Michael Hayes (1997) s01e09 – Slaves

I wasn’t looking forward to this episode. “Michael Hayes” has been struggling the last couple and it was never on firm grounding to begin with. Then the opening title sequence hit and… the rest of the legal team actors’ names were in it. Episode nine is where Hillary Danner, Rebecca Rigg, and Peter Outerbridge get added as regulars. But then I saw the first guest star—Lucy Alexis Liu—and all of a sudden I remembered; I have one cogent memory of “Michael Hayes” and this episode was going to contain it. I remembered more along the way—Jodi Long’s so good and the scene’s such a “thank goodness” (she’s calling out white people’s savior complex in general, lead David Caruso as a specific example, while also addressing the efficacy of having biased white “experts” talking about the Chinese immigrant experience). It works out; my cogent memory is validated and the show is all of a sudden on completely different footing. Script credit to Anne Kenney and Paul Haggis.

The episode starts with Caruso addressing a bunch of cops about to raid a “house of prostitution.” Only, Caruso (and Kenney and Haggis) explain, it’s not a regular house of prostitution because the women are being held captive; they’re Chinese immigrants, in the country without visas—I’d forgotten how often the term “illegal aliens” got thrown around in mainstream media, even when there’s a whole thing about the system being inhumane and shitty—and they’re chained to the floor. 1997 is apparently before “human trafficking” entered Hollywood’s vernacular; it’s also back when you could have someone like Caruso say “America doesn’t do slavery” with a straight face.

The raid goes bad and Caruso and team are left with two potential witnesses—Liu and Jeanne Chinn—against a seemingly upstanding businessman suspect, Michael Paul Chan. Liu’s a good girl, Chinn’s a bad girl, but neither of them are receptive to Caruso’s questioning because he can’t keep them in the country. John Prosky shows up (again, I think) as a dipshit INS agent (it’s not his fault, it’s just the agency itself is shit is the message), with a chunk of the plot dedicated to Caruso and Outerbridge trying to figure out how to get him to grant refugee visas.

The procedural aspects, with Rigg and Ruben Santiago-Hudson (demoted in the credit order due to everyone but Caruso being alphabetical and three names getting added, but still a solid part) doing field work are good. Mostly thanks to the script, but also Adam Nimoy’s direction is the best the show’s had either ever or in memory. Also, Rigg’s a hoot out in the field, a self-aware brassy sitcom neighbor but as a meticulous lawyer; Rigg’s always working the character, even when she’s in background; the mind is racing. She’s awesome to watch, a great foil for Caruso, who’s doing the same thing.

But where the episode excels in the character arc for Caruso (and Liu). Without a lot of exposition setting it up—any exposition setting it up, actually—the episode essays Caruso’s emotional reaction to Liu and Chinn—Chinn’s a caricature for most of her time in the episode, but when that barrier cracks, it’s very much because of Caruso’s performance. It’s in the script and Chinn’s close to leveling up on her own, but Caruso—problematically, to be sure—is what makes it happen. “Michael Hayes” is about a white savior who just happens to be white. They wouldn’t be able to get away with any of it without Caruso, whose ability to toggle between loud and quiet is unsurpassed.

Except Chinn’s the bad girl who’s a (relatively) easy flip. There’s a lot more with Liu, as Caruso tries to crack her as a witness, then forms a bond with her. Unlike the Chinn stuff, Liu and Caruso’s arc succeeds because of Liu. Their scenes are all about the performances, because it’s all talk, sometimes about legal citizenship stuff, sometimes about aspirational Americana stuff, and the drama has to come out of the characters speaking to and reacting to one another. No wonder I remember loving this show.

No sign of other still regular cast members Mary B. Ward and Jimmy Galeota—I think they may have even taken Galeota’s picture out of Caruso’s office—and the show’s… better for it. Much better for it. Even with Danner not really having enough to do and Outerbridge still just being a blue blood stick in the mud, the team procedural dynamic succeeds.

I’m not sure what to expect from “Hayes” going forward and this episode might very well be its peak, but it’s a good peak. Even though it’s a CBS show by white people for white people from 1997, it ages all right. Kenney and Haggis are at least aware of that situation and try (well, not with the title but Haggis did end up making Crash, didn’t he). And Caruso and Liu are spectacular together, which is what matters. The episode is all theirs.

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