Michael Hayes (1997) s01e01 – Prequel

This episode of “Michael Hayes” isn’t on IMDb. It’s been a while since I’ve watched something not on IMDb. Something made in the 1990s and airing on one of the Big Three networks? I don’t even know. What’s amusing is the New York Times review of the episode is a top Google result.

So this episode’s called Prequel because—and I’m going off twenty-plus year old memory—the pilot episode wasn’t as impressive as the other stuff the series did. They brought in Paul Haggis (post-“EZ Streets”, pre-everything else) because it turned out having Nicholas Pileggi (who co-created) without Scorsese doesn’t really work out. Haggis came in and fixed it up post-pilot, so then they made an episode to be a better pilot than the one CBS ordered off.

The show’s a working class white male savior story about ex-New York cop (an “NYPD Blue,” if you would) David Caruso who goes to night school and becomes a prosecutor and then a U.S. State’s Attorney. There’s a lot to date “Michael Hayes.” It’s pre-9/11, which doesn’t just mean World Trade Center in New York skyline shots, but an attitude about the gee whiz Mayberry take on federal law enforcement; they need Caruso because he’s going to yell at people and coerce testimony. But he’s going to be doing it for the right reasons and even a gruff old guy like Philip Baker Hall isn’t actually tough enough to confront mobsters about being criminals. Certainly smarmy blue blood Peter Outerbridge isn’t going to do it. Plus, if Caruso’s not around, who’s going to acknowledge the existence of the occasional Black guys. Again, late nineties TV—especially CBS—has a lot of aging problems.

I think someone says “asshole” to show it’s grown up, but the plot is Caruso’s mad fellow U.S. Attorney Outerbridge made a deal with mobster Leo Rossi (who’s terrible because Leo Rossi is always terrible). Rossi had to confess to all his crimes for immunity and threw in a cold case of Caruso’s, a dead teenage girl. Only Rossi says she was a hooker so Caruso’s incensed. The episode opens with a very iffy flashback to the original crime scene, which actually has Caruso prototyping his “CSI: Miami” role, only while pretending it’s “NYPD Blue” and director Peter Weller wishing he was doing “Homicide.”

But Caruso and his old partner, Scott Lawrence, are going to prove she wasn’t a hooker and therefor not deserving of being murdered. Caruso puts his current investigator (and, awkwardly, driver) Ruben Santiago-Hudson on the case too. Lawrence and Santiago-Hudson are the Black guys. They don’t interact with anyone else except Caruso. I’ve been wanting to go back to “Michael Hayes” for literal decades, but there have been availability issues—I have a long story involving an SVHS recorder too—but it hadn’t occurred to me I was going to see seeds of Crash in it.

The show’s very carefully coding Caruso as progressive, just, and empathetic. During the show down scene with Outerbridge, you wish Caruso would punch him in the face because Outerbridge is clearly a Brett Kavanaugh. Not much would beat a progressive, just, empathetic working class white male savior popping Brett Kavanaugh in the face. It’s like if Clint Eastwood did a last minute righteous man left turn with an Aaron Sorkin script.

Sadly, there’s no punch, just normal (well, for Caruso) righteous seething rage from Caruso.

There are a lot of scenes in this episode where it’s clear better direction would’ve changed everything. Weller’s bad at the 4:3 frame, but the hip late nineties tone of the show is worse. It’s not grim and gritty because it’s so far pre-“Wire” and even “SVU.” Grim and gritty hadn’t won yet. But writers Paul Haggis and Paul Romano know they can get great film noir out-liners from Caruso—and they really try with Santiago-Hudson and I hope he gets better—so you’ve got this kind of CBS Tupperware bland but edgy but not actually. If cinematographer James L. Carter and editor Daniel Valverde are capable of inventive work, it would come as a surprise after seeing these forty minutes. Again, of course, it’s mid-to-late nineties TV. It’s pre-HD, it’s pre-16:9. The asshole kind of grown-up hour long American TV show is a literal neanderthal of genres and “Hayes” is a startling reminder of that fate. When TV stopped being such an easy pejorative… it wasn’t because this kind of show evolved enough. You’re still hunting and picking for good performances, hoping they won’t cut away too fast or maybe, just maybe, they won’t go to a close-up and miss the far more important reaction shot.

“Hayes” tries some a lot of the time with the procedural stuff. There’s an effort. But the show also takes some effort to overlook how blandly energetic television can get. “Hayes” is trying to be “NYPD Blue” without the butts or boobies but also CBS but also higher brow. Oh, it’s pre-“West Wing” too. It’s at the end of an age and not going to be remembered in the next.

But Caruso’s good. Like, he’s tolerable during his worst scenes and he finds great little moments in the rest. The mise-en-scene (lol) of the show works against him, but he’s good. Ditto Rebecca Rigg as a brilliant U.S. Attorney who knows the law better than anyone else but in career hell for stepping on toes. And the stuff with Caruso and subordinate Hillary Danner; Danner’s expecting him to be a sexist jerk but he’s not because he’s progressive, just, and empathetic.

Jury’s out on every other regular cast member, including Caruso’s entire family situation—about-to-be-released-convict little brother David Cubitt, his suffering wife Mary B. Ward, and their adorable son Jimmy Galeota, who looks up to Caruso.

The episode also does this echoing hugging thing where you know someone was trying to do an Al Pacino Heat beat and Weller missed it both times because he and Carter are so bad at shot composition. Though the nineties pop bop grit synth music from Mark Isham and Roger Neill is terrible.

I remember having to stick with “Michael Hayes” for it to prove itself and I feel fairly comfortable assuming that assessment stands twenty-four years later.

Fairly… comfortable. The nineties were bad. We shall see.

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