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Hard time inspires gritty ‘Street Time’

The seeds of Showtime’s weekly crime odyssey, “Street Time,” were sown in 1990 when Richard Stratton was in New York, and the concept of a television series about parolees and parole officers began forming in his mind as he sat in a bustling reception area packed with ex-cons.

He was waiting to see his parole officer.

The result, all these years later, is some of the most seductive television ever: vivid, distinctive, explosive storytelling that resumes Wednesday with the first of 13 new episodes. It’s the second season from executive producers Stratton and Marc Levin that will please fanciers of gifted actors playing fresh, captivating characters, and scripts that pump iron.

When “Street Time” and HBO’s equally bountiful “The Wire” were shunned in the recently announced Emmy nominations, it was the TV awards crime of the century. Like some felons, too many Emmy voters are habitual, especially when it comes to overlooking innovative work that attacks TV blight.

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“Street Time” opened last season by broadly tracking “Straight Time,” a 1978 film about an incorrigible criminal who leaves prison only to return to his old haunts and be dogged mercilessly by a corrupt and sadistic parole officer.

In “Street Time,” James Liberti (Scott Cohen) tilts much nearer to job-hardened tough love than villainy when tenaciously hassling paroled Kevin Hunter (Rob Morrow), a shrewd and resourceful international drug smuggler resuming his old ways.

Liberti is almost as self-destructive, his own obsessions including jealousy regarding his wife, Karen (Kate Greenhouse), and a cash-eating gambling habit that has helped shatter their marriage as he’s drawn to the evening, walking streets teeming with night crawlers. A few episodes into the new season, he does something that would be unthinkable, and on some levels, he’s clearly sick.

Last season ended with a memorable confluence of tensions and emotions, as Hunter’s common-law wife, Rachel (Michelle Nolden), gave birth prematurely in their New York apartment at the precise moment that Liberti arrived to scoop up her spouse for return to prison.

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Hunter is fuming in his orange jumpsuit Wednesday to start a second season that shrinks his prominence initially. The focus is even more on Liberti (there’s no actor on TV with more juice than Cohen), as he again battles his demons while trying to repair his marriage. And his partner, Dee Mulhern (played to the kick-butt hilt by Erika Alexander), is as tempestuous as ever, and even more visible.

Liberti and Mulhern search for a parolee who has gunned down a parole officer, and the office, already chaotic, is jolted by the mysterious unannounced arrival of whispery but volcanic Lucius Mosley (Terrence Dashon Howard) as the new supervisor of the Special Offenders Unit.

Liberti: “Do we need some paper pusher from Washington to tell us how to do our jobs?”

No, but the producers feel “Street Time” does. “He comes in, and he’s trouble,” Stratton said of Mosely by phone from the show’s Toronto production office. “And he has a larger agenda that won’t be revealed until the end of the season.”

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“Street Time” is so persuasive that you’d think it was true.

Much of it is.

A lot of what happens on the show “happened to me,” said Stratton, now 57. Like Hunter, he smuggled drugs, beginning his criminal career in college at Arizona State before going global and earning a fortune and living lavishly for years before it all collapsed. “My area of expertise was going to countries like Lebanon and Thailand, buying loads of marijuana and hashish and figuring ways to get it back,” he said.

Like Hunter, also, Stratton was arrested on charges of conspiracy to import marijuana and hashish, spending eight years in prison that he says changed him. “After being stripped of all the external trappings of making all that money and being able to stay in the best hotels and have the excitement of the criminal world, it was like going on an inner journey and deciding I didn’t want to be that person doing all those things. I wanted to be a creative person, a writer. I related it to Dostoevsky.” (The author spent four years in Siberia for sedition before writing “Crime and Punishment.”)

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Stratton wrote his novel “Smack Goddess” in prison and has been active creatively ever since, co-writing the award-winning 1998 feature film “Slam” and co-writing the 1999 release “Whiteboyz,” as well as earning credits on a spate of crime-related documentaries and working as technical consultant to HBO’s prison series “Oz.”

Unlike Hunter, Stratton didn’t resume crime when he was released or attempt to collect drug-deal profits that his former associates owed him.

Stratton says he did have a parole officer as relentless as Liberti, though. “He told me from the beginning, ‘I know your type. You’ve been doing this all your life, and my feeling is that you’re going to go right back in it, and I’m going to be all over you.’ ”

His parole officer was “very, very tough, very strict,” Stratton said. “He gave me lectures on how to bring up my kids. He demanded to see my financial records. He would show up at 7 in the morning unannounced and at 10 at night unannounced. When I got a job at a law office, he objected to that because he said it would put me into contact with criminals.”

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He also resisted when Stratton wanted to marry Kim Wozencraft (now his wife), a former undercover narcotics officer and ex-con whose novel “Rush” was based on her personal experience. “And when I worked on a documentary on Mike Tyson, he was all over me,” Stratton said. “He said, ‘You can’t go near Mike Tyson.’ ”

A lot for Stratton to contemplate.

So there he was 13 years ago in what was known as the parolee Report Room, waiting to see his parole officer, his mind on an idea for a TV series that would percolate for years before winning a spot on Showtime.

The actual epiphany came when Stratton saw HBO successfully build a brilliant series around someone named Tony Soprano. “I knew then that TV had gone to a new level, that you can have a bad guy who is a protagonist,” Stratton said. His own series is more thematic than “The Sopranos.”

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The concept that he would pitch to Showtime explored the complex relationship between parolee and parole officer. “I thought, ‘What must it be like to be put in a position where you are actually supervising other people’s lives? And is this other person going to be able to change and get off parole and become a productive member of society?’ ”

In Stratton’s case, yes. As a drug smuggler, he pocketed up to $5 million for each load of pot and hash. “That’s a lot more money than I’m making now,” he said. “But they can’t lock you up for making a bad TV episode.”

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Howard Rosenberg’s column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at howard.

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rosenberg@latimes.com.


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