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Book ‘Em and Keep an Eye on These New Yorkers

Cops . . . and more cops.

Just what television needs--more of New York’s finest. Yet only good can come from adding to a 50-year glut when the newcomers mainly gleam, as do “The Beat” on UPN and “Battery Park” on NBC.

Arriving Tuesday, “The Beat” returns to prime time Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana, creators of HBO’s dark, gritty “Oz,” and, more famously, heroic “Homicide: Life on the Street,” the recently extinguished plume of brightness that gave NBC one of the elite cop shows in TV history.

Reinforcing that link is a coming cameo on “The Beat” with Richard Belzer as nomadic “Homicide” wit, Det. John Munch, who hangs around the second episode just long enough to deposit his quota of caustic wisecracks, and then his work is done.

Targeting UPN’s youthful audience, the drama and its uniforms on Manhattan’s Lower East Side are presently several floors beneath the emeritus penthouse of “Homicide” in this tower of TV cops. Despite a labored macho opening and some other script flaws, though, this visually stylish series--imagine MTV doing “Adam 12"--is a taste that takes only about half an episode to acquire.

Creator Gary David Goldberg (“Spin City,” “Brooklyn Bridge”) has his new comedy, “Battery Park,” feeling right--that means funny and smartly written--from the moment it leaves the chute on NBC Thursday.

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Much like ABC’s late, great “Barney Miller,” the humor takes place mostly in the squad room, where unnurturing, insensitive, self-serving Capt. Madeleine Dunleavy (Elizabeth Perkins) aspires to be mayor. That means she will stop at nothing, however twisted, to keep down her precinct’s homicide stats.

The premiere also introduces affable Lt. Ben Hardin (Justin Louis) as heading an ensemble of marginal detectives (ably played by Jacqueline Obradors, Bokeem Woodbine, Frank Grillo, Robert Mailhouse and Jay Paulson).

Hardin’s soaring libido Thursday has him ogling the daughter of a Mafia chief, a relationship that proceeds even more amusingly in the second episode when he comes under the leering eye of an unfriendly internal affairs officer. That episode features another weirdly funny match when Det. Carl Zernial (Paulson) encounters his former high school English teacher, now a madam, as she and her hookers are booked.

Him: “So what have you been up to?”

Her: “Well . . . I started my own business.”

Him: “Well . . . how is that going?”

“Battery Park” can be faulted for attaching the usual Italian names to mobsters. Even in a sendup, that well of gratuitous stereotypes should be plugged. Yet the comedy here is anything but “The Sopranos” lite or neo-"Barney Miller,” much of its success resulting from Perkins’ easy, unmannered way with her likably nasty character. Although comedy begins with writing, Perkins doesn’t need much of a line to be funny, whether spinning sarcasm or lamenting being “up to my ears in hookers.”

“The Beat” protagonists, young officers Zane Marinelli (Mark Ruffalo) and Mike Dorigan (Derek Cecil), are up to theirs in banter, a steady Muzak of chatter leading to arguments over such trivia as word definitions or whether that little thing over an “i” is a dot or “twiddle.”

Who can possibly care about that or much anything else they jabber about in their patrol car between crimes? Or tolerate for long Marinelli’s criminally deranged girlfriend, Beatrice (Heather Burns), whom he pretty much tolerates through the first four episodes even though her behavior marks her as a danger to him and the rest of society. And just how is she able to walk right into the police locker room Tuesday and join Marinelli in the shower for some serious smooching?

More arresting is Dorigan’s relationship with his fiancee, Elizabeth (Poppy Montgomery), a medical resident. More so still, and exceeding gimmickry, are the dual styles of shooting that alternate between film and tape, and the madcap camera angles that at times seem to be showing New York through the eyes of a drunk in the gutter. It’s “Homicide” on caffeine. Yet despite this constant movement, Marinelli and Dorigan, in an homage to realism, do not fire their weapons through the first several episodes.

Best of all, though, are the story arcs that range from Marinelli’s angst-ridden childhood memories of his now-imprisoned father killing his mother to growing public protests over the death in custody of an African American suspect after he received an illegal chokehold from white cops.

This Al Sharpton moment in the making seeps into the squad room, where untrusting white and black officers now peer sideways at each other beneath the bills of their service caps.

It’s this unsparing vision of a city whose human-relations problems may be insoluble that lifts “The Beat” well above the ordinary and raises hopes for its future as a cop show destined to be as important as it is entertaining. But ditch Beatrice.

* “The Beat” can be seen Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on UPN. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).

“Battery Park” can be seen Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. on NBC. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

Howard Rosenberg’s column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He can be contacted via e-mail at calendar.letters@latimes.com.


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