In the Line of Duty: A Cop for the Killing

Broken Badges (CBS, Sat., Nov. 24, 8-10 p.m.) is producer Stephen Cannell’s A-Team for the ’90s. It’s yet another TV series about eccentric law enforcers, but its twist is that these cops are really twisted: They’re all officers suspended from the force because of job-related stress and emotional problems, reinstated as a maverick unit to solve tough cases. You’ve got the hard-boiled leader (Twin Peaks‘ Miguel Ferrer), who has severe claustrophobia; an elegant smoothy (Ghostbusters‘ Ernie Hudson), who is a manic-depressive kleptomaniac; a hot-tempered ventriloquist (Soap’s Jay Johnson), who goes ballistic every time anyone calls him short; and a woman (The Young and the Restless‘ Eileen Davidson) who — hmm, now, this is interesting: In the pilot, all she does is dress in leather, ride a motorcycle, show off a few tattoos, and pretend to come on to men so that she might extract information from them. Is the show saying that women who do these things are mentally ill?

Borderline misogyny aside, producer Cannell makes just about the best pilots in the business; the initial episodes of Cannell series like Tenspeed and Brown Shoe, Wiseguy, and even The A-Team were all fast and clever, and this two-hour premiere (Badges will run on Saturdays from 9 to 10 p.m. hereafter) introduces the characters in a succession of brisk, funny scenes that showcase each star’s best skills. You may know Miguel Ferrer as Twin Peaks‘ obnoxiously sarcastic FBI agent Albert Rosenfield. Here, though, Ferrer dresses in jeans and a bomber jacket and sports a creepy little rattail of hair down his back. He’s supposed to be from New Orleans, and if this show takes off, Ferrer’s accent and Cajun-English lines like ”You seem like a real jolie femme” could become pop-culture catchphrases.

This initial episode is the sort of rote cops-and-robbers fare that’s bearable only with colorful characters, and Cannell heaps on the eccentricity. Johnson even keeps a shotgun inside his ventriloquist’s dummy; when he fires it,the dummy’s head is blown off at the same time as the crook’s. Now, that’s entertainment.

Given how sensitive the networks are about the portrayal of mental illness, it’s pretty amazing that Cannell ever got this concept on the air. But more important than the possibility of bad taste is the artistic challenge to keep these characters interesting and sympathetic. Otherwise, the show will just turn into One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Arrest.

By contrast, an eminently sane police show is on the next night, In the Line of Duty: A Cop for the Killing (NBC, Sun., Nov. 25, 9-11 p.m.). Two seasons ago, director Dick Lowry gave us In the Line of Duty: The FBI Murders, a wonderfully fast, brutal, fact-based thriller that was a big ratings hit. Now Lowry is back with his second examination of law-enforcement personnel under pressure; it’s not as fast-paced or as action-packed as The FBI Murders, but A Cop for the Killing is a solid TV movie nonetheless.

Charles Haid (Hill Street Blues) and Steven Weber (Wings) play undercover narcotics cops; in the movie’s beautifully executed opening half-hour, we see these two buddies arrange a drug purchase from a Los Angeles gang. When one of the gang members gets suspicious and panics, Haid is shot and killed — it all happens so fast, you’re likely to be as shocked as Weber is to see his friend blown to bits by a shotgun.

The rest of the movie deals with the aftermath of Haid’s death. Weber goes a little wonky, drinking too much, grieving ostentatiously, and taking foolish risks in subsequent stakeouts. The killing and Weber’s behavior put the narcotics-unit leader, played by James Farentino, under pressure to restore strength and order to the officers under his command.

At times, A Cop for the Killing is wearyingly touchy-feely, as the officers share their emotions and try to comfort the addled Weber. Lowry wants to show us that even hard-bitten cops are sensitive people. But Hill Street Blues taught us that, didn’t it? Still, Farentino is excellent — he’s one tough guy who can also seem brooding and thoughtful — and Weber’s gonzo behavior is always subtle, never showy. Both shows: B

In the Line of Duty: A Cop for the Killing
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