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"The Man"

Have you ever watched an episode of "Cops" and marveled at the crime-stopping sixth sense of the officer who just pulled over a pick-up truck for a broken tail-light and wound up finding a cajillion kilos of coke? Ever been amazed at how the whorehouse raid shown on a "Hard Copy" goes off with the good guys "on top" and those evil prostitutes and johns are escorted ceremoniously to jail with happy sheriff's deputies looking on? Ever been awe-struck at the heroism displayed by Officer Kruptke on "True Stories of the Highway Patrol" as he noticed the bulge in a criminal's overcoat and brought him down in a flying tackle before he could rob the 7-11?

On the other hand, have you ever stopped to wonder why we never see the traffic stop that results in a bungled search that results in a half million dollar invasion of privacy suit against the city of Tulsa? Or we don't see officers negotiating deals of cash and favors with suburban husbands found in a room with fourteen-year-old prostitutes? Or a vivid re-creation of a Sheriff tackling a man he thought was robber but turned out to be a 57-year-old green grocer who was paralyzed in a struggle because the sheriff arrived at the wrong 7-11?

Then perhaps you need to catch a few episodes of the new USA network series, "The Man," a shrill retort to shows like "Cops" and "Highway Patrol" in which convicts and ordinary citizens are given their own chance to tell tales of police incompetence and narrate re-creations of events in which the cops do not look into the camera to assure the audience of their devotion to protecting and serving.

The brainchild of Charlie Cohen and Adam Ran, two recent graduates of NYU's film and television program, "The Man" uses a format which meshes "Highway Patrol" and "Cops" (two of the most popular series in syndication) to introduce an ordinary Joe or Jane and what nearly all of them believed would be an "ordinary day" like any other.

With dramatic music, camera angles, and distorted video used so effectively by other real-crime series, Cohen and Ran stage re-creations in which police officers and sheriffs abuse power, accept bribes, and, in many cases, appear ridiculously stupid, cavalier and power-hungry.

One instance in the series' pilot episode features an actor portraying Officer John Tretowski (who pulled over Juan Banadiez in 1994 and then proceeded to tear his pick-up truck apart and strip-search him on the shoulder of a busy Tulsa street) as a muscle-bound redneck who sneers, rants and yells "Ya-hoo" when his partner discovers a pile of a "grean leafy substance" beneath Banadiez's driver's seat.

Banadiez, it turns out, was coming home from a particularly hard day on the job as a greenskeeper at a nearby golf course (which the officers did not believe nor make any effort confirm as the search proceeded).

All of the segments proceed along this basic pattern until each ends with Cohen and Ran leading a camera crew to each officer's precinct in an effort to get their version of events. Naturally, the cops are adamantly determined to avoid being interviewed or taped leading to numerous scuffles and strings of curses (which explains the series' presence on the USA schedule).

Although occasionally it comes off like an infomercial assembled by the ACLU, "The Man" can not be classified as "liberal" counter-programming or propaganda in response to pro-police shows like "Cops" and "Highway Patrol." Cohen and Ran are strictly in it for the laughs.

Sometimes the actions of police themselves provide undeniable physical comedy. One recreation has a cop storm into a bathroom to find a half-naked man hurriedly flushing a toilet. The cop throws him out of the way and desparately fishes around the swirling water, presumably looking for drugs, only to come up with two soiled condoms, goopy semen dripping down his hand and wrist. In another segment, two cops are chasing a burglary suspect (really an eleven year old girl who's run away from home) around a house. Coming from opposite directions, they both round the same corner at full speed, bumping off each other like cartoons. Both draw their guns and for a moment grimly aim at each other like some sort of Tarantino-penned Mexican standoff. But the slapstick award has to go to Officer Fred Schneider: while chasing a suspect through a backyard garden party, he knocks three people into a pool before tripping over a charcoal grill. He stands up and looks around as the coals covering his body set his pants and jacket on fire; he searches for the subject for a good twenty seconds before realizing that his clothes were on fire. He then panics, stripping off his pants and jacket. He notices his hair is now on fire, and runs to the pool and jumps in. Unfortunately, his vigorous dive strips off his boxer shorts, and when he gets out of the pool he finds himself wearing only shoes, socks, and a T-shirt, started at by 50+ well-to-do suburbanites. The produces claim that all recreations are based strictly on actual police reports and multiple eye-witness testimony. It's pretty obvious that the recreations ham things up a bit; some of the expressions of rightous indignations on the part of cops look a little too well planned.

The show also depends heavilty on "victim" interviews, usually conducted in a public place like a restaraunt or bar. Subjects are free to invite friends and relatives who usually chime in with priceless side-comments or thoughts on the situation or law enforcement in general (the paralyzed green grocer's mother links the desire to become a law enforcement official with the relative size of one's phallus).

The comic climax is, of course, the host's efforts to interview the cops themselves. Unlike the smiling, self-important characters seen on the Fox series, these cops are, for the most part, humorless assholes with violent tempers at worst or slimy weasels at best. If one can imagine Morley Saeffer on his worst day at "60 Minutes," drunk on Jim Beam and with a serious ax to grind, one has a fairly accurate picture of the tenacity Cohen and Ran demonstrate in their interviews of the officers.

Jonathan Lane, an account executive whose wife divorced him following the brothel bust, happily accompanies Cohen and Ran and can be heard taunting a Los Angeles detective to tell them about his attempts to shake Lane down for money to keep him out of jail as the officer stares at him off-camera with cold hatred.

Although it may be difficult to imagine where the humor lies in an innocent man becoming paralyzed because of gung-ho Sheriff's stupidity, Cohen and Ran are able to make their audience and subjects laugh in simple disbelief at the absurdity of it all almost effortlessly.

Well, unless you're a cop.

The police union in Tulsa attempted to file an injuction to prevent the show's pilot from airing (using the argument it was slander and libelous) and were denied. The USA network fears further legal retribution and is currently weighing their options as to the future of the three completed episodes and future production of the series.

If given the chance, "The Man" should have no trouble finding an audience in the "Up-All-Night" crowd who are usually telling stories of police harassement and unwarranted speeding tickets they received on the way to the bar that night while the network runs on in the background.

"The Man" stands on the brink of joining "TV Nation" as a delicous and all too rare example of the potential for humor in subversive television.

-- Floyd Rosenblaum


Copyright 1997
James D Thomas