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Saturday, July 02, 2011

Land of the Lost TV Series: Crime Story

This fall, NBC and ABC are going to try to capitalize on the success of Mad Men with two shows that are set in the 1960s: The Playboy Club (NBC) and Pan Am (ABC.) Time will tell if either of these dramas becomes a hit (I'm guessing no - too little, too late, folks,) but people may forget that this isn't the first time the 60s era was portrayed on network television. In the mid-80s, NBC did a pretty good job with a short-lived but compelling series called Crime Story.

Crime Story was produced by Michael Mann, who had left Miami Vice in 1986 to work on the new show, which took place in 1963 Chicago (and later, Las Vegas.) The series starred Dennis Farina as the tough talking Lt. Mike Torello, and Anthony Denison as his nemesis, gangster Ray Luca. Torello's thwarted attempts to bring Luca down was the underlining theme of the show, but other sub-plots were worked into the storyline, and both seasons ended with cliffhangers that left viewers wondering if the main characters would survive. 

A lot of that cool art deco style so prominent in Miami Vice oozed over into Crime Story and worked nicely in what has become known as the pre-Beatles period of American history. By the second season, each episode cost over $1 million to produce, because of the period costumes and props required and because it was shot on location. The opening theme was a cover of Del Shannon's hit Runaway, with the lyrics slightly altered. Although many clips of the show don't currently exist on YouTube, this 10-minute sequence was full of eye candy to me: a pastel colored department store, impeccably dressed extras, and shiny, fish-finned cars. Is it also wrong of me to think that the bad guy, Ray Luca, is kind of a hottie? Whoever the set director was for Crime Story, they captured the look of the time period as nicely as the crew of Mad Men does:

I get the impression that the Lt. Torello character rarely smiled in this show - he was the epitome of the crusty, hard working TV cop. This scene made me laugh - his marriage is ending, and he discovers his wife's lover in his home...but he's not giving up his beloved TV set without a fight!

Even though Crime Story only aired for two seasons, several big-time actors got their starts on the show. Julia Roberts made her TV debut playing a rape victim in one of the episodes. Gary Sinese starred as a man who robbed in order to pay for his wife's health expenses (see clip below) and Kevin Spacey portrayed a Kennedy-esque politician. Stanley Tucci played a bomber and David Caruso had a recurring role as a minor character in the pilot and some of the season one episodes. 

I regret that I didn't appreciate Crime Story as much when it first aired, but the premise just didn't appeal to my 14 year-old female mind (Don Johnson sans shirt, however, did on MV.) The show did fairly well after its premiere, where it aired after Miami Vice on Friday nights. When NBC made the fatal move of switching it to another night to compete with Moonlighting, its ratings sunk. They tried the 10 PM Friday night slot again but to no avail: the show was canceled after the second season ended and we never learned if Lt. Torello and his colleagues survived a plane crash. 

Martin Scorsese noted that at the premiere of his film Casino that Crime Story served as an inspiration for the movie. It also was one of the first TV shows that followed a storyline over an entire season, instead of episode by episode, a format which later became popular with 24 and The Sopranos.

Here's the opening theme to Crime Story. Both seasons of the show are available on DVD and you can also watch them on Hulu.


  1. Great post!! I loved the show as well... You hit all the marks.

  2. I was a young kid in the pre-Beatles era, and this was/is one of my favorite shows ever. They really nailed the cool of the period, and if a soundtrack song was really a year or two later than the time, I'd look the other way. What galled me was its getting cancelled while playing against the navel-gazing 'thirtysomething'.
    I have to think the dvd releases don't have the period pop tunes as soundtrack (music rights issues) - syndicated episodes replaced them with "Jimmy Hart versions".

  3. I have to admit, I only watched bits and pieces of this show. My last roommate was a huge fan and I remember he picked up the whole series on vhs, which is A LOT of vhs. He'd sit there and watch it and say quietly, "Effen brilliant."

    Great, informative post. I have to give this a go.

  4. Thanks for the comments, everyone! I think this show had a lot of fans that the network didn't know about...which is always the case with the ratings system and why it should be abolished (it only tracks a ridiculously teeny portion of the American TV-watching public.)

    I really want to watch the only two seasons ever made on DVD...especially for the special guest celebrity roles.

  5. I loved this show as a kid. That Del Shannon song for the intro is permanently burned into my brain!

  6. Darrin - I love the Del Shannon song, too!

  7. Oh wow, I remember this show, but I have to admit, I've only seen a couple of episodes, but I remembered I liked it.

  8. Dennis Farina (use to be a cop in real life)

    I use to watch this show also. The episode with the atomic bomb is a hoot.

  9. GREAT show...but none of these guys could shoot !! Watch some of the scenes....guys standing straight up and shooting at each other and nobody gets hit !
    I love Crime Story though.


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