Getting Real on TV

By Metta Spencer

(This article was submitted to Emmy Magazine and would have been published, had Street Time not been cancelled.)

You get to watch a lot of people pee on Street Time. It's surprising at first, but you soon adjust and recognize this as proof that this series can beat "reality TV" on its own terms. Realism is the great trend these days. How is it accomplished, and what are its social consequences?

Of course, for many dramatists - especially producers of crime dramas - realism had been a guiding principle long before "reality television" became popular. Today, however, TV producers are competing as never before to depict life with unflinching accuracy - especially the violation of laws or social taboos. Gone are the genteel sleuths such as Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple. Contemporary law-enforcement drama is "gritty," "edgy," and ideally resembles documentary film. Notable examples are NYPD Blue, Homicide on the Streets, Oz, and The Sopranos.

None of these shows, however, have attained the real-life documentary look of Showtime's unique production, Street Time, whose two executive producers, Richard Stratton and Marc Levin, are accomplished documentary makers specializing in prison life. And indeed, Stratton, the creator, himself served eight years in a US federal penitentiary as a kingpin hashish smuggler. Street Time is largely his autobiography.

I watched Street Time being shot and edited for about 300 hours during the first and (currently playing) second seasons. Then I showed the videotapes in my living room to several friends, who discussed each episode. The series is probably the best show of its genre (but not the best-known, for it has received almost no publicity) and I account for its extraordinary realism in terms of four factors: a) the real-life basis of its stories; b) its cinematography; c) actors' participation in shaping the script, and d) the moral ambiguity of characters.

A Basis in Real Life

Street Time's main characters are parole officers and their parolees, from whom we learn plenty about the criminal justice system. The protagonists are Officer James Liberti (played by Scott Cohen), his parolee, Kevin Hunter (played by Rob Morrow), and Liberti's partner, a beautiful black parole officer, Dee Mulhern (played by Erika Alexander).

Federal parole officers have immense authority over their parolees. They can drop into their homes and workplaces at any hour to demand urine specimens for drug testing. They can deny permission to travel, to visit friends and relatives, or to accept particular jobs. Every detail about this institution is portrayed accurately, based on the first-hand experiences of Stratton himself. Also, a professional parole officer, Larry Goldman, reviews each script and sometimes watches the shooting, to correct the terminology and procedural norms. For example, Goldman says that real officers never disclose anything about themselves to offenders and will not accept even a cup of coffee when visiting a parolee's home. Such rules mean that Hunter knows virtually nothing about Liberti, who, despite their asymmetrical power relations, could almost be his twin. Their social backgrounds are comparable; their wives and children have much in common; and they even look somewhat alike. They also share a personality flaw: an addiction to risk-taking. Kevin Hunter had smuggled tons of hashish before he was caught. When he met Liberti during the pilot episode, he had served five years in prison and was beginning five years of "street time" - parole - which is even harder to endure than incarceration. For his part, Officer James Liberti was a gambler whose wife would soon discover his secret and leave him.

According to the backstory, Hunter had come to love marijuana while in high school. Soon he was traveling to Lebanon, Thailand, or Nepal, clearing millions of dollars per trip several times a year and loving the adrenaline rush. He lived with Rachel Goldstein, daughter of an older "marijuana hippie," for several years, fathered an adorable son with her, and employed as his distributors both his own rotten younger brother and that of Rachel. When he went to prison, he refused to identify those two as his partners in crime, saving their skin at great personal sacrifice. By way of repayment, they swindled him of his money. Nevertheless, upon his release, he went back into the pot business with them.

To viewers, Kevin looks stupid for doing this, but Stratton says that the same thing often happens to real prisoners. He himself was owed three or four million dollars that he never even tried to collect after leaving prison. Kevin's other experiences also replicate Stratton's own adventurous, if morally questionable, life story.

But, unlike Kevin, Stratton was of upper class background. His mother (a wonderful woman, he says) was one of the New England Lowells, yet he was the most rebellious delinquent in his affluent hometown, Wellesley, Massachusetts, and was even sent to reform school. He dropped out of university to pursue his hashish business, amassing an immense fortune. Eventually he was arrested, but made bail and fled to Lebanon, where he lived for a year as head of a "hippie mafia" organization. But the life was no longer satisfying. In 1982 he slipped secretly into Los Angeles to collect a $6 million debt, but the DEA had set a trap for him, and this time he went to prison on a 25-year sentence.

This long sentence was partly for his crime but mostly imposed to pressure him to cooperate with the government by testifying against his friend Norman Mailer, whom the government believed to be involved in drug deals. Of course, Stratton did no such thing. Instead, he began reading law in the prison library, as well as writing a novel about drug traffickers. He successfully appealed his case and was released on parole after eight years.

