LOS ANGELES — Months before it was to air, the "PBS Hollywood Presents" production of "Cop Shop" became about something that had nothing to do with what viewers will see on the screen when it airs tonight at 9 on KUED-Ch. 7.
Believe it or not, this extraordinarily gritty police show became a pawn in the current chess game between TV programmers and the Federal Communications Commission — a game that began with the Janet Jackson incident during the Super Bowl. And caused a big ruckus at the TV critics press tour back in July when executive producer David Black and star/executive producer Richard Dreyfuss threw a hissy fit when they were asked by KCET (the Los Angeles PBS station that produced the program) to bleep out three words.
Well, it wasn't quite a hissy fit, but it was a huge over-reaction to a relatively minor edit. And, frankly, if Black and Dreyfuss thought their program would be irreparably harmed by bleeping the F-word, the four-letter word for excrement and a crude sexual term, then they don't have a lot of confidence in the show itself.
(All of which was discussed in a column here back in August.)
Not that I don't understand their outrage over censorship. They correctly point out that KCET and PBS approved their original version of the show and, only after it was completed, asked for the edits. How it was that KCET at any point thought those terms were appropriate for prime-time, broadcast television is difficult to understand.
And even without them, "Cop Shop" is full of language rougher than you'll see on your average "NYPD Blue."
"'Cop Shop' is about what it it is about — a real cop who finds real solace in a real brothel," Dreyfuss said.
The first of what are essentially two one-act plays takes place in a police station, where frustration over a string of unsolved rapes has reached the boiling point. Unhappy citizens confront the police, and unhappy officers don't take kindly to the criticism they're receiving about a case they are themselves desperate to solve.
The second features Dreyfuss as an alcoholic police detective whose job is getting to him, so he turns to a hooker (Rosie Perez) for solace.
You've got to at least give Black, Dreyfuss & Co. credit for trying to do something different from your average TV show that whips past us at breakneck speed, one scene quickly jumping to the next. The first half of tonight's program is not only filled with long scenes full of — believe it or not — dialogue, but it was shot as one uninterrupted take, utilizing three cameras on dollies in a large soundstage.
"We're simply told that the audience's attention span is lessening for reasons that I don't think are necessarily scientifically and objectively true," Dreyfuss said. "I think if you present something that's good, you'll get an audience indefinitely."
"As a guy that's worked in TV for 20 years, if I ever have to write, 'Freeze! Police!' or 'Objection, your honor,' again, I will slit my throat," Black said. "The kinds of stories mainstream TV and movies generally deal with represent a tiny spectrum of human emotion. And the exciting thing about this project is that by forcing ourselves to tell a consecutive-time story, we had to go deeper into character and we were able to do much more interesting drama."
Of course, an audience doesn't tune in to a show for the process. And, while the process is interesting, the end result is less so.
"Cop Shop" plays like live theater captured for television. And live theater generally doesn't work all that well on television. It is, for lack of a better word, stagey.
And the subject matter here isn't as different as Black and Dreyfuss would like to believe. It sometimes sounds more than a bit like an episode of "NYPD Blue" or "The Shield."
Then there's that question of whether it's appropriate for a prime-time television audience. These days, when so little seems out of bounds on the broadcast networks, "Cop Shop" can hardly be accused of being in a field by itself.
But viewers should be strongly cautioned that there's a good deal of material here they may find objectionable. (And KUED programmers made the right decision in delaying it an hour — it would have started at 8 p.m. had Ch. 7 run it in PBS's pattern.)
"Cop Shop" was obviously the "labor of love" that both Black and Dreyfuss said it was. But that doesn't mean that everybody out there is going to love it.