For a time in the late ’50s and early ’60s, TV outpaced movies when it came to frank, hard-hitting approaches to serious topics. Then the production code relaxed, the New Hollywood emerged, and suddenly television looked awfully stodgy whenever a Marcus Welby or an Ironsides tackled a hot-button issue. Starting in 1973, the anthology drama Police Story became part of TV’s attempt to reclaim its edge. Created by cop-turned-writer Joseph Wambaugh—then a hot property thanks to his gritty 1971 debut novel The New Centurions—Police Story told a different story every week, with only a few recurring actors, showing a commitment to realism that extended to making its heroes look like bums at times. Even the movie-length pilot considers the aftermath of a police-involved shooting, which sees the shooter (played by Vic Morrow) getting lambasted by a bystander who gripes that police and criminals are too familiar with each other, while the shooter’s superior (played by Ed Asner) gets called on the carpet by his boss because “your boys just like turnin’ people into garbage.” Police Story was the forerunner to the likes of Hill Street Blues, Homicide: Life On the Streets, and The Shield, trying to tell the truth as bluntly as it could within the strictures of broadcast television.
The 22 episodes on the Police Story: Season One DVD set deal with drugs, prostitution, rape, corruption, homosexuality, and feminism. (The latter figures most prominently in “The Gamble,” which doubles as the backdoor pilot for Police Woman.) Because the show brought in new characters each episode, the writers were free to put the heroes in real danger, or to show them in an unflattering light. The real stars of Police Story are the scripts and the direction, which allow for low-key, detail-oriented shop-talk as well as for scenes of the cops at home, either straining to keep a family together or (inevitably) eating foil-wrapped TV dinners in dingy bachelor apartments. At the time, big-screen movies about crime were plenty gritty, trailing in the wake of the likes of Bullitt and The French Connection. But Police Story answered with episodes like the Edgar-winning “Requiem For An Informer,” in which Tony Lo Bianco plays a detective who can’t decide whether he’s sobering up a CI because he really cares about the kid, or because he needs the info the junkie can provide. Like the best Police Story installments, “Requiem For An Informer” recognizes that the small screen has the capacity to render subtle, powerful short stories, with more attention paid to the minute psychological details than to the car chases and gunfights.
Key features: A superb 20-minute interview with Wambaugh, in which he talks about how executive producer David Gerber allowed Wambaugh to bring real cops into the writers’ room to consult.