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Dan Barrett is an industry commentator & TV critic. He does radio - 4BC & ABC GC and co-hosts the Screen Watching podcast. He's a former Mediaweek deputy editor and content creator for SBS.
Is 'Criminal' Netflix's boldest TV drama yet?
Always Be Watching is written by Dan Barrett who is still in scrubs
Tom Welling will be a part of the upcoming CW Crisis TV event that will link together all of its DC superhero shows while also bringing in actors from previous DC properties to reprise their former roles (or play connected roles, in the very least). Understandably, you may not remember who Tom Welling is. He played Clark Kent in the teen drama Smallville.
New Netflix series Criminal sounds like it has completely upended the form and structure of TV, while also delivering a series that will be very familiar to fans of a certain 90s cop drama. This blurb from Matt Zoller Seitz’s review has told me all I need.
Netflix’s Criminal is a thought experiment that’s been turned into a TV show. Created by George Kay (Killing Eve) and Jim Field Smith (The Wrong Mans), it presents criminal investigations spread across four different countries — Spain, England, France, and Germany — each with its own title beneath the Criminal series umbrella. In all four subseries, the action is focused on a single floor of a police station, with the interrogation room as the focal point, creating an effect somewhat like the legendary Homicide: Life on the Street episode “Three Men and Adena,” which spent an hour on a single questioning, or HBO’s In Treatment, which unfolded almost entirely within therapy sessions.
There’s a great interview with Mimi Leder at Indiewire about her work on ER. Leder was one of the series biggest influences, coming on to direct the first regular episode of the series (after the two-hour pilot) and shaped so much of the look and feel of the show as the series primary director.
In her first “ER” episode, “Day One,” you can see this in action when Leder tracks her lead doctors — Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards), Doug Ross (George Clooney), and Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield) — from a dark stairway out onto a sunlit helipad as a helicopter lands, hands off a few patients, and the doctors wheel them back inside. That outdoor scene features a few cuts, but once they’re inside the emergency room, Leder’s camera follows the first patient down the hallway and into an operating bay, roams around the nurses and doctors trying to help, and then smoothly pivots through the connecting doors to the little girl crying out for her mother. It’s one long take — no break for the doctors means no break for the audience, either.
“I don’t remember the episode, but we had not aired yet […] We were all working so hard, and Noah Wyle came up to me and said, ‘Mimi. Do you think anyone’s gonna like this show? What are we doing here?’ And I looked at him like he was an absolute alien. […] I said, ‘Man, this is great! What are you talking about? Everyone’s gonna love this!’ And guess what? They did! It’s not that I was being cocky or a know-it-all, it just felt so good and I liked it. Not everything I like, everyone else likes, too, but you know, whatever.”
One of the great forgotten shows was medical drama Chicago Hope. This was a quiet, character-driven hospital drama from David E Kelley that was set to be the biggest thing on TV in 1994. The critics were expected to be bowled over by it. And it is a really strong, solid show (at least in its first season when Kelley was more involved).
The problem was that it not only debuted the same year as the bigger, flashier, and quite a bit better drama ER. But it also aired in the exact same timeslot on the same night.
One of the first season episodes is notable for being one of the very few times that a woman’s breast was shown on US broadcast TV. It was a smart, sensitive episode about a teenage girl who needed to have a breast reconstruction. When looking for articles about this (I was curious about any backlash as I couldn’t recall any), I stumbled upon this great piece about television censorship in the mid 90s. It is a strong reminder of how much bolder TV was in the 90s than you would find on air today.
CBS entertainment president Peter Tortorici told a recent meeting of the International Radio and Television Society that viewers tuning into a late-night, adult drama have "a presence of mind" to know what the show is about. He referred specifically to the "Chicago Hope" scene, saying that the context made it clear the exposure of the woman's breasts "wasn't put there for ratings purposes or to be exploitive."
Since late-night, adult audiences are more willing to accept a brief glimpse of a woman's breast or a man's buttocks, the networks are more likely to push the envelope in the 10 p.m. time slot, right?
"I don't think we're pushing the envelope," said NBC's Ms. Weinman. "We're actually behind the country at large when it comes to social values and mores. Television is actually lagging behind."
Her boss agrees. NBC president Warren G. Littlefield said that NBC showed a scene similar to the "Chicago Hope" breast-surgery sequence on "St. Elsewhere" nine years ago. "I don't think we've pushed the envelope here. I don't think we've pushed any boundaries."