Somehow, Stratton changed his ways. He spent a lot of time meditating in prison, and is now a man of great integrity and emotional stability. Everyone on the Street Time set likes and admires him. Still, his risky past provides the basis for most stories in this adventurous series. For example, during a first season episode Kevin even contemplates killing his treacherous brother-in-law. I read the following memo, which Stratton had sent his writing staff about this.

"I agree that Kevin has to take steps to kill Goldie. This actually happened to me. I went to pick up my brother-in-law at the time (though the marriage was common law), and had a nine millimeter under the seat. I was going to kill him. I was convinced he was going to send us all to prison. He started telling me a sob story about how ineffectual he felt around his wife until I totally lost the nerve and drove him to a bar where we spent the rest of the evening drinking. He died in a plane crash (doing a deal behind my back with my airplane) a couple of years later. But putting the gun to his head? Maybe."

Another example from Street Time: Kevin imports a load of hashish from India hidden in boxes of dates. A treacherous former associate of his knows about the operation, steals three-quarters of the load, and informs the DEA that the remainder of the shipment is on the wharf, ready to be picked up. The DEA hides an electronic tracking device in the container and waits for Kevin, who sends a truck to pick up the load. From a distance, in a rental car, Kevin sees the DEA tailing his truck, as he had expected. He directs his truck rapidly away from the DEA to a stash house, locates and smashes the electronic device, unloads the hashish, and has his brother drive the truck load of dates into the waiting cordon of DEA officers, who arrest him without finding any hashish whatever.

This entire caper had actually happened to Stratton. He had hidden a hashish shipment in dates. The DEA had stolen part of his load and had implanted a tracking device in the remainder. He had been able to lose them, using a rental car. When the police had arrested him, they had found only a truck full of dates, exactly as in the Street Time story. And then Stratton had sold the dates.

Stratton draws on an inexhaustible fund of other memories as a source of stories. For example, in one scene Kevin's brother, Peter, is in jail. His cellmate is sitting on the cell's toilet in the throes of a gargantuan constipation problem. When at last his loud efforts pay off, he reaches into the toilet, joyfully removes the product, and races over to show it to Peter, who shrinks away in horror. But this prize turns out to be a condom full of heroin, of which Peter readily partakes. The scene is absolutely realistic, for it reflects one of Stratton's own experiences precisely. And he too had used some the heroin that his cellmate offered him.

Yet there are other possible outcomes that are also realistic. When I watched this scene being shot I sat beside Street Time's paramedic (there is always one on duty on the set), who told me his ambulance had once been called to a jail for a similar situation, with tragic results. The condom had broken without being expelled and the inmate had died.

In a subsequent scene, Kevin meets his brother after his release from jail and slaps him around, furious with Peter for having used heroin. This too was realistic, for most pot dealers hate hard drugs such as heroin and crack, and would do anything to keep their loved ones from becoming users.


Street Time is shot on film but immediately transferred to a digital format that can be edited on a computer. The director of photography, Bert Dunk, tries to achieve the rawness and immediacy of a documentary. During the first season he used Fuji film, which gave the grainy look that he likes. For the second season, however, he had to use the new Kodak fine-grain film to produce high definition digital output.

Documentaries are conventionally shot with hand-held cameras and most Street Time scenes are shot the same way. This gives a lively appearance, in contrast to typical Hollywood productions, where two or more cameras move around on dollies or tracks. In a close-up face-to-face shot, the hand-held camera swings back and forth as the characters take turns speaking. You may get dizzy watching it, but the payoff is your feeling that you're privy to unique, breaking news instead of a polished performance.

Over half the scenes are shot on location, mostly in or near Toronto, rather than in the studio. Of these, many take place in the real city environment amidst the traffic of actual urban life. This often causes continuity challenges, as when different cars are seen in a series of takes that must be edited together to form a single scene. If a red Toronto streetcar passes by, the scene must be re-shot because Street Time is supposed to take place in New York City. Still, the actors love performing in such a genuine environment. As Rob Morrow told me, "You never know whether a car is going to come up onto the curb and hit you."

Hollywood usually makes characters look good with flattering lighting. There are multiple, diffuse reflected sources with, say, back lights behind a star to highlight her hair. You'll see no such thing on Street Time. Dunk mostly relies on the actual lamps that illuminate the real set. In the parole office, this creates a harsh effect. There is one ugly interview room with blue walls and naked fluorescent tubes that swing from the ceiling and can even bump a parolee's head. The other rooms in the agency are illuminated by supposedly natural light through the window, which changes according to the time of day. Result: you'll know that the scene seems starkly realistic, but you won't quite know why.

Improvisational Acting

There has never before been such a spontaneous, improvised television drama as Street Time. In mainstream dramas, actors are not permitted to change a single word of the script. A famous television creator once told me that being a producer is the least democratic job a person could have; he has to be an absolute monarch and cannot listen to proposals from anyone else. That is certainly true by custom, but what the Street Time script calls for is not necessarily what the performers say or do. In virtually every take, actors change their lines - with or without permission.

