[The wild, the not-so-innocent and the

Why did CBS betray the best cop show of the year?

the doubt-wracked undercover cop who gets in a little too deep. The charming mobster who's a little too full of himself. The sexy moll who's a little too kinky for comfort. There's nothing in CBS's crime drama "EZ Streets" that you haven't seen elsewhere over the past few years, or even the past few days -- the Al Pacino-Johnny Depp film "Donnie Brasco" just opened in theaters and NBC has been running commercials for a copycat show called "Prince Street" that debuts this week. But "EZ Streets" covers all of its familiar plot lines with such conviction and inventive perversity, you almost believe you're watching them for the first time.

A blood relative of "The Godfather," "Mean Streets," "GoodFellas" and, especially, the mob-heavy cop show "Wiseguy," "EZ Streets" -- which returns Monday after a four-month hiatus -- is noirish and densely plotted and driven by great reams of jazzed dialogue. Created, written and produced by Paul Haggis, it's a juicy, twisted crime-drama-junkie's dream. But it's also the type of show that tries a network's patience. The two-hour pilot episode of "EZ Streets," which aired Oct. 27, pulled down some of the best reviews of the fall TV season, but it was a stunning ratings bust. So was the first regular episode, which aired three days later. And then it was gone, yanked off the schedule in an extreme instance of network panic.

Even though CBS is giving "EZ Streets" another shot, the network's decision to bring it back cold, without a rerun of the crucial pilot, looks pretty much like a stacked deck. Although the show has gotten good word of mouth and seems to be building a following, it probably has about as much chance of reappearing next September as Jimmy Hoffa. Anyway, here's a tip for viewers watching it for the first time: Don't get stuck on sorting out the good guys and the bad guys. Trust no one, and you'll be fine.

"EZ Streets" is about fathers and sons and other paternal/fraternal orders of men. Priests, cops, the mob -- "EZ Streets" places all of their codes of honor, all of their rituals, in collision and collusion. At the center of the action is Cameron Quinn (Ken Olin, looking simultaneously rock-solid and shattered, like Bruce Willis in "Pulp Fiction"), a cop accused, along with his dead partner, of being on the take. Embittered Quinn is given a chance to rehabilitate himself; he has to act like a dirty cop -- or maybe he isn't acting -- in order to get the goods on Jimmy Murtha (Joe Pantoliano), the vicious, magnetic Irish-American mob boss fighting for control of the unnamed city's battered alphabet streets. Quinn privately suspects Murtha has something to do with his partner's murder.

During the course of the assignment, Quinn also uncovers a secret society of gangsters and rogue cops, among them the captain of his unit and his own father, who had been thrown off the force for taking bribes. Before he turned up dead in an oil drum, Dad (played, ripely, in the pilot by Rod Steiger) gave Quinn this sage warning: "We all bend in different ways. Sometimes you bend to save your ass and after a while you can't straighten up anymore."

Pantoliano's Murtha is the most spectacularly charismatic and complicated TV goodfella since Ray Sharkey's Sonny Steelgrave in the first season of "Wiseguy." Golden blond and diminutive (he puffs cigars that probably weigh more than he does), Murtha appears to be all mouth, wisecracking and boasting and pontificating with self-taught swagger. Naturally, Murtha gets the best lines: Of the lack of respect shown him by the city's corrupt mayor, he complains, "It's a quid pro quo situation. Now, I seem to be givin' out a lotta quid, but I'm not gettin' back much quo."

Murtha is as yappy as Quinn is sullen. A lot of the time, he comes off like a thuggish Chihuahua, a scampy little annoyance nicking people's ankles -- which makes his sudden flashes of savagery so disturbing (for TV, anyway). Murtha kills with little provocation, shows no mercy and keeps a meat locker full of his victims' severed hands (to use for phony finger prints on murder weapons). And he's so sick-joke funny you never want his scenes to end.

