In the universe of Michael Mann, there may be no smaller blip with bigger footprints than the doomed Robbery Homicide Division, a blink-and-you-missed-it network series made up of thirteen episodes, only ten of which aired on CBS in September through December of 2002, with the remaining three airing on the USA Network in April of 2003. Created by Barry Schindel and, for a minute, sporting an executive producer credit for Frank Spotnitz, Robbery Homicide Division has all the visual and thematic trademarks of executive producer Michael Mann and would likewise inform much of his work going forward.
For those keeping track, L.A. Takedown, Michael Mann’s 1989 television adaptation of an early draft of Heat, was planned to the a pilot for a series about the L.A.P.D.’s Robbery Homicide Division. NBC liked the pilot but wasn’t keen on the idea for the series so L.A. Takedown remained a fair-to-middling made-for-television movie until Mann got a chance to rework it for the big screen in 1995 after his The Last of the Mohicans had been such a big hit with audiences three years prior.
So though he doesn’t get a creation credit, it’s virtually impossible to watch Robbery Homicide Division and not see it as a pocket-sized version of The Further Adventures of Vincent Hanna & His Pals. Certainly, star Tom Sizemore is playing a man by the name of Sam Cole but, like Hanna, he has the similar rank of Lieutenant and runs a tight crew of professionals including Det. Richard Barstow (David Cubbit), Det. Ron Lu (Michael Park Chan), Det. Sonia Robbins (Klea Scott), and Sgt. Albert Simms (Barry Shabaka Henley) in his quest to run down the bad guys in the City of Angels.
On its face, Robbery Homicide Division is an odd bird as it is both backwards glancing and forward thinking. On one hand, for at least the first handful of episodes or so, the show adopts an emotionally-neutral stance that is similar to the formula of Law & Order where only the ripped-from-the-headlines topics hold the emotional depths of the show instead of the personal lives of the characters. So, here, the show is sort of an answer in the search of a question given the popularity of Law & Order and pop-tech procedurals such as CSI and its myriad progeny.
In terms of its signal of things to come, Robbery Homicide Division begins to really utilize the digital photography Mann had been playing around with and introduced in Ali in 2001 and which would dominate much of the look of 2003’s Collateral and, especially, Mann’s theatrical adaptation of Miami Vice in 2006. The night scenes are often stylistically desaturated and cold and, though on its last legs, the 1.33:1 aspect ratio squeezes the visual canvas but still allows room for some negative space. Additionally, Mann’s usual obsession with aural and visual intoxication makes the show feel bigger in the same way Miami Vice did eighteen years earlier.
And, to be sure, Robbery Homicide Division acts as a sort of creative playroom junction existing between both Heat and Miami Vice, both the television series and its theatrical adaptation. For in Episode 9, the sole episode in which Mann gets a story credit, Sam Cole transforms into an L.A. Sonny Crockett and engages in some very intense undercover dealings. This is after Episode 8 in which Tom Towles more or less plays the same, gum-chewing, bald white supremacist he would in 2006’s Miami Vice. Additionally, Episode 9’s central relationship between Sizemore and the attorney-wife of the main heavy is what would supply 2006’s Miami Vice with its doomed love story subplot story right down to its merch-drop sting operation that ends in a hail of gunfire. “Back to it,” Sizemore says as he goes back to wearing a suit, anticipating Sonny Crockett’s broken heart having to wait its turn in the final moments of the film. Of note, the “it” that Cole goes back to is Episode 10, a reworking of an old Miami Vice episode entitled “Forgive Us Our Debts” which was written by Gustave Reineger (also the creator of Crime Story) who snags a teleplay credit for the episode.
Other pieces of Mann’s work boil to the surface such as the idea of the undercover cop so undercover that they’ve lost themselves; a bit of Manunter picks up as the crew investigates a serial rapist with Cole walking through a bloody crime scene displaying a recreative edge that would make Will Graham proud; and, in the first episode, Cole tells his people that when a crew comes into a stash house to get some drug money, “they are going to get the surprise of a lifetime.” And with this comes the number of Mann alumni who pop up throughout the show’s limited run including Mann’s daughter, Ami, who directs an unusually tense episode with Robert Hays as a hijacker; Bill Smitrovich, reliable hand in both Manhunter and Crime Story, who shows up in an episode as a crooked attorney; and Paul Michael Glaser, a man who helmed no small number of episodes of Miami Vice and the Mann-produced Band of the Hand, directs the highest number of episodes of Robbery Homicide Division of any director on the show.
What makes Robbery Homicide Division of particular worth is how much of it really looks like a Michael Mann film and, when played in prime-time among other similar television shows, how much so many of them look like Robbery Homicide Division; further proof that Michael Mann’s visual influence and style affected screens both big and small for over two decades. Perhaps scaling it back from the more poetic side of filmmaking, the violence in the show is immediate, realistic, and shocking. When people die, they look like people who have dropped in relaxed mid-motion as non-natural cause deaths look. Gunshots are handled appropriately. Quick fire, pink smoke, people drop quickly.
But as dazzling as the show is, it kind of emerges as a big “so what?” By more or less adopting a hands-off approach to the character’s personal lives, Robbery Homicide Division is a show in which each episode lives in a vacuum and comes as close to style over substance as anything Mann has put his hands on. It’s not that it’s a bad show. Actually, quite the opposite. But, from a network’s point of view, it was an unnecessary show that never found its audience (pitched to the older folks on a Friday night who weren’t buying) and then was further hampered by Sizemore’s sizable legal woes (which, according to Sizemore, is something for which Mann has never forgiven him). And, from a critical point of view, there’s just not enough there to sink one’s teeth into.
Robbery Homicide Division came and went in a flash but, without it, one has to wonder if Mann would have found that visual sweet spot that would materialize in Collateral or the story ideas that would flesh out the screenplay Miami Vice. Even visual ideas utilized in 2015’s Blackhat can be found in Robbery Homicide Division’s final episode. But since the series was aborted due to its unceremonious cancellation, it will always remain a professionally rendered sketch pad but not one that should be dismissed.
(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain