Michael Mann's stylish cops and robbers drama Crime Story never shared the pop culture success of his Miami Vice, but in its two seasons on the air proved to be an even more ambitious, even literate, artistic achievement. Unlike most shows of its era, the series was built upon an ongoing serial narrative with season-long arcs that required a viewer watch every episode to follow the story. It was a gamble that audiences of the time weren't ready for, and even to this day rarely succeeds (with notable exceptions, of course). At its best, the show plays out like an engrossing crime novel, rich in character detail and elaborate plotting, one which uses its long form to tell a story with more depth and substance than typical episodic TV fare.
Set against the glitzy backdrop of 1960s Las Vegas, Dennis Farina stars as hard-boiled Lt. Mike Torello, head of a Justice Department task force on organized crime waging a seemingly futile battle in a town built by and for the Mob. The show's first season traced Torello's rivalry with slickster Ray Luca as he rose from petty thief to prominent Mafioso. The season was structured with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and concluded with what seemed like a definitive finale for that particular story line. It could be viewed as a completely self-contained entity. The second season, however, makes a significant mistake early on by bringing back a pair of popular characters who, as we last saw them, were quite literally nuked off the face of the planet when an A-bomb dropped on their heads. As it's explained to us, the bomb "missed" them, you see. Not much more is elaborated on this fact until a good ¾ of the way through the season, in a deliberately surreal (though mostly just cheesy) dream sequence flashback that finally fills in the details. No, this is not a good idea. At all.
If you can set aside that one act of desperation, the second season is otherwise a compelling expansion of the story and characters developed in the first year. Ray Luca not only rises to the heights of power within his own organization, but realizes his vision of transitioning the Mob from a small-time racketeering outfit to a major international business. Torello and his squad follow every step of the way, hunting Luca from Vegas to the foundation of a drug empire in Central America. Along the way, men on both sides will be faced with dilemmas both personal and professional. One of Torello's men experiences a fall from grace and actually switches sides in the conflict. Luca, meanwhile, faces opposition from distrusting elements in his own ranks, and cannot maintain any sort of normal relationships outside of business.
Notable guest stars this season include such then-nobodies as Kevin Spacey (as a Senator with a Kennedy-accent and a libido he should keep in check), James Remar, Jack Nance, Steven Weber, David Hyde Pierce (as a back-stabbing CIA agent!), George Dzundza, Dennis Haysbert, Michael Wincott, Billy Zane, Laura San Giacomo, Elias Koteas, and Michael Jeter. Pam Grier reprises her role as the foxy reporter in love with one of the coppers, and a couple of brief flashbacks reference first-season appearances by David Caruso and Jon Polito.
The best episodes feature multi-layered storytelling (Atomic Fallout) and take great pains to explore the psychology of the characters (Always a Blonde). Story lines are rife with moral ambiguity, and sometimes the cops and crooks even find that their interests align (Little Girl Lost). The all-Luca episode Love Hurts takes us inside the mind of a man some would see as a monster, but who struggles with the same needs and desires as any other normal man, though elevated to an entirely different level.
Season Two has failings, unfortunately, even beyond the back-from-the-dead copout mentioned already. Many episodes are slackly paced, a few of the individual storylines are not that interesting, and some of the more stylistic flourishes come off as corny and dated. Late in the season, one major character simply disappears from the narrative; we're told that he's still around but he is never seen again. There are not one but two irritating clip-show compilation episodes this season (you can't just skip over them because they also contain important new footage). Worst of all, whereas Season One ended with a note of closure, the final episode of the series concludes with a cheap cliffhanger that feels like it was tacked on at the last minute in an unsuccessful bid for renewal. You could (and I suppose at this point must) read it as the end of the line for all of the major characters, but there is no doubt that had the show been renewed for a third season it would have picked up from a different angle. In fact, the cliffhanger finale is the biggest disappointment with Season Two, and had the last 10 minutes of the final episode been written differently I'd have a much higher regard for the year as a whole.
Nonetheless, Crime Story is that rarity, a classic television series just as good as it's remembered. Not fully appreciated when it was on, now the show can live on and develop a whole new audience through DVD. Even if this second season isn't quite as good as the first, it's a terrific show well worth revisiting.
Episodes included in this Season Two box set are: The Senator, The Movie Star and the Mob; Blast from the Past; Always a Blonde; Atomic Fallout; Shockwaves; Robbery, Armed; Little Girl Lost; Love Hurts; MIG-21; Moulin Rouge; Seize the Time; Femme Fatale; Protected Witness; Last Rites; Pauli Taglia's Dream; Roadrunner; The Brothel Wars; Byline; The Hearings; Pursuit; Escape; and Going Home.
Anchor Bay has been slow to trickle out the remainder of this cult TV show. A pilot episode disc with a nice video transfer freshly remastered from the original film elements was first released back in 2000. In late 2003, they finally put together a Season One box set that included the same good-looking pilot, but had the remaining episodes merely transferred from the soft and grainy 1986 analog broadcast masters. Jumping ahead another two years, the studio has finally finished off the collection with this Season Two set. Unfortunately, the quality is again disappointing.
Much like Season One, episodes here appear to be transferred from the original 1980s broadcast masters. The good news is that the overall picture quality is a slight improvement over the first season. The 4:3 aspect ratio picture is still soft and grainy, but is a little less fuzzy and has noticeably better saturated colors. It still looks very dated and nowhere near current DVD standards, but for TV episodes from 1987 they are acceptable. Short of a full restoration as was done for the pilot episode (which would be exorbitantly expensive for a full season), the color transfer is probably as good as Crime Story is going to look, sad as that is to say.
That's the good news (if you can call it good). The bad news is that Anchor Bay has decided to cram even more episodes per single-sided disc than they did the last time around. Digital compression quality was compromised badly enough with 5 episodes per disc, but in this new box set they've shoved up to 6 episodes to a disc side. The resulting compression quality is atrocious. Most episodes are at least watchable, but others are almost as bad as I've ever seen a DVD look. This is inexcusably shoddy work.
Screen captures don't begin to do it justice. Don't even try to watch these episodes on a large screen. I made the mistake of trying to watch some of them in front projection and almost wanted to cry. I eventually decided to finish off the season by switching between a 17" TV and a portable DVD player. Even on such small screens, the pixelation artifacts, compression grain, and smeary details were evident, though less disconcerting.
If there's anything to be grateful for, the sound quality of the Season Two set is a decided improvement over the Season One DVDs. Somewhere between their initial broadcast run on CBS and later syndication, the original stereo audio tracks for the first season were lost and the resulting DVDs were a thin and flat monaural. Somehow, the second season's stereo audio was preserved and is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. It's a fairly basic mix, with only the music having any sort of stereo dimensionality (and occasional bleed to the surround channel) and all the rest coming from the center speaker, but the period songs generally sound great and gunshots have a little more life to them.
I'm not knowledgeable enough about the original broadcasts to know if any of the licensed songs were replaced for home video. Some episodes have what sounds to be generic filler music, but just as many others contain familiar licensed tunes.
No subtitle options have been provided.
Anchor Bay once again skimps on the extras. They've packaged the set up in a handsome box that is unfortunately rather flimsily constructed (my disc trays fell out on the first day). The box has a handy booklet filled with trivia notes about the series, but no video supplements of any kind.
No ROM supplements have been included either.
Season Two of Michael Mann's legendary Crime Story TV series builds upon the first season, even if it doesn't manage to improve it. The show has some ups and downs, but remains excellent entertainment. Even with such sub-par DVD quality, this set still comes recommended.