Sunday, April 28, 2013

Great TV Episodes: City Of Passion

"City of Passion"
November 7, November 14 & November 21, 1987
Teleplay: Charlotte Huggins & Thomas Huggins (Part 1); Dallas L. Barnes (Part 2 & 3)
Based on the Novel by Dallas L. Barnes
Director: James Whitmore Jr.

HUNTER's magnum opus, the three-part "City of Passion," based on a novel by real-life police detective Dallas Barnes, aired early in the series' fourth season. But the series almost didn't make it that far.

Low ratings and massive pummeling by critics that labeled HUNTER a crude DIRTY HARRY ripoff nearly got the show cancelled during its first season in 1984. However, Brandon Tartikoff, then the head of NBC Entertainment, allowed the show to find its legs by moving it to a Saturday timeslot, where it became a ratings hit for the rest of the 1980s.

Fred Dryer, a former Los Angeles Ram who narrowly lost the leading role of Sam Malone on CHEERS to Ted Danson, starred as Rick Hunter, who very much was influenced by Clint Eastwood during the show's first season. He even had a throwaway catch phrase, "Works for me," which Dryer usually delivered after blasting a bad guy. Hunter was, as all great TV detectives are, a maverick cop who shot first, shouted "Freeze!" later, and never balked at destroying whatever public and private property he needed to in order to capture a criminal.

Knowing this wouldn't do on a weekly basis, series creator Stephen J. Cannell (THE ROCKFORD FILES) Frank Lupo gave Hunter a partner--a woman who could bring out Dryer's softer side on-screen. Stepfanie Kramer played Dee Dee McCall, who was vulnerable and sexy, but also tough enough to earn the nickname "The Brass Cupcake" from her colleagues on the force.

Despite a rotating cast of variably apoplectic commanding officers (including John Amos, John Shearin, James Whitmore Jr., and Bruce Davison, who all barked at Hunter for crashing another car until the calmer Charles Hallahan joined the regular cast in the third season), Hunter and McCall burned rubber and broke the rules to entertain audiences for seven seasons (except Kramer, who departed after six).

By the fourth season, HUNTER--while not exactly shying away from gun battles and car chases--had become a more mature series that was marked with humor, strong characters, and a charming platonic relationship between Hunter and McCall that was a triumph of Dryer and Kramer's personal chemistry. This upgraded approach was reflected in its elegiac opening titles (see below), and HUNTER finished in the Top 20 in the Nielsens that season for the first time. A perfect representation of the stories HUNTER was telling that year was the epic "City of Passion," the series' lone three-part episode.

"City of Passion"'s sprawling narrative is indicative of its literary origins. Married couple Charlotte Huggins (billed as Charlotte Clay) and Thomas Huggins, HUNTER's story editors (and kin to executive producer Roy Huggins), and Dallas L. Barnes adapted Barnes' novel for television and spun three intertwining tales in rich detail. The strongest story teams up Hunter and McCall with Sex Crimes detectives Kitty O'Hearn (Shelley Taylor Morgan, MALIBU EXPRESS) and Brad Navarro (CHIPS star Erik Estrada) to track down a serial rapist (Fred Coffin, HARD TO KILL) whose most recent attack culminated in murder. Notable for his size 14 feet, the rapist is tagged "Bigfoot" by the detectives and is clearly the creation of Barnes, who had earlier penned the unintentionally hilarious "Big Foot," also about a rapist nicknamed Bigfoot, for a 1982 T.J. HOOKER.

Meanwhile, Hunter pokes into the case of a teenage prostitute named Stacey (FREDDY'S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE's Lezlie Deane), who contacts police with a harrowing tale of being kidnapped by Satanists who performed a blood ritual on her friend. McCall's spare time involves a political clash with Commander Cain (Arthur Rosenberg), her boss Charlie Devane's (Hallahan) boss, who pulls heavy strings in an attempt to coerce Dee Dee into dropping solicitation charges against the Governor's father-in-law, Superior Court judge Warrick Unger (BRADY BUNCH dad Robert Reed, who spent much of his post-BRADY career playing scumbags). The manner in which these subplots intersect add layers of menace to both.

It also gives the stars meatier material to play than their usual cops-and-robbers shenanigans. For Kramer, "City of Passion" is a callback to the second-season two-parter "Rape & Revenge," in which McCall was raped in her home by a foreign government official with diplomatic immunity. In part two of "City of Passion," the Bigfoot Rapist attacks McCall in her home. She fights him off, but tells her physician (Rosemary Forsyth) that she won't report the attack because of the shame and ostracism she suffered from her colleagues the last time. Because she's refusing to report a felony, she declines to tell even Hunter about Bigfoot's attack in order to protect his career.

Barnes' novel, which I haven't read, must have provided the screenwriters and producers Stu Segall and Jo Swerling Jr. with enough material for three parts, because "City of Passion" doesn't feel padded. They called on James Whitmore Jr., HUNTER's most prolific director (with 23 one-hours), to helm the epic, and he came through with a strong effort. The episode lacks the series' usual action beats for the most part, but Whitmore engineers a good deal of suspense in the rape sequences, particularly the harrowing scene that opens part one. The Satanic rituals, overflowing with candles and blood and men in robes, could easily have looked laughable, but Whitmore (a semi-regular in HUNTER's first three seasons) has a strong handle on the material and films them as horror, rather than crime drama.

"City of Passion" was HUNTER's peak in quality, as well as chronology, as the three-parter aired as episodes 70, 71, and 72 of a 152-episode run. To say it was all downhill from there isn't fair, as HUNTER turned out several more good shows in its fourth, fifth, and sixth year. The seventh season was something of a mess with Darlanne Fluegel (TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.) and then Lauren Lane (THE NANNY) failing to fill Kramer's high heels as Hunter's new partners.

The series managed to have an almost unprecedented appeal even more than a decade after it was cancelled. Three reunion movies led to a return of HUNTER on a weekly basis in 2003, again on Saturday nights on NBC. Backstage complications and NBC's inept promotion caused the new HUNTER to be cancelled after only three episodes, so it never got a chance to produce an epic to compete with "City of Passion."

1 comment:

Tex said...

From the Coincidence Or Design Of The Universe Department...

I read you; piece here last night, and found the Season 4 set at an out of the way Dollar General today.

$7 later, I'm a happy Hunter fan.

(all yer fault)