Though it is watched by so many more people so much more often, and penetrates and permeates our culture and nearly everyone’s like no other medium on Earth, television is still seen — sees itself, I can well imagine, from some corner of its industrial self-consciousness — as the poor cousin of the movies. Certainly this is true in the strictest sense: An hour of American dramatic TV costs on average a million, a million and a half dollars to produce, a sitcom proportionately less; no one not still being supported by his parents makes a motion picture for that kind of dough. From the consumer end, too, movies are expensive (as much as $4.50 an hour nowadays), plus you have to at least put on clothes to go to the pictures, and behave once you’re there. (You know how you are when you watch TV.) And all in all, from the absence of commercial interruptions to more technically polished productions to the cinema’s more frequent attempts at or pretensions to art, it does seem the more dignified and ambitious medium.
Yet television — habitual underachiever though it is — has some cool tricks of its own. It works on an intimate scale, depends less on star presence and, being by tradition if not necessarily by nature a serial medium, can afford the time to delineate character slowly and completely, to work out complicated, Hydra-headed storylines that more closely approximate the patterns and rhythms of life and build, through cliffhangers and climaxes, to reckonings more powerful for being delayed. (That TV rarely lives up to its potential is a business/talent problem, not a fault of the medium itself.) The Sopranos, for example, even given its half-network-length seasons (the third is just about to start), is already something like 24 hours long, and though the series is sometimes called “cinematic” on account of its good looks and moral complexity, its virtues are for the most part particular to the tube.
These virtues are nowhere better displayed than in the 1989 British drug-trade miniseries Traffik, currently being shown (in two roughly three-hour installments) at the Museum of Television & Radio, and the basis of the Steven Soderbergh theatrical feature of the same, differently spelled name. I am, I know, just a minnow swimming against a foamy tide of nearly unanimous critical opinion, not to mention the Oscar nods, but the TV Traffik (directed by Alastair Reid, who made Tales of the City and some early Inspector Morse) makes the big-star, cut-and-compressed Americanized remake look dumb, didactic and not a little bit dull: The telefilm, which concerns heroin rather than cocaine and is set in Pakistan, Hamburg and London instead of Mexico, San Diego and Cincinnati, is more subtly nuanced, more suspenseful, less pedantic, more genuinely thought-provoking, more politically astute, more visually acute and better acted (because better written, by Simon Moore, who later penned the less good The 10th Kingdom). While Traffic lifts from Traffik characters, storylines, scenes and even specific bits of dialogue and business — only the “Tijuana” segment departs significantly from the model, though it follows a similar moral curve — it cuts away the meat, leaving a skeleton that suggests the shape of a story without actually telling one, and pasteboard characters whose actions are on the one hand predictable and on the other, because they have no real substance, unintelligible: They jump from A to Z, as the filmmakers find convenient, without passing through C or G or even P. Not to say Q. (And what of W?) The characters in Traffik function as symbols (of their class, their nation, their link in the drug chain), but they are recognizably human as well, and each approaches his/her fate, comes to new conclusions or abandons old ones by increments, each step proceeding plausibly from the last.
Traffik benefits from its length, of course — five and a half hours — just as Traffic, in attempting to tell the same story, suffers from its (relative) brevity. The miniseries has the proportions and scope and shape and serial construction of a Victorian novel, and is most specifically Dickensian in the way it traces the effects of a social problem through several strata of society. (Masterpiece Theater, which aired Traffik in the U.S. in 1990, was in this respect a fitting venue.) The melodrama it courts is softened by the simplicity of the production and the natural, unshowy performances: Bill Paterson, who had been in Comfort and Joy, and Julia Ormond, who had not yet been Sabrina, are to an American eye the most recognizable faces in an able international cast. (The film is trilingual.) Soderbergh’s decision to shoot each strand of the story in a separate style is actually inimical to the point of Traffik, which is that it’s all the same story — not one of division but of interconnectedness, of remote lives affecting other remote lives — and that from the Pakistani poppy fields to the Hamburg shipyards to the London tenements, in the town and the country, in mansion and marketplace, the farmer, the dealer, the smuggler, the cop, the politicians and the junkies are shackled together in the same drug-making, drug-taking, drug-busting parade.
Sidney Lumet’s first film, 12 Angry Men, was also an adaptation of a teleplay; Lumet began in television, in fact, where he worked on various anthologies TV Land will never rerun, before going on to make Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, The Verdict and, of course, Network, in which he bit the hand that used to feed him. All is forgiven now, apparently, and 40 years after he last worked in the medium he’s come back — following a generally undistinguished decade in film — as executive producer and creator of 100 Centre Street, a kind of Night Court without the jokes, and the first original dramatic series from the Arts & Entertainment Network. (I would guess the success A&E has had with reruns of Law & Order, which this season has Lumet peer Arthur Penn as an executive producer, has something to do with this.) One wants it to be good, because Lumet is, notwithstanding The Wiz and A Stranger Among Us, a major American director, and because Alan Arkin is in it — Alan Arkin, whom you have loved since you first saw The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming — as a controversy-plagued liberal judge. And also because one just roots for the old guys — Lumet turns 77 this year — especially as one looks down one’s own lonesome road toward what for some reason is called the Golden Years. But it’s a disappointment.
You can’t say it isn’t earnest, or serious about exploring what Lumet calls “the separation of law and justice.” Here and there an interesting idea gets kicked around, a novel situation is advanced — a Vietnamese man holds a courtroom hostage to try the soldiers who massacred his village, a prosecutor and a public defender come to opposite views of their case — but the series falls victim again and again to corniness and implausibility and simple bad writing. At times, when the court is just doing quick business, the show feels believable enough — it’s shot three-camera, live-TV-style on 24-frame high-density video, with impressively filmic results — but then assistant D.A.s start smooching in the office, or lawyers and judges fraternize unprofessionally, or someone says something like “What about the lady with the blindfold, sword and scales?” and the klaxons and red lights just go off in my head. The show is full of little speeches, monologues that go on too long and have the tang of acting exercises, and are often further compromised by sappy underscoring. Lumet has written five episodes himself, and directed as many, but they are not particularly distinguishable from the ones he didn’t. Still, there’s Alan Arkin — though not nearly enough of him — informing every instant he’s onscreen with his innate menschiness, keeping it grounded, making it real. If the rest of the show can catch up with him, I’ll be back.
TRAFFIK | At the Museum of Television & Radio, 465 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 786-1000 | Screening in two parts through April 27; shown in its entirety April 28-29
100 CENTRE STREET | A&E | Mondays, 9 p.m.
Copyright Robert Lloyd © 2001 and 2011