Quinn and Murtha intersect at -- or maybe that should be in -- Theresa Connors, Murtha's sleek attorney/lover who, coincidentally, had a thing for Quinn back in high school. Played by Debrah Farentino, the Sharon Stone of TV, Theresa is a damaged, thrill-hungry Catholic girl who likes to do it in churches and cemeteries and feels up Quinn under the table with Murtha sitting right there. Like all the women in "EZ Streets," Theresa is crazier, tougher and more creatively vindictive than the men (think of Mercedes Ruehl in "Married to the Mob" and Lorraine Bracco in "GoodFellas"), but that doesn't make her masochism any less sordid or troubling. She taunts Murtha into violence and laughs it off. In the pilot, Quinn asks her where she got the shiner and she boasts of her ability to take a punch.

The closest "EZ Streets" has to a sympathetic figure is Danny Rooney (Jason Gedrick, who played murder defendant Neil Avedon in "Murder One"), a hard-luck kid in whom Murtha takes a paternal interest. Everything happens to little Danny Boy: His wife is a junkie-hooker who makes him pay $200 to visit their little girl; he can't hold a day job because of his hot temper; he takes one rap for Murtha and thinks it's over but they keep pulling him back in! Rooney is a guppy in a shark tank, and Gedrick is encouraged to be as altar-boy-eager as all get out. Whenever he's on screen, you keep waiting for a visit from Father Flanagan.

But when Haggis keeps things raw and bleak, "EZ Streets" throbs like an exposed nerve. Set in an urban wasteland that looks like Sarajevo on a good day (exteriors are filmed in Chicago and Detroit), "EZ Streets" is the darkest show ever to see prime time, and this is not a metaphor. The colors are so bleached-out that until the episode where Theresa wears a bright red coat, I thought the thing was filmed in black and white. The bombed-out-looking, corroded city mirrors the inner decay of the characters -- not just Quinn and Murtha, but the mayor (Carl Lumbly) who sold out his city and himself to the mob, and Danny's inscrutably self-destructive wife, Elli (Sarah Trigger). People lie, kill and betray here, yet they all play by the rules -- the rules of politicians, cops, attorneys, mobsters, husbands and wives. Perhaps it only looks like a moral vacuum from where we sit.

In the characters' own little moral systems, some things are worse than others. Danny will excuse his wife's behavior and even the presence of her lover in their apartment in order for his little girl to have a two-parent family. Quinn will use Theresa, even though he knows she's emotionally fragile, because she's a way for him to get at the truth. And all of the characters are awash in nostalgia for a time when right and wrong were fixed concepts. Murtha pines for the good old days when the Irish and Italian gangs commanded respect and refused to deal drugs; Theresa is mourning her lost innocence; Quinn is trying to remove the stain from the family name. They're all hanging around the old neighborhood long after the childhood house has been boarded up. They're trying to get back to a state of grace.

Sure, "EZ Streets" occasionally gets so carried away by Saturday-matinee exuberance that it doesn't realize how absurdly some of it plays. Strangely, there are no teenage gangbangers, either African-American or Latino, in this inner city. As a result, "EZ Streets" sometimes looks like a middle-aged Mafia fantasy camp. Still, Haggis has created one of those totally insane yet fully realized fever-dream shows that comes along about as often as a comet. "EZ Streets" is reminiscent of "Twin Peaks" in the way its ugliness feels like both a kiss-off and a challenge to the programming around it. The show is so unpredictable that after watching the pilot and four episodes, I still have no idea where it's going. I do, however, have a strong suspicion that at this very moment, in a CBS boardroom, it's being fitted for an oil drum.
March 3, 1997

New episodes of "EZ Streets" air Monday, March 3, and Wednesday, March 5, at 10 p.m. EST on CBS. The show's regular time slot is 10 p.m. EST Wednesdays.

Should CBS do better by "EZ Streets"? Come to Table Talk and vent.

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