StoryConceived as a "22-hour movie for television," the incendiary first season of Crime Story (1986-87, on NBC) marked a controversial milestone in TV history, and its lasting influence can be seen in such better-known series and films as The Sopranos, Homicide: Life on the Street, Donnie Brasco, Casino and elsewhere. The season-long story arc followed Chicago Police detective Lt. Mike Torello (Dennis Farina) and his tireless pursuit of fast-rising mob boss Ray Luca (Anthony Denison) from Chicago to Las Vegas, circa 1963-64. Heading the Major Crimes Unit (MCU) with his hand-picked team of detectives (including fresh-faced Bill Campbell, long before Once and Again) and passionate public defender David Abrams (Stephen Lang), Torello moves from city to federal jurisdiction as Crime Story unfolds its post-Kennedy scenario with stark, often brutal authenticity, pausing for stand-alone episodes that propelled the Torello/Luca rivalry while showcasing such up-and-coming guest stars as David Caruso (in the electrifying pilot), Gary Sinise (who also directed two episodes), Ving Rhames, Lorraine Bracco, and 19-year-old Julia Roberts, who shows early promise as a sexually abused teenager in "The Survivor," a typical example of the show's emphasis on character depth and gritty, hard-hitting plotlines.
Riding high on the success of Miami Vice, executive producer Michael Mann (who helmed the penultimate episode "Top of the World") had several aces up his sleeve: Cocreator Chuck Adamson had been a legendary Chicago detective; Farina was an 18-year veteran of the Chicago Police before he switched to acting; and Luca's dim-witted Mafia sidekick, Pauli Taglia, was played by John Santucci, who had been one of Chicago's most notorious criminals in the 1960s. All of this--along with James A. Contner's color-saturated, mostly nocturnal cinematography--guaranteed that Crime Story would be unique for its time, earning controversy (over its rugged depiction of violent cops) and just enough ratings against ABC's Moonlighting to win a second-season reprieve. Unfortunately, Anchor Bay's budget-conscious DVDs represent a missed opportunity: Crammed onto four discs with five episodes each (with the pilot on a separate disc), the transfers barely rival VHS quality, and costly music rights resulted in song replacements that loyal viewers will regret. Lack of chapter indexing and a perfunctory background essay do little justice to a landmark TV series that deserved a full-featured release on DVD. Those caveats aside, Crime Story can be appreciated as an ambitious American epic that still packs a wallop. --Jeff Shannon