Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Killed in the Ratings: “Serpico”

(The first entry in a month-long series about American TV crime dramas that debuted with fanfare, but are now largely forgotten.)

Title: Serpico

Starring: David Birney

Original Run: 1976-1977 (14 episodes, plus pilot), NBC-TV

Premise: This Friday night series was based loosely on journalist Peter Maas’ 1973 biography of Frank Serpico, described by the author as “the first police officer not only in the history of the New York Police Department, but in the history of any police department in the whole United States, to step forward to report and subsequently testify openly about widespread, systematic cop corruption-payoffs amounting to millions of dollars.” Maas’ book Serpico had already generated a popular theatrical film of the same name in 1973, starring Al Pacino. That movie was produced by Dino De Laurentiis, whose company was also behind this TV version. For the small screen, though, the title role went to David Birney, who had appeared in the 1974 action film Caravan to Vaccarès (based on an Alistair MacLean novel), but was probably best known as the co-star, with his soon-to-be wife Meredith Baxter, of the short-lived but highly rated sitcom Bridget Loves Bernie. Pacino had portrayed Serpico as a disillusioned and often frustrated detective, who’d earned the suspicion of his department not only because he eschewed the corruption soiling so many of his colleagues, but because he had adopted the look and been influenced by the politics of America’s Vietnam War-era counterculture. Birney’s Frank Serpico didn’t come off immediately as a policeman either, but he was less scruffy and more cultured than his big-screen predecessor. Yes, he wore “hippie clothes” and rode a motorcycle, but he also ate health foods, smoked a pipe, and loved opera. And he was well practiced at the art of disguise, impersonating laborers, ex-cons, and others in the course of bringing down felons. He even had a most cooperative police associate, Lieutenant Tom Sullivan (Tom Atkins).

Developed for television by Robert Collins

Additional Notes: TV critics made much of the tonal differences between the Frank Serpico of Maas’ book and Pacino’s film, and the one Birney intended to offer viewers every week. “The format designed for NBC takes most of Serpico’s superficial characteristics and gingerly ignores the particulars of his situation,” wrote John J. O’Connor in The New York Times on September 24, 1976. “This Serpico has no problem with police corruption. In fact, his superiors are cooperative to the point of suspicious behavior. Instead, with some minor adjustments--most of them try dramatic dilutions--Serpico is stuffed into a typical action adventure format.” Nonetheless, O’Connor concluded: “Within the context of this sort of formula, Serpico is not bad. David Birney, in beard and casual street clothes, keeps the character of Serpico on a line of low-key tension. But, once the ‘action’ begins, it’s evident that we’ve seen this one before--many times.” TV watchers evidently agreed; NBC canceled the show within four months of its highly promoted premiere.

Above: Serpico’s write-up in the September 18-24, 1976, Fall Preview edition of TV Guide. (Click to enlarge the image.) Below: The program’s tension-building opening title sequence, with theme music by Elmer Bernstein.


Winifred said...

I don't remember this series only the film. Maybe the BBC didn't buy into it.

Currently we're enjoying The People's Detective" on ITV3 who are hosting the Specsavers Crime Thriller Awards. Twelve of the most iconic TV detectives are in competition. This week we have Morse versus Frost, brilliant analysis by the actors and production teams followed by a top episode. Next week it's the two Jane's, Marple and Tennyson! Detective heaven for six weeks!

John D. said...

I remember this show. As I recall, I wasn't really impressed with it. By this time, Starsky and Hutch had hit the airwaves, and the TV Serpico's hip cop didn't seem that hip in comparison. Also, I had already seen the 1973 theatrical movie, and the TV version rang hollow. It's not that it was a bad show, it just didn't inspire me to want to set aside the time on my already crowded TV-watching schedule to watch it.

Lee Goldberg said...

I've watched some episodes of this show recently... and they were AWFUL. Lame plotting, cliche-ridden dialog, stereotypical characters, flat acting, and about as gritty as a deodorant commercial. It deserved to die. The best thing about it was the main title sequence.