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'Street Time' tells dark tale of parolees

Sunday, June 23, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Some publicists are calling "Street Time," Showtime's new series about federal parolees, "Life After Oz,"a reference to HBO's prison drama. Bleak, grim and violent as "Oz" is, that HBO series offers more intrigue, contrasts and titillation.

"Street Time," which has tons of profanity but only a little violence, improves in its second episode (tonight's pilot drags). But the show has a consistently washed-out look - varying shades of drab - that contributes to its monotonous tone.

TV Review
"Street Time"
When:Tonight at 10 on Showtime.
Starring: Rob Morrow, Scott Cohen, Erika Alexander.

Rob Morrow ("Northern Exposure") stars as Kevin Hunter, a parolee who went to jail for five years for selling marijuana. His parole officer, James Liberti (Scott Cohen, "Gilmore Girls"), warns him to stay away from past associates, including his brother Peter (Christopher Bolton), who's still involved in the drug trade.

It doesn't help that Hunter moves in with his 8-year-old son and his common law wife, Rachel (Michelle Nolden), who smokes pot in the living room and tries to get him to join her. He can't due to random drug tests, but how long will he be able to resist the pull of his past life?

Liberti has demons of his own, most notably a gambling addiction that he swears to his wife (Kate Greenhouse) he's over. He's not. A more immediate concern is a parolee who's three weeks late to check in. Then he meets Hunter.

"I did my time," Hunter says.

"No, you owe us five years on the street," Liberti replies.

In addition to five years of parole - the perfect length for the duration of a TV series - Hunter also owes a $1.8 million fine. Hunter asks how he's expected to pay it.

"I expect you to go back into the drug business," Liberti says without a hint of sympathy.

Despite an adversarial relationship, the teleplay by executive producers Stephen Kronish and Richard Stratton makes clear the two characters aren't so different. Both have children and their kids attend the same school. They both do things that are "wrong," but they're both trying to improve their lives.

Erika Alexander ("Living Single") plays another parole officer who describes her job as "risk management" - the parolees are the risk, she's the management. Early episodes also include a guest turn by Red Buttons, who plays a parolee with a dying wife.

Although tonight's pilot feels interminable, the second episode shows more promise for the series as the characters develop and the story moves at a better pace.

"Street Time" has street cred thanks to executive producer Stratton, author of the novel "Smack Goddess," who was convicted of conspiracy to import marijuana in 1982 and spent eight years in prison.

"I sat in a room and heard a man tell me exactly those words, 'You're gonna go right back into crime. You've been doing it all your life. What's to make me think you're going to change now?' They fully expected me to go back," Stratton said at a Showtime press conference in January. "So, I went into the entertainment business."

Depicting the relationship between Hunter and Liberti makes the show unique, Stratton said. "You've never seen the relationship between law enforcement and the criminals as close as you're going to see it with a parole officer and a parolee. They go to their homes. They test their urine. They get involved in their personal lives. They become very close to these people in different kinds of ways, and the psychology that is at work in that relationship, to me, is fascinating."

Executive producer Kronish described the two characters as the flip side of the same coin.

"The parole officers are in their own prison," he said. "We watch the parolees go though certain circumstances where they realize that they're still in prison, except the walls don't show."

In his performance, Morrow quickly erases all memories of Alaska doctor Joel Fleischman, fully inhabiting this seedier character. Cohen, who had a stint on "Gilmore Girls" as Lorelai's fiancÚ, also puts his good guy image on hold to play a complicated character.

Moral ambiguity has become popular on shows like "The Shield" and "The Wire," but here it provides a true dankness. "Street Time" is not easily accessible, but it may provide some viewers with satisfying character drama.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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