Damaged Goods

Out of Joint: Scott Cohen as parole officer and Rob Morrow as a struggling ex-con in Showtime's Street Time.Photo: Ken Woroner/Showtime

Whether we miss Rob Morrow from Northern Exposure enough to want to see him impersonate an ex-con every week in a summerlong cable-television series about the federal parole system is debatable. Since, however, TV Guide neglected even to mention Northern Exposure in its May 4 celebration of the “50 Greatest Shows of All Time” – or China Beach or Homicide – I have decided to watch Street Time instead of reading TV Guide.

Except for Morrow as Kevin Hunter, who did five years for drug smuggling without ever ratting out his buddies, and Red Buttons as Sam Cahan, a grandfatherly mob boss who still enjoys ordering the occasional hit, the ex-cons we meet in Street Time tend to change each week. In the first three episodes, we are introduced to a commodities broker who has come out of the slammer HIV-positive, an FBI agent who went over to the Dark Side, and an Arab who may also be a terrorist. They will be followed by equally unsympathetic sex offenders, computer hackers, and junk-bond salesmen. We’re asked to care instead about their parole officers – such as Scott Cohen as James Liberti, who has a gambling problem; Erika Alexander as Dee Mulhern, who sleeps with a Drug Enforcement agent; and Allegra Fulton as Anne Valentine, their harassed boss.

A parole officer already has the superpowers that the Justice Department has asked Congress for in order to wage war against Islamic berserkers. A parole officer can enter your home, tap your phone, and make you pee in a cup. He can tell you who you can’t see and where you can’t work. Cross him, and he can send you straight back to prison simply by signing his name on a piece of paper, no questions asked; you are, as they say, “violated.” Such superpowers are, of course, corrupting. And maybe they are especially corrupting when they are unavailing: Suppose your ex-con doesn’t care, and won’t behave. Suppose he skips town, or an appointment. Suppose the “street” gets him, as it seems likely to get Rob Morrow, whose brother is almost as bad as his brother-in-law. Then all a parole officer can do is rage, and maybe cross the line into an abuse of his superpowers.

Street Time is written by Richard Stratton, author of a novel about his own years behind bars for conspiring to import marijuana and hashish into this country. He is cynical about absolutely everybody, and so is the camera, from so much surveillance of so much malfeasance. The streets are mean and the acting lean, not just Morrow, Cohen, Alexander, and Buttons but also Michelle Nolden and Kate Greenhouse as aggrieved spouses. I’m reminded of EZ Streets, the dark series nobody wanted to watch on CBS, maybe because it belonged on cable. But I am also nostalgic for Northern Exposure, which now seems almost the last dramatic series that wasn’t about crime and punishment.

Is it bad luck or good that has Peter Weller and his Odyssey 5 astronauts in orbit, 190 miles above Earth and messing with a satellite, when they see Earth go ballistic and pop like a blue balloon? There is no longer any home to go to, and only nine hours of oxygen left before a Deep Space Big Sleep. Except … they are awakened by an avuncular alien (Sir John Neville, calling himself the Seeker), who will arrange for them to be, well, downloaded like computer programs into their previous selves. That is to say, they come five years back into their very own pasts, in full knowledge of what is supposed to become of them. They must stop the future from happening all over again.

It will not perhaps surprise you to learn that Earth didn’t explode on its very own. It had a lot of help from secret government experiments, although I’m not clear yet whether gene therapy or artificial intelligence is the principal (hubristic) villain. Still, with Weller (RoboCop at Naked Lunch!) in charge of such Zapatista hotties and hunks as Leslie Silva, Christopher Gorham, Tamara Craig Thomas, and Sebastian Roché, we are going to have some sci-fi fun this summer.

In Brief

Stage on Screen: The Women (June 18; 8 to 10:30 p.m.; Channel 13) is the Roundabout Theatre revival with Cynthia Nixon as Mary and Jennifer Tilly as Crystal, plus Kristen Johnston very loud, Rue McClanahan very large, Mary Louise Wilson, Jennifer Coolidge, and many others, including a wonderful Lisa Emery as the book-writing Nancy, in Clare Boothe Luce’s dreadful play, which the audience should be ashamed of itself for laughing at.

Dominick Dunne’s Power, Privilege and Justice (June 19; 10 to 11 p.m.; Court TV) launches a new series with the Vanity Fair writer telling us that Jim Sullivan, of South Boston, ordered a hit in 1987 on his wife Lita, the black post-deb from Atlanta, in order to render himself more socially acceptable in Palm Beach. On camera, Dunne seems to be auditioning for Six Feet Under.

State v. (June 19 and 26, July 3, 10, and 17; 10 to 11 p.m.; ABC) lets Cynthia McFadden and ABC News follow five homicide cases through the Phoenix, Arizona, criminal-justice system, from pretrial prep to final verdict. The difference between State v. and Dick Wolf’s Crime & Punishment is that a few of the accused here may actually be innocent, and we get to know their lawyers, too.

The Smith Family (June 25; 10 to 11:30 p.m.; Channel 13), starting the fifteenth season of P.O.V., is Tasha Oldham’s wrenching account of a Mormon family in Salt Lake City that must come to terms with what faith and family mean in the face of homosexuality and AIDS.

Shattered Dreams (June 27; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) is Frontline’s account of what went wrong in the Middle East after the Oslo accords nine years ago, from the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist in 1995 through the second intifada to the Palestinian suicide bombers of today. Of course, it doesn’t do anybody any good to observe that Arafat and Sharon deserve each other; the rest of us don’t deserve them.

Street Time
Sunday, June 23, 10 to 11:45 p.m.; Sundays thereafter, 10 to 11 p.m.; Showtime.
Odyssey 5
Friday, June 21, 10 to 11:35 p.m.; Fridays thereafter, 10 to 11 p.m.; Showtime.

Damaged Goods