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Playing Cops and Cabbies

Although famously troubled, the LAPD continues to get great pub in prime time.

The wattage this time comes from “Robbery Homicide Division,” a gripping, street-raw, kick-butt new series that benefits from Tom Sizemore’s seething presence as a bulldog police lieutenant who works L.A. murders. It’s from Michael Mann, who got famous himself when producing NBC’s “Miami Vice” in the 1980s before directing such features as “Heat,” “The Insider” and “Ali.”

“Robbery Homicide Division” opens impressively on CBS tonight following the 9 p.m. debut of “Hack,” a drama of redemption about a disgraced former Philadelphia cop who wears his guilt like a truss while eking out a living as a taxi driver doing good deeds. The best deed of all would be a major rewrite, for “Hack” is relentlessly ordinary when not flat-out comical.

Facing it on ABC is the premiere of “That Was Then,” a really bad hour of all-too-familiar drama about an unfulfilled 30-year-old who awakens one morning to discover he’s 16 again. The series has its own zits, though.

In other words, the best bet for drama at 9 Fridays remains the intriguing amnesiac of Fox’s new “John Doe.”

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Sizemore’s Sam Cole knows exactly who he is--a night animal on L.A.'s mean streets in a series affirming crime as TV’s cream. That’s been so for years, from NBC’s “Homicide: Life on the Street” and original “Law & Order” and ABC’s “NYPD Blue,” to HBO’s “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” and Showtime’s “Street Time.” These created their own golden age. As for crime-fighting lite, the USA Network’s droll new “Monk,” with Tony Shalhoub as an obsessive-compulsive ex-cop who solves cases with the help of his personal nurse, is rather terrific too.

Shootouts course through Mann’s highly ethnic new CBS series, with Asian gang violence over drugs driving the premiere and a cop killing that mingles Asians and Latinos in Episode 2. The fluid camera work in some of these death scenes is almost detached and in conflict with the music track. Instead of softening, though, the technique accentuates the madness and folly of these tragedies in an inky atmosphere of body bags and teeming urban life.

Charging through it all is Cole, one of those menacing, hot-glare figures who intimidates by speaking to people right in their faces, eyeball to eyeball, nose to nose. And always nearby are Barry “Shabaka” Henley, Klea Scott and Michael Paul Chan as members of his unit. They’re an interesting group.

Although the dialogue here is sharp, “Robbery Homicide Division” plot threads are not always visible through the tangle of action and atmosphere. The bulky Sizemore, moreover, runs as if he’s still wearing his full pack from “Saving Private Ryan.” After playing one of Al Pacino’s criminal antagonists in “Heat,” he appears to have picked up that actor’s distinctive speech patterns by osmosis. Yet he and his series are first rate, promising more depth for prime-time crime.

Staying with David Morse and “Hack” even for an hour, though, is a fare no one should have to pay. Part cabby, part cop, Morse is ...

Cabbycop!

In a scene featured in CBS promos, taxi driver Mike Olshansky (Morse) saves a passenger from a savage beating by thugs after dropping him off in a bad neighborhood at night.

As the guy gets pounded, cut to big Mike, who has doubled back, looking almost otherworldly while planted in front of his cab’s blazing headlights.

Mike: “Somebody call a cab?”

Thug: “No, man. Nobody called a cab.”

Mike: “Well, y’got one.”

Then the high jinks begin.

It turns out that Olshansky was bounced from the Philly force for pocketing recovered loot, causing even his little son to resent him, and he’s still bitter about it. “I took a bullet in the shoulder for the city,” he grouses over a drink. “What else did you take?” asks his priest buddy (George Dzundza).

This moral lapse notwithstanding, he cares about people, whose problems gnaw at him.

Mike’s next passenger is a desperate father, in town to search for his 18-year-old daughter who has disappeared. Mike doesn’t care. He doesn’t want to hear about her. It’s not his business, so don’t bother him. Let him alone, already. And especially, don’t show him a picture of the missing girl because he’s got too many worries of his own to get involved. Hey, didn’t you hear? Don’t show him that picture. Put it away!

Pause.

“Lemme see that.”

Soon he’s on the girl’s trail, of course, with inside information from one of TV’s stock characters in crime-related stories. Yes, the Cop Friend Who Reluctantly Helps Out Because He Owes the Hero a Favor. Shackled to this lowly supporting role is that good actor who deserves better, Andre Braugher.

Meanwhile, Mike is full of self-pity and wallows in his misery.

Enjoy.

If “Hack” is bleak and austere, “That Was Then” spreads enough warmth to fry an egg. It begins with adult Travis Green (James Bulliard) getting a chance to alter his and other lives for the better when he magically travels back through time to his sophomore year in high school.

This is a close cousin of the new WB sitcom “Do Over,” and both have roots in the theatrical films “Back to the Future” and “Peggy Sue Got Married.”

Travis encounters the usual conflicts in hoping to rewrite history. He wants to save a schoolmate from a fatal encounter with a train, for example, and spare the girl he’s stuck on, Claudia (Kiele Sanchez), from a traumatic sexual encounter with his libidinous brother, Gregg (Brad Raider), whom she later married.

But nothing here works. For one thing, beaming back to 1988 is hardly atmospheric to anybody older than 20. More fundamentally, this is teenhood on Mars. What you get are kids who not only look about 10 years older than they’re meant to be, but who also have adult sensibilities. Lacking credibility even for a fantasy like this are Claudia’s intimate chat about her virginity with Travis and his with his mother (Bess Armstrong) about an affair she’s having. What’s more, Travis’ obnoxious, ever-present best friend, Pinkus (Tyler Labine), is just about unbearable.

Tonight’s most arresting character is Travis’ father (Jeffrey Tambor), who is cold and nasty when we first meet him. By the end of Episode 2, however, he’s turned warm and fuzzy, after changing skins as only poorly written TV characters can do.

“Robbery Homicide Division” will be shown at 10 p.m. Fridays on CBS. The network has rated it TV-PGLV (may not be suitable for young children, with advisories for coarse language and violence).

“Hack” will be shown at 9 p.m. Fridays on CBS. The network has rated it TV-PGLV (may not be suitable for young children, with advisories for coarse language and violence).

“That Was Then” will be shown at 9 p.m. Fridays on ABC. The network has rated it TV-PGDLS (may not be suitable for young children, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and sex).

Howard Rosenberg’s column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted at howard.rosenberg@ latimes.com


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