Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Hack, first season (2002-03)

Bit of a departure today from the usual Tuesday western. We just finished the first season of the 2002-04 CBS series Hack. A police drama, it starred David Morse and Andre Braugher. The two men play former partners on the Philadelphia police force. Morse’s character, Olshansky, has been suspended for helping himself to some drug money, which in a weak moment he regards as “combat pay.” Braugher, as Washington, is at least equally culpable, but Olshansky abides by a code of honor that prevents him from cooperating with Internal Affairs and revealing what he knows about his former partner.

Olshansky has a family and is already separated from his wife as the series starts. A little late, he tries to salvage the marriage and rebuild a relationship with his young son (Matthew Borish). To make up for lost income, he takes a job as a cab driver, or “hack.”

A basically decent man, he’s also trying to recover a sense of self-respect, while suffering a load of Catholic guilt for screwing up his life. In particular, he has disappointed his father, a former cop who is shamed by his son’s dishonorable discharge from the police force. It doesn’t help that the man is a drunk and a past perpetrator of domestic violence.

David Morse, Andre Braugher
In a supporting role is George Dzundza as Father Tom, the priest of an inner city parish and a lifelong friend of Olshansky. He has some problems of his own, including a history of gambling debts and drinking. Still, he’s Olshansky’s conscience as the former cop labors to set his life right.

Each week’s episode puts someone in Olshansky’s cab who is in desperate need of a helping hand. As a seasoned cop who knows how things get done in the city, especially on the shady side of the law, Olshansky becomes involved. A newspaper columnist writes him up as a “dirty cop” trying to redeem himself with good deeds. Olshansky simply can’t stay out of somebody else’s trouble.

George Dzundza
Typically, he enlists the help of his former partner, Washington, to do the detective work he’d be able to do himself if he were still on the force. There’s also Morse’s sheer physical presence and his ability to really get rough when the situation calls for it. Both aspects of the plot are hugely satisfying, as the scenes between the two men bristle with fine dialogue from creator/writer David Koepp, and the physical violence is often explosive and well justified.

There is fine ensemble acting throughout, with guest appearances by John Heard, Martha Plimpton, Lindsay Crouse, and Bebe Neuwirth. The writing also avoids a lot of clich├ęs common to the genre. Heather, Olshansky’s wife (Donna Murphy), is not the shrill adversary intent on avenging every grievance on her former husband. She still loves him, she says; she just can’t trust him. 

Matthew Borish
The scripts also focus on Olshansky’s struggle to be the loving father that his own father never was to him. Morse and the boy’s scenes together are often difficult and touching.

We never really know until the final episode what happened during the drug bust that ended Olshansky’s career. We also never learn until then what he may be covering up about his partner, Washington—or for that matter the true character of the man himself. The series slowly reveals his behavior as suspect, but even to the end, while there are revelations about Washington, one can’t be sure what to believe.

Bebe Neuwirth
It’s commercial TV, and commercials drive me nuts, so I never even heard of the show when it was running. I stumbled across it at netflix, where it can be streamed in HD (DVDs do not seem to be currently available). Watching a couple episodes a night, I found its style of storytelling a great pleasure, for it tackles issues that you don’t find in the usual cop show—issues of integrity, responsibility, friendship, trust, intimacy, character, and self-respect.

While it deals often with the dark underbelly of city life, it does not glamorize it, and it refuses to get cynical in the face of it. You see ordinary people attempting to live decent and honorable lives, always against the odds. And it’s gratifying to find a hero who is flawed but still a credible moral center in the crime-infested world he inhabits.

For more Overlooked Movies and TV, click on over to Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom.

Coming up: Cy Warman, Frontier Stories (1897)


  1. I like Morse. He's a pretty good actor and pretty versatile. I haven't seen anything of this series, though. MOrse was just in Drive Angry, which I recently saw.

  2. I liked HACK, despite some of the improbabilities, while it was on, and it didn't hurt that it was the primary Philly series at the time (I live on the outskirts). It's pretty amusing that Morse came to widespread recognition playing the tentative Dr. Morrison on ST. ELSEWHERE, and has usually played villains and conflicted, gutpunching mostly-good guys since.

  3. I've never heard of this show. What a great cast!

  4. Thanks for the review of HACK, Ron. I hadn't heard of it either. HACK hasn't come to India yet and I'm going to watch at least some of the episodes when it does. David Morse is, indeed, a good actor, very intense, and conveys a lot through his expression. I have seen a few of his films including CONTACT with Jodie Foster and THE ROCK playing second fiddle to Ed Harris. I liked him as the villainous cop in 16 BLOCKS, a Richard Donner thriller that hasn't been talked about much. Andre Braugher, well, I know he's the general in FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER which I saw for the tenth time last evening.

  5. Prashant, Braugher became a star due to his work in HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET, which led NBC to force the producers to make him the actual star of the series for a season or so, which didn't work nearly as well as ensemble approach that helped make the series impressive...but they still did excellent work. I always recommend HOMICIDE to anyone looking for excellent television.

  6. Todd, thanks for the input on Braugher. I don't recall seeing HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET on Indian cable TV. I'll keep an eye out for it. Braugher seems like an unlikely hero though I'd sure like to see him in the season you mentioned. He looks like he could carry a tough, capable cop's role.