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TV REVIEW : ‘Detective’ a Fascinating but Flawed Hour

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TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

If you’ve seen the current Fox series “Cops,” you’ve seen the new ABC series “American Detective.”

Arriving almost on cue as an image-correcting antidote to the Rodney G. King case, “American Detective” bows at 9 tonight on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42. The premiere is a salute to law enforcement that virtually clones “Cops” while televising Portland, Ore., police during drugs busts, stakeouts, undercover assignments and brief side trips into the private lives of officers. Police in Florida are featured in future episodes.

Two half-hour segments (the series was originally designed as a half-hour) are merged by executive producer Paul Stojanovich (formerly of “Cops”) into each hour. Although somewhat repetitive, the result is mostly a fascinating mix of action and tenderness that at once humanizes police officers and captures their tenacity in difficult jobs.

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Tonight’s heroes are Lt. John Bunnell and his narcotics squad. In the opening segment, they hound a petty drug dealer, first making a deal with him to be a snitch, then, when he fails to comes through, nabbing him in front of his three sons, ages 3, 8 and 11.

“This guy I dislike so much,” Bunnell says. “What do you think his kids will grow up to be?” Not anonymous, that’s for sure.

It’s obvious that the real victims here are these boys, who have been swept up in all this drug business. Bunnell is shown treating them compassionately, making for dramatic, heartbreaking TV with the assistance of a soft-music track. Yet putting them on camera extensively for the entire nation to see is surely not in their best interests. We guard the privacy of minors who are criminals, why not extend the same protection to minors who are victims? That is, unless ABC got a signed release from the 3-year-old.

Good viewing notwithstanding, the most glaring flaw in this kind of program is that it appears to be cinema verite but mostly isn’t. How can it be possible, for example, that a camera sitting on their noses doesn’t alter the behavior of participants in a police interrogation? And what are viewers to think when Bunnell’s promise to a suspect that “This is off the record” is being recorded by a TV camera presumably out in the open?

The hour’s second segment features more drug busts, including the snaring of a teen-age boy buying marijuana for his father, who is found waiting outside in his car. Prime-time’s ode to “reality”--and ABC’s ode to “Cops”--continues.

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