Sunday, April 8, 2018

EZ Streets: A Hidden Gem in a Sea of Mediocrity

I've gotten to know (Shawn) S.A. Cosby online through discussions of films and books and through third party accounts of his readings at N@B events and am looking forward to meeting him in person. He brings up films I haven't thought about in a long time or have never heard of and I always take note. A few months back he asked if I'd ever seen EZ Streets and when he described it I knew he had me pegged - it sounded made for me. Since he sent me this piece I've watched the series on YouTube and concur - it's a shame it was cancelled after the first season, Shawn Ryan's The Shield owes it a debt of stage setting and too many programs that attempt to dramatize police fail to follow the examples set forth here in their approach (and then become big prime time hits). 


I'm comfortable saying EZ Streets is both good as it is and a huge missed opportunity for what it could have become.

Today S.A. Cosby is writing about EZ Streets at HBW.

EZ Streets: A Hidden Gem in a Sea of Mediocrity
by S. A. Cosby

When someone bestows the designation hidden gem on a creative work whether it be a movie, a book or in this case a television show what they are really saying is:

This was so far ahead of it’s time and you sheep couldn’t recognize it.

Well maybe not everyone. But that’s what I’m saying.

EZ Streets is a hidden gem. Created by Paul Haggis the man behind dozens of films and television shows of varying quality. Two of his scripts have won Academy Awards but he also created Walker: Texas Ranger.

Nobody’s perfect.

EZ Streets was a crime drama set in an unnamed city so decrepit and disenfranchised it was nearly post-apocalyptic. The grim production values mirrored the fatalistic tone of the show. Ken Olin starred as Det. Cameron Quinn. A good dirty cop who watched his even dirtier partner die in the first episode. Olin was fresh off his stint on Thirtysomething as the emotionally neutered Michael “No my last name really is" Steadman. EZ Streets was a 180 for him and he had never ever been better in any role. This includes his stint as a sexy priest on Falcon Crest.

Joe Pantoliano co-starred as Irish crime boss Jimmy Murtha. After EZ Streets Pantoliano would go on to give incredible supporting performances in numerous films and television shows like The Matrix, Memento and fan of role playing Ralphie Cifaretto on The Sopranos. Pantoliano is magnetic as Murtha. Alternately menacing, moribund and hilarious.

Jason Gedrick portrayed ex-con Danny Rooney. A former associate of Murtha’s at the start of the show he is fresh out of prison after doing three years for a crime Murtha committed. Danny is a quintessential “good guy” in a bad situation. Torn between his loyalty to his wife and daughter and his bond with the fellows from the neighborhood.

R.D. Call plays crime boss and rival to Jimmy Murtha Michael “Fivers” Dugan. He is nicknamed “Fivers” for his penchant for paying off cops with small bills. Call plays the role like a human shark. Cold dead eyes that never seem to flinch. Even when he’s driving a nail into someone’s hand. Familiar face Mike Starr plays Murtha’s right-hand man. Mickey. He serves as the comic relief in most scenes. A nice juxtaposition with his hulking presence.

EZ Streets was in many ways a cinematic television show. It embraced an intertextuality with many big screen crime dramas from the Seventies like Serpico, The French Connection and The Friends of Eddie Coyle while carving out its own unique style. The cinematography was impeccable. The fluid morality of the characters was illustrated with a pallet of cool grays, blues and blacks. Scenes in EZ Streets looked as bleak as they felt. The shot selection as well played like a movie instead of a TV show. Characters were framed in wide shots that gave the impression of sweeping long takes. Overhead shots were used regularly but not ad nauseum. The City was as much of a character as some of the actors.

The dialogue on EZ Streets was razor sharp. No long soliloquies or proselytizing speeches. There were no needless words. Paul Haggis and his brother Ted wrote many of the scripts themselves. Each script had a simple rhythm. Dramatic scene, dramatic scene humorous scene dramatic scene. EZ Streets scripts were like a punk song that only used a few chords. Hard, fast and effective.

In 2018 “inclusion” is a fancy buzzword some hipster likes to throw around to indicate his or her level of “wokeness.” EZ Streets first aired in 1996 with a plethora of women and minorities in prime roles. And these weren’t simple magical people of color roles or hookers with hearts of gold. The mayor on EZ Streets was a troubled complex character with noble intentions and all too human failings. He was a challenging character brought to life by Carl Lumbly in a nuanced and vulnerable performance. Deborah Farentino played Jimmy Murtha’s lawyer and lover. Theresa Conners is the smartest person in the room whether it’s the boardroom or the bedroom. She is a deeply damaged woman who knows what she likes and doesn’t apologize to anyone for it.

So incredible scripts. Amazing production design. Fantastic cast many of them doing the best work of their careers and a moody melodic soundtrack that went down like honeyed whiskey. With all this going for it why did it fail?

Tricky question but I have a few ideas.

1.Believe me I hate this term as much as you do but … EZ Streets was ahead of it’s time. There had been realistic cop shows before - Hill Street Blues comes to mind - but there had never been such a realistic show about corrupt cops before. The central conceit of EZ Streets was that everyone was guilty. There were just different degrees of guilt. There were no good guys. The show starts with Cameron Quinn taking money out of an evidence locker without permission for an undercover operation that goes south when his partner is killed. By the end of the episode we find out Quinn and his partner kept some of the money. Quinn has been sending his partner’s widow $200 a week in anonymous envelopes.

Like I said. Complex characters.

2. EZ Streets inhabited a world of unrelenting realistic violence. While tame by today’s standards EZ Streets still has about two violent acts every five minutes in a show that was sixty minutes long. In the first episode alone, we see a cop murdered, the mayor gets the nail driven into his hand, a man is stuffed in an oil barrel and drowned, a police van is firebombed, and the owner of a diner is pummeled like a government mule. Network television audiences weren’t ready to see such bloody fare as they sat down to enjoy a nice Hot Pocket.

In a post The Shield / The Sopranos / Sons of Anarchy television landscape a show like EZ Streets would be a sure hit. But we, the viewing public, were too fickle and feckless to appreciate what we had the first time around. EZ Streets is that girlfriend you dumped for NYPD Blue because you liked Dennis Franz’s ass. EZ Streets was the one that got away.

A series that has the cojones to kill Rod Steiger in the first episode doesn’t deserve the ignominious treatment it received. In preparation for writing this article I re-watched the entire first season on YouTube. The show is still as lyrical and moving and mesmerizing as it was when I would watch it after I came home from night school. A crime story that crammed more emotional character complexity into an hour than most movies can articulate in a trilogy.

A deeply layered multifaceted feat of storytelling that we tossed aside in favor of the vapid denizens of the Central Perk on Friends.

And Dennis Franz’s ass.

S.A. Cosby is a writer from southern Virginia. His short fiction has appeard in numerous anthologies and magazines including Thuglit, Fast Women and Neon Nights and Crime Syndicate magazine among others. History Slant-Six received an honorable mention in The Best American Mystery Stories 2016. His first published crime novel My Darkest Prayer will be published by Intrigue Publishing this fall.

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