"EZ Streets" makes an auspicious debut this weekend with a fabulous two-hour pilot. And that leads into next week's first hourlong episode, which is just as good.
Be warned right off the top, however, that this is not a show for the entire family. CBS plans to air a warning - "Due to adult content, parental discretion is advised" - before each episode.Not that "EZ Streets" is "NYPD Blue" by any means - there's no nudity. But some of the language is rough - sort of PG rated. And there's a good deal of violence.
The violence, however, is not gratuitous. It is part of this intriguing, absorbing drama.
"EZ Streets" follows the lives of four characters - one of them operating on one side of the law, two of them operating on the other, and the other sort of straddling the line between good and bad.
Creator/executive pro-du-cer/writer Paul Haggis, whose credits range from "thirtysomething" to "Walker, Texas Ranger" to "Due South," has created a series that's intelligent and thought-provoking - two qualities that aren't overly abundant in network television.
"I like to write up to my audience rather than down to them," Haggis said. "I think the American public is very intelligent, and I think that they'll follow things that TV for a long time has been saying they won't."
And, while it might sound like mere self-promotion, Haggis was correct when he said, "There is an epic, literary and somewhat lyric quality to the show. The characters are not easily definable."
At the center of "EZ Streets" is police detective Cameron Quinn (Ken Olin of "thirtysomething"), a highly moral but not particularly likable character. The son of a "dirty cop" (Rod Steiger), Quinn has always been a straight arrow.
But his partner not only gets himself killed in the opening minutes of "EZ Streets," but also leaves Quinn looking dirty, too.
At the other end of the spectrum is hoodlum Jimmy Murtha (Joe Pantoliano), a character correctly described by one critic as "extremely likable and extremely vile."
Jimmy is completely loyal to his friends. He's also a violent, vulgar and ruthless criminal.
Jimmy thinks so little of beating a man, shooting him and having him killed that when he goes to confession, the only thing he can think of to confess is that he took the Lord's name in vain. But he's utterly shocked when his girlfriend suggests having sex in one of the church's pews.
"EZ Streets" is a drama about moral ambiguities. Daniel Rooney (Jason Gedrick of "Murder One") went to prison for three years for a crime Jimmy committed. Jimmy wants to make it up to him, but Danny wants to go straight.
But in order to win back his wife and child, Danny needs money - and the only way he can get money is with Jimmy's help.
"I want to get out of this affiliation with the crime end of the neighborhood I grew up in . . . but I'll never, ever separate where I came from," Gedrick said of his character.
"He's really fighting to stay out of this world and to climb out of this world, and whether he'll succeed or not we'll find out," Haggis said.
Theresa Conners (Debrah Farentino) is a highly successful attorney. And she's Jimmy's lawyer. She's also on the receiving end of an abusive relationship with the criminal.
"As a woman, she was never allowed to be part of the gang," Farentino said. "And so she found a way where she could be powerful and involved and needed."
While these are not exactly the people who live next door to must of us, their attitudes do reflect America today.
"There's a cynicism in this country - a cynicism that's become endemic," Haggis said. "And this is about one cop . . . that has to deal with that corruption and find his way through and try to find a piece of the truth.
"But then on the other side, you've got these two palookas who are dealing with a very different world - a very violent world - and yet this is a world that has its own moral codes. And then you have Theresa, who sort of walks between all their worlds."
"EZ Streets" exudes an air of gritty reality, which may not be mere coincidence.
"I went to New York and Detroit and Chicago and started doing research on corruption - which was not that hard to find - and just immersed myself in that world for six months. And came up with a script," Haggis said.
That script involves the murder of Quinn's partner, his own disgrace within the department and his being recruited by a special police crime unit to infiltrate Jimmy's gang.
Don't expect Haggis to lay everything out for you all at once in "EZ Streets," however. There are conspiracies within conspiracies, and neither Quinn nor the viewer is exactly sure what's going on.
Jimmy not only battles the police but also tries to take crime business away from a more established gangland boss. That boss apparently has the mayor in his pocket - as well as a portion of the police department.
But we're never quite sure whether things are what they seem to be. There are mysteries within mysteries, and loyalties are difficult to determine.
Yet the characters are all intriguing despite - or perhaps because of - their massive flaws. And it's the characters that Haggis has drawn and the actors have brought to life that make "EZ Streets" superior television.
Though the shows couldn't be more different, Olin sees a parallel between the characterizations of "EZ Streets" and "thirtysome-thing."
"I think that `thirtysomething' was very much of its time," Olin said. "It was very much about a group of people at a certain age at a certain time in this country's history in which self-exploration was vital, at least to some people. And I think that's changed. That time has passed.
"And so I think to do something which really explores the ethical landscape of our urban world now and that decay and those struggles is very pertinent."
What makes "EZ Streets" so intriguing is that neither the situations nor the characters are easily judged. Most television is, figuratively, staged in black and white. This is all shades of gray.
"There's an ambiguity with all of these that I think is very unusual in television or film," Farentino said.
"I think we're following some characters that are not the most straightforward in the world," Haggis said. "What their motivations are, what they do aren't exactly spelled out in black and white."
In a medium full of cookie-cutter TV shows, "EZ Streets" is a handcrafted, high-quality product. From the writing to the casting to the production values, there's considerably more care involved here than in the average TV show.
Even the music is special - songs by artists including Loreena McKennitt, Caroline LaVelle and Mark Isham constitute some of the best use of music ever in a weekly television series.
Once again, "EZ Streets" is not going to appeal to everyone - and it's far too violent for younger viewers. But it's the sort of high-quality show that doesn't come along very often.
The two-hour premiere of "EZ Streets" is scheduled for Sunday at 8 p.m. on CBS/Ch. 2. The show moves to its regular one-hour time slot on Wednesday at 9 p.m.