USA Network may have another hit on its hands with the stylishly filmed update of Kojak, the 1973-78 CBS crime drama.
This time, instead of a lollipop-sucking Greek-American cop bending the rules to get the bad guys, it's a dapper African-American. He's kept the suckers and still bends the rules, but it's a smooth jazz riff.
Ving Rhames (Don King: Only In America) takes over the role of Theo Kojak, who, like Telly Savalas's character, is a detective lieutenant with the New York Police Department.
While the premiere features the serial-murder manhunt that seems requisite in today's procedure-oriented crime dramas, this efficiently written pilot also broadly introduces us to Theo. Yes, that's right — honest-to-God character development!
The big guy is not above slamming the perp's head into the interrogation room wall, but he's also a big teddy bear, having been emotionally wounded as a child by the murder of his own musician father. He'll bend the rules, but he can be ruthless with good guys who break them. He wants kids. He wants everybody to do the right thing. And by the end of the first episode, you want him to see his wishes fulfilled.
The supporting cast doesn't get much of the same spotlight, but you see potential in the relationship with Kojak's former partner and current captain, Frank McNeil (Chazz Palminteri, TNT's Boss of Bosses).
There will also be subsequent sizzle with girlfriend Carmen Warrick (Roselyn Sanchez, Rush Hour 2), the assistant district attorney. For now, we just know they stand by him, and sometimes look the other way.
The cinematography is impressive, often shot underlit in a way that silhouettes the players, a visual metaphor for the black and white, good-and-evil world in which these characters operate. Also appreciated is the restraint with which the serial murder victims are depicted.
Despite the presence of multiple razor blades (I will say no more), the camera work wisely avoided treading into the gore that is the hallmark of the CSI franchise. Kojak leaves the blood and guts to them and keeps the head and heart at its center.
Fans of the original, take note: We remember not a single “Who loves ya, baby?” in the entire pilot. May that catchphrase stay in the TV vault, where it belongs.
Kojak debuts Friday, March 25 from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET/PT. It will shift to its regular time slot, Sundays at 10 p.m., beginning on April 3.