judge Attallah Sims, for whom accommodation and humanity are suspect words, guilty of association with permissiveness and failure of nerve. Having upped herself out of a brutal and impoverished Georgia childhood – rape is mentioned – she sees little or no excuse for the plea-bargaining miscreants who beseech her for leniency and list their extenuating circumstances like items on a résumé. Still, LaTanya likes Alan, even his “bleeding Jewish heart.” And 100 Centre Street would be worth the watching if only to see the playing out of this genuine friendship between adult professionals of opposite sexes, different colors, and contrary politics.

Meanwhile, there are the young people without whom no series television is imaginable. They include Paula Devicq as the obligatory well-bred blonde, who has signed up as an assistant district attorney at least in part to spite her corporate-lawyer father, and who not only went to Bennington before Yale Law but went there because her last name is, well, Bennington, and it’s the family college; Joseph Lyle Taylor as the obligatory ethnic hunk, who signed up as an A.D.A. to see justice done, who has a big problem with a cokehead stockbroker brother, and who falls hard for Paula; and Manny Perez, the ambitious public defender, whose compulsive womanizing in the second episode will cost him at least a client who shouldn’t have been stuck overnight in Riker’s and possibly his marriage and the child he dotes on.

100 Centre has Sidney Lumet’s characteristic virtues – casting, passion, a feel for the city, and a machine-gun pace. (The disintegration of the stockbroker brother at a going-away lunch before he’s supposed to catch the plane to Hazelden and rehab is excruciating.) Of course it also has Lumet’s characteristic vices – he has never been exactly subtle. (We don’t need to be told quite so often that there’s a huge difference between law and justice. I’m not saying it’s a lesson we have learned; we haven’t. I’m just saying that we got the point the first time. Show, don’t tell.) Since one of his co-executive producers, David Black, has written some of the best scripts in the long run of Law & Order, we can expect a tight ship on seas we’ve sailed before.

Moreover, Law & Order is increasingly sensational, and The Practice increasingly far-fetched and frantic, and anything that brings Alan Arkin into our living room is more than okay by me.

TV Notes
Three Sisters (January 9; 9:30 to 10 p.m.; NBC), with Katherine LaNasa, Vicki Lewis, and A.J. Langer as the siblings who bother David Alan Basche, who got all three when he married one, is funnier than anything in the last several seasons of NBC sitcoms. Langer, for instance, is so strapped that she decides to sell her eggs on eBay, and then there’s the problem of sushi and seagulls at the same wedding. A swift beginning.

Freedom Never Dies: The Legacy of Harry T. Moore (January 12; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Channel 13) goes back half a century to celebrate one of the first martyrs of the civil-rights revolution, a Florida schoolteacher who rose through the ranks of the NAACP to become executive director for his state, agitated for voter registration and equal pay for black teachers, and was murdered on Christmas Day, 1951, by a Ku Klux Klan bomb. Langston Hughes wrote a ballad about him. Sweet Honey in the Rock sings.

Taina (January 14; 7 to 7:30 p.m.; Nickelodeon) introduces us to a new series and the remarkable talents of Christina Vidal, who stars as a 14-year-old New York City Latina, Taina Morales, starting her first year at the Manhattan School of the Arts (read: High School for the Performing Arts) and acting, singing, and dancing her way into my heart and everybody else’s. You have only to watch her work up, for acting class, first a Jennifer Lopez monologue and then a Joan of Arc. There are actual production numbers, as in Fame, and, as in Fame, these talented kids are more than up to them. They’re also surrounded by adults who wish them well instead of dead.

Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (Special Edition) (January 15; 8 to 9:30 p.m.; TCM) is the 1970 documentary recording the King’s return from so many bad Hollywood movies to live stage performances in Las Vegas. Except that it’s not. It’s been re-edited with footage omitted from the original, film shot by other cameras at other rehearsals that the original never even considered, color and sound that have been spruced and tweaked, and ten songs added to the original twenty-five. Don’t miss his version of the Beatles’ “Get Back.” Maybe it didn’t make the 1970 cut because Elvis had by then decided that John Lennon was un-American.

100 Centre Street
Monday, January 15; 9 to 11 p.m.; A&E; produced and directed by Sidney Lumet; starring Alan Arkin, LaTanya Richardson, Paula Devicq, Joseph Lyle Taylor, and Manny Perez.

Mensch on the Bench