THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
It was a no-brainer for long-running shows with rabid fanbases like The X-Files and Star Trek to see lavish DVD releases. The next development, releasing new shows like 24 and Alias hot off the presses, has become a good way to help promote upcoming seasons. But the least likely trend is the release of box sets for shows that never got off the ground. Steven Bochco may be famous for Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, but he's been responsible for some turkeys as well, most notably Cop Rock. His 1997 series Brooklyn South is a classier affair than that but that didn't help it last more than one season.
Brooklyn South may seem redundant considering the glut of New York cop shows, but the concept is quite different from Law and Order and NYPD Blue. Brooklyn is New York's most populous borough (it would be about the third largest city in the country if it seceded from NYC) and much of it is utter chaos compared to the more tourist-traveled streets of Manhattan. Brooklyn South is a much more street-level view of big city policing than the other shows. It also features beat cops, rather than detectives. The conflicts faced by a precinct of police officers are a very different animal from the measured investigations undertaken by detectives.
When Brooklyn South aired most of the attention was given to the blast of violence that kicks off the pilot. The episode starts with typical cop show material: Phil Roussakoff (Michael DeLuise) joins the squad and reports to roll call, run by Sgt. Donovan (Jon Tenney). The rest of the squad (including actors like Yancey Butler and Dylan Walsh) seems friendly enough but while this standard introduction is taking place something else is happening on the street. What starts as a normal Brooklyn incident (a fender bender, an argument) turns shockingly violent very quickly. While "shocking" moments in television shows often grow quaint over time, the suddenness of the violence here is still effective, eliciting gasps from viewers. Word gets back to the precinct that this is going down and the squad empties out onto the street. The ensuing chaos contains what was probably one of the most explicitly violent moments ever shown on a television show and overall is gripping and disturbing.
The problem with an opening like this is that it's obviously a tough act to follow. The rest of the episode concerns the aftermath, visits to the hospital, and crying. The most incendiary follow-up involves the family of the killer. That's because Brooklyn South takes a bold (and not particularly PC) approach to the racial aspect of the characters. Most of the cops are white and the criminals are often black. This tactic was controversial but it gives the show a chance to get a little deeper into the roles these folks play in society: The cops and their families are shown as at least somewhat racist and the community is portrayed as critical of the police. Considering that the fictional Brooklyn South stories aired soon after the very real torture of Abner Louima in a station house not far from the show's 74th precinct, the tension in scenes like these is very real.
The show is at its strongest when dealing with heavy issues: The aftermath of the opening slaughter, the hesitation of a witness to come forward in the killing of a poor family, the anger between Hasidic Jews and their black neighbors. It's also good at presenting most of the cops as complex, fundamentally decent, but flawed, people. This is helped along by some fine performances. Nearly everyone in the cast is good, with the real stand-outs being Titus Welliver as the angry, but sometimes surprisingly tender,
Jack Lowery and Gary Basaraba as Richard Santoro, a quiet, soulful guy. (One episode that finds Santoro helping out his nogoodnick brother-in-law is particularly hilarious.) The only consistently terrible performance is by Bradford English as the precinct's captain. An actor with an impressive resume and a familiar face, he's shockingly amateurish and basically turns every scene he's in into community theater. I don't understand how he can be so bad, but there it is.
The stories on the show reach out for weirdness a little too much at times. A situation like sex-crazed exhibitionist clowns may very well have happened at some point in time but here, surrounded by heartbreakingly real crime, it plays as very stupid.
My major hesitation with this show (and all of Bochco's work) is that for all the effort put into appearing honest, there is a fundamental slickness to the production. The show seems "gritty" in some ways but the violence and gruff language are at odds with the obvious Hollywood sound stages and overly-pretty lighting. Compared to the true location looks of shows like Law and Order (which is shot entirely in New York) and Homicide (ditto for Baltimore), Brooklyn South, like NYPD Blue just doesn't feel real. Throwing in a word like "asshole" every now and then can't combat the fake visuals and overly sentimental nature of some of the material. Brooklyn South was a good show that never quite became great and, thanks to an early cancellation, never got the chance.
The full-frame video is acceptable, if a bit soft. Colors are vibrant and compression is subtle, but overall there is a bit of a lack of sharpness that keeps the transfer firmly in TV land.
The Dolby Digital stereo track is pretty good. Dialog is clear and the music, while incredibly schmaltzy, sounds fine.
The only real extras are a rather uninteresting commentary track from co-creator David Milch on the pilot episode and an interview with Bochco.
There are also some police codes and some bios. An underwhelming set of extras for such a pricey release.
Never quite attaining that next level, the solid Brooklyn South has some very good ideas and a willingness to pose tough questions, but Bochco's slickness (which he tries to pass for grit) and first-season growing pains prevent the show from really taking off. Had it stuck around maybe these early episodes would have gained additional depth in retrospect. Instead, what's left is one year's worth of a contender.