Total TV Magazine
Dec. 31, 1994
Lovers of actor Robert Pastorelli’s character Eldin, of Murphy Brown, will appreciate Pastorelli’s new starring vehicle, Double Rush. As Johnny Verona, owner of a bicycle-messenger service, Pastorelli now shares his sage advice with Manhattan messengers while it’s the couriers who paint murals on Verona’s walls.
Johnny, like everyone else who ever messengered, has an end-of-my-rope-and took-up-bike-messengering tale. Two steps from stardom, he quit rock ‘n’ roll when promoters wanted just him and not the band. Walking New York’s frantic streets, Verona saw a guitar once owned by Jimi Hendrix and resolved to buy it earning money on a bike, which led to owning his own company.
Bike messengering itself grew out of Manhattan’s need to move packages quickly through systematically designed but thoroughly congested streets. The incentive of receiving a percentage on every package carried created a sport in which, as in other athletics, you compete with yourself. Like baseball players, couriers are only as good as their next run.
“Double rush” refers to the extra charge clients pay for direct service. Otherwise, couriers carry many packages at a time to make a decent wage. I’ve seen irresponsible aggression from every vehicle, at any speed. When a messenger is at fault, the standard explanation among couriers is: rookie.
The bike-messenger subculture thrives in many cities. In London more than 300 couriers competed at last year’s World Bike Messenger Championships. “Big City Bike Messengers,” a 1986 National Geographic Explorer documentary, compared couriers to the Pony Express riders of 1860. The Pony riders, replaced by the telegraph, lasted a year and a half, while bike messengers have lasted since 1969. Prairie air was better, but a 1989 study showed that by breathing harder, couriers are less affected by Manhattan’s high-rise confined air.
In Double Rush’s premiere, idealism prevents Johnny from selling out to a competitor, again deferring to his dream of owning a rock club. Actor Richard Portnow, as the cynical adversary, comes across as a wonderfully animated Barry Diller of delivery systems. Their quaint rivalry leads to a race for a new client’s business.
Double Rush is a harmonious confrontation between the Woodstock and X generations. Instead of hearing Murphy Brown speaking from a public stage, we’re confidantes to Johnny’s gathering his group around as Alex did on Taxi. Unlike Louie DePalma, Double Rush’s Barkley (Sam Lloyd) is a glued-to-his-seat dispatcher with a “What pressure?” personality that implies he’s heard it all. As Leo, Adam Goldberg represents the Xers. His stare reminds me of a young cyclist who, during my days as a top rider, thought I was in the way of his share of the lion’s work. I held my position as my body allowed – every generation’s story.
David Arquette, as Hunter, represents Verona’s company in the premiere’s big race. He and his opponent, dressed like soldiers in Star Wars, roll through Hollywood’s back-lot sidewalks like BMX trick riders on an L.A. beach. The cartoonish competition, as in 1986’s Quicksilver, doesn’t come close to the car chase in Bullitt that producers aspire to re-create.
Veteran couriers will cringe at seeing the sidewalk used so recklessly. So far, only the sitcom’s intro shows what it’s like to surf Manhattan on a bicycle. Civilians can attest to the city’s dangerous traffic, which couriers defy daily to survive.
I’ve had great hopes for Double Rush producer Diane English ever since Murphy Brown, on a bike, tried getting an interview by chasing President Bush. For me English’s new show may be Eldin’s mural we didn’t get to see.
Law & Order: True Grit
Total TV Magazine
August 12-18, 1995
The series has an uncompromising view of NYC crime – without bullets.
Americans in need of a sober assessment of justice may have found one Wednesday nights on NBC. Television tends to sensationalize even our biggest headline stories, but Law & Order’s formula of following a crime from arrest through investigation and arbitration is as objective as TV gets.
“Our intent has been to demystify violence and make issues the focus,” says executive producer Ed Sherin. “Writers devise plots based on ideas. Some events in the show never happened in the original ripped-from-the-headlines idea, however. The real story often doesn’t translate because not every crime provides an interesting legal issue.”
Not every crime provides a shootout, either. Law & Order has conspicuously avoided using gunfire as a dramatic devise – in fact, in its entire five-year run, only one episode has featured an exchange. In the true Law & Order fashion of trying not to exploit an issue (“intentional vagueness” is Sherin’s term for it), Lt. Anita Van Buran (S. Epatha Merkerson) defends herself at an outdoor ATM machine by killing one of her muggers, who turns out to be retarded, and arguably, not responsible for his part in the crime. The case was dissected to show everyone’s innocence except the other decision-making teenager who judged Lt. Van Buran a worthy victim. What has become a terror for some and a banal statistic for others turns out to be something of a source of pride for the wounded teenager who, at his arrest, mutters, “I took a bullet.”
“I have a real aversion to guns,” says Merkerson, who received a 1990 Tony nomination for her performance in The Piano Lesson. “That episode was interesting because it addressed the issues of black-on-black crime and the death of youth. It was important to me because I am afraid. It’s a scary time.”
“It seemed organic,” says Sherin of the true-to-life shooting. “That moment had to be recorded.”
What also seems organic is the show’s continued use of one of the world’s greatest natural sets: New York City. In spite of TV’s renewed interest in the city (witness the runaway popularity of NBC’s Friends and the debut of CBS’s Central Park West), Law & Order’s loyalty to the Big Apple is to be commended in light of “consistent cost overruns.” Sherin only reluctantly admits that some of the show’s scripts were even written elsewhere, emphasizing that all rewrites are done in New York.
