By Ken Tucker
Updated March 17, 2020 at 02:55 AM EDT

48 Hours Murder They Wrote

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Just as the cable-news channels and the networks’ prime-time magazines are chockablock with real-life criminal mysteries such as the fate of Justice Department intern Chandra Levy, 48 Hours exploits the public’s appetite for lawlessness by launching a grisly little summer subseries called ”Murder They Wrote.” No, it’s not about nibbling on cucumber sandwiches with Angela Lansbury’s book club. Murder docudramatizes cases investigated by best-selling ”true crime” authors like Ann Rule and O.J. Simpson-case cop-turned-writer Mark Fuhrman.

This week’s Murder is based on Rule’s 1999 book The End of the Dream and chronicles the exploits of Scott Scurlock, a handsome drug dealer apparently inspired to rob banks by repeated viewings of Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood movie and the Keanu Reeves robber-surfer flick Point Break. Scurlock is certainly a colorful character — he built a sprawling, three-story-high tree house with hot-and-cold running water and was nicknamed ”Hollywood” by the FBI agents tracking him.

But Murder ends up playing like a solemn parody you might see on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. 48 Hours correspondent Susan Spencer begins each edition by interviewing the author and supplying the kind of hype-y voice-over (Rule is called ”the queen of true crime” and says Scurlock ”was soon hitting the books [at college] as hard as he would later hit the banks”) that could’ve come straight from the mouth of a poker-faced Daily correspondent like Steve Carell.

Real life lets 48 Hours down; while the producers dug up cool home movies of a buck-naked Scurlock beating his chest and yelling like Tarzan in his tree house, the nature boy committed suicide in 1996, and so for interviews, the show is left with people like Scurlock’s sister, who offers no insight greater than ”he clearly made some very, very poor decisions.” If this were The Daily Show, Carell might soberly conclude that chief among them was watching Point Break more than once.

No, the best crime-story programming this summer is Crime Story, the bluntly titled 1986 series being rerun on A&E. Exec-produced by Michael Mann, with a pilot directed by Abel Ferrara (King of New York), Crime originally aired on NBC and was supposed to be the network’s big fall hit, a sprawling sock-’em-fest set in early-’60s Chicago. Each week, Del Shannon sang a retooled version of his hit ”Runaway,” and the show revved up its car chases with period gas-guzzlers sprouting bat-wing tail fins. Dennis Farina starred as Lieut. Mike Torello, head of the ”Major Crime Unit.”

The series was a ratings disappointment. Although Farina couldn’t have been more authentic (he’d been a real-life Chicago cop before turning actor), viewers didn’t take to his pre-Miranda tactics like donning a black hood and whaling the tar out of a thug. Seen now, however, Crime is a groovy hoot: Compared with recent hard-boiled flops like Big Apple and EZ Streets, Crime’s big cast and TV-noir atmosphere seem tensile and efficient. Dig the cast: In the pilot alone, you had David Caruso as a sneering punk pulling jewel heists, with Once and Again’s ”Bill” Campbell, monologuist Eric Bogosian, and scuzzball comic Andrew Dice Clay providing barely-a-line background parts. Stephen Lang, who spent this past season evading both Tim Daly and the viewing public as the one-armed man in The Fugitive, had a far meatier role here as a tough public defender whose working-class liberalism earns the grudging respect of a law-and-order Neanderthal like Farina’s Mike.

In future episodes, you can spot Julia Roberts, Ving Rhames, Kevin Spacey, and Pam Grier in tiny supporting roles, and Anthony Denison giving what now looks like the performance of his career as Crime’s archenemy, the gleamingly pompadoured mobster Ray Luca, who plugs Caruso while being careful not to muss his own sharkskin suit.

Michael Mann, still hot with the success of Miami Vice, used his juice with NBC to keep Crime on the air for two seasons, but I’d be deceiving you if I didn’t say that the second one dragged a bit. (They never shoulda got rid of Darlanne Flugel as Mike’s hot, brainy wife, Julie, during the first season. With Flugel doing the smoldering, Farina for the only time in his career was believable as a chick magnet.)

But when Mike barrels into a blood-spattered double-homicide scene muttering ”Looks like a Jackson Pollock,” you’ll wonder whether novelist James Ellroy was glued to the screen, taking notes for later novels like L.A. Confidential. Like so many good fictional endeavors, Crime Story seems more real than all the facts that 48 Hours’ ”true crime” series can muster. 48 Hours ”Murder They Wrote” Grade: C; Crime Story Grade: B+

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48 Hours Murder They Wrote

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