The only reason to be here, says Law & Order creator Dick Wolf, “is because New York doesn’t look like anyplace else. It sure doesn’t look like Toronto, Vancouver or any of the other places they try to tell you is New York. You can see all the way down Madison Avenue that it’s not the back lot of Universal.”
Although the series is behind in popularity polls, it is years ahead in authenticity because of its use of the city’s finest homegrown acting talent. Says Merkerson: “For an actor, New York has everything. It feeds you. You’re always near an event and people. The buildings, the traffic – you can research the world in New York.”
Authenticity and issues drive Law & Order, yet character development is essential, as the show’s producers and first-rate cast well know. During the filming of Chris Noth’s last episode (his recent release marked the show’s sixth cast change in five years), Sherin had to smile when Noth insisted on slowing down rehearsal to explain, It’s still my character. I know how he thinks! Several old cast members have appeared in new episodes, and Noth is expected to do the same. And Wolf wants to take Law & Order “one more evolutionary step” forward by casting 31-year-old Benjamin Bratt as a conservative, Generation X detective. Wolf doesn’t believe, though, that the cast changes have hurt the show’s effectiveness. Quite the contrary, in fact. “People go on to bigger and better things.,” he says. “People get divorced and leave, move to different cities. This is a lot closer to reality than something that runs for five or six years with the same people every week and nothing changing.”
While the run-of-the-mill cop-and-lawyer shows have perennially misrepresented those professions, Law & Order has concerned itself primarily with, well, law and order. The episodes typically conclude in the vicinity of Manhattan’s Foley Square, where city, state and federal courts are located. As the camera pulls away, the insightful viewer might recall the words of Plato: As long as there is crime in society, there is no justice.”
Dick Wolf concludes: “The play is the thing in this show, and a lot of people play Hamlet. The story, along with the city, is another full character. It reflects reality to the degree that people have a tendency to think about a Law & Order episode long after seeing it.”
The Unsinkable Murphy Brown
Murphy Brown has run its course. Or, perhaps, by enduring the country’s cycles of prevailing opinion, Murphy Brown fulfilled her promise. For a long time television presented women in men’s shadows-at least until Laura Petrie’s timidity became Mary Richard’s anguish. In the torturously slow evolution of female characters on series TV, Murphy’s accelerated career trajectory cast an even louder echo than intended. It’s as if Murphy Brown literally danced across our television screens, backed by Stevie Wonder singing “You haven’t done nothing” directly to the uncrackable corporate glass ceiling itself.
Diane English found Murphy one day while waiting her turn in traffic on a Los Angeles freeway. She said she knew instantly that Murphy was the idea she had been looking for. And in a subtle form of homage, the Murphy workplace duplicates The Mary Tyler Moore Show newsroom. Murphy’s office, stage right, is the one Mary Richards should have gotten when Lou left for L.A. It’s obvious in how Murphy grilled people over her desk, just like Lou. This was an office door Murphy was born to knock down.
But Murphy Brown symbolized much more than a woman doing a high-level job competently. She was an idealist, standing not against American belief in family, but against the American attitude that places a disproportionate amount of blame on women for single motherhood. Dan Quayle’s opinions notwithstanding, maybe Murphy provided a right turn on the road to tolerance.
Personally, I considered Murphy’s obnoxiousness a necessary medicine that made me feel better. Like M*A*S*H , Murphy Brown was a bitter pill that didn’t simply provide laughs. Even as ratings started to slip towards the end of the series’ ten-year run, the strong character English established didn’t evolve into a gentler Murphy for wider demographic appeal. Whereas other shows following their peak years add new characters to function as comic diversions, I warmed to Murphy’s new foils, who were simply counterpoints to her point of view. Season eight’s ditzy blond anchorman Miller Redfield, for example, allowed Murphy to pointedly satirize the cliché. Then there was the young female reporter McGovern (based on MTV’s Kennedy), or Murphy’s relationship with a black television executive. Every Murphy character provided not just jokes, but images reflecting the social conflicts that dart across the nation’s consciousness. Forget the dynamics of ratings and diminishing audience that Murphy endured. Nothing went wrong with Murphy Brown. Things went right.
Murphy Brown became the backbone upon which Ally McBeal, Grace, and Dharma and Cybill tried to build themselves. But while correctly portrayed as strong individuals, these female characters have primarily been provocative. Sharing Ally’s sexual fantasies may bring home a point, but the pattern still seems to be what men want to hear about women. (Granted, these same shows clearly express that men just don’t listen,) But for now, Murphy Brown is the last of the platforms from which characters—male or female—make speeches. Cheers’ Sam Malone could give a concise declaration, but the public did not turn to him for that. We identify with Jerry Seinfeld’s abstract individualism, but only Murphy yelled at us. She’ll be remembered for consistently doing what she had to do. By always taking a stand, she is one of the best heroes television ever had.
Everyone should regret not having Murphy Brown to kick around anymore. The show’s waning popularity perhaps demonstrates that the public has lost touch with just how eccentric things are “inside the Beltway.” Or maybe we don’t feel comfortable laughing about it anymore. But along the way, Murphy exposed ambition’s pitfall, and questioned her own motives so much, we were forced to question our own. I have to thank women in general for paying attention to Murphy Brown in its early days. They got me watching. And there she was, a modern Statue of Liberty. You’ll still “get em, Slugger.”
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