As with other shows, the creator (Richard Stratton) and writing staff work together for a couple of months before shooting begins, breaking the stories. For example, work on the second season began in New York in a room full of blackboards. Then as shooting began in Toronto, Stratton would develop a specific outline of each episode a few weeks in advance, going over it with the designated writer until he was satisfied. Only shortly before shooting would the actors and crew get to see the script. All this is standard practice - but everything that happens afterward is remarkable. Before shooting every scene - and even between all the takes - the actors propose changes, which have a good chance of being accepted. As documentary-makers, Stratton and Levin had learned to react quickly to capture fleeting events that might never be repeated. They brought this flexibility with them into the production of scripted drama.

All the actors prize this extraordinary opportunity to shape their roles, but not all of them take equal advantage of it. Rob Morrow innovates the most. He does something new in almost every take. He works with a theatre company in New York that uses improvisation a lot and he believes in it, as he explained to me.

"I have had to learn in my career how to make a lot of stuff that doesn't work, work. Some of the material wasn't working initially when we started, and I just intuitively started doing this. Sometimes when I start my thing, people rein me back. `Oh, they didn't write that!' It's not a matter of my being disrespectful. If it works, let`s do it. If it doesn't work, let's try to make it work. The advantage is that if it works, it can happen for the first time on camera and that's gold. Sometimes I will go off on tangents - not for me but because I know that the other actor needs to get loose and open, so I'll take him somewhere that he didn't expect. When we get to where we're supposed to be, he's not self-conscious, not thinking about it. Sometimes we'll go on a tangent and be brilliant, and there we have it. The television directors who come on are not used to it, so it's a learning curve for them, in terms of letting go and giving over to it."

Rob's improvisation often adds a humorous or affectionate tone to the script when it seems bleak. For example, I watched him do one scene during the first season when he, as Kevin, and his wife Rachel were in a Lamaze class to prepare for birthing. The instructor gave everyone a long frozen popsicle in a plastic tube to squeeze hard, so they could experience pain while practicing the breathing technique. Kevin was not taking this as seriously as Rachel wanted, so she reproached him. "You're not going to know what to do when the time comes."

"Yes, I will," he answered, appealing to the instructor for approval. "When she goes into labor, I'm supposed to go to the fridge, get a popsicle, and squeeze it, right?" Rob had invented that whole thing on the spot.

The actors all told me that Street Time's spontaneity can occur only because Stratton is so flexible. "No other producer could do this," I heard repeatedly. Michelle Nolden, who plays Rachel, said, "Richard has no ego. He trusts the actors. He's the most grounded person I've ever known. I love him to pieces."

The second season was even more improvisational than the first. Occasionally, whole scenes were invented that did not even exist in the script. This kept the script continuity woman extremely busy, for she had to write down what had been said, creating the script post-facto.

And, for all his flexibility, Stratton was still retaining his story line in every way that mattered. Occasionally he had to rule out an actor's ad libbing. As he explained to me,

"I like it only when it doesn't change the fundamental intent of the scene. When that happens, I can't have it. I have had big heated discussions with Rob and with Erika this season about changes they wanted to make, which I thought were wrong. It's just that they don't have the big picture in their minds. They see it from the standpoint of their characters. One thing about allowing the actors to be as involved as we do, is that they sometimes begin to think they are actually creating those characters. That's somewhat true, but there is a guiding intelligence. I've spent a lot of time thinking about these characters, where they're going, what they do, and I can't have that change. Where improv works is where it takes the material that's there on the page, enhances it, and makes it seem more realistic. Less like actors reading lines, more like people talking conversationally, the way they do. That really works. And these actors are very, very good at doing that."

During the second season, the improvisational adaptability of the director and actors was put to a painful test. The tennis champion Serena Williams was a guest star for one episode in her first venture into acting. On the fifth day of the seven-day shoot, she received shocking news: her elder sister had been killed in a drive-by shooting in California. Serena flew out there immediately, and no one knew when (or even whether) she would be able to return to finish the episode. When I arrived at the studio the next day, Marc Levin was scrambling, cutting every non-essential scene from Serena`s role and filling some of that space with the actors' brilliant improvisations. Rob Morrow and Scott Cohen were out in the parking lot, facing the cameras and inventing a conversation that made perfect sense for their characters, but which no one had written down. It worked.

"Gray" Characters

In the old days, audiences knew right away whether or not to identify with each character. No longer. With the reality esthetic has come an emphasis on realistic characters, and certainly real people - especially the most interesting ones - are morally ambiguous. Moreover, artistry in writing and acting is equated nowadays to the rejection of formulaic plots and characterization. Complex, surprising behavior is prized in a story, even when it is incongruous, if it can be rendered plausible at all. Thus our favorite contemporary protagonists are hero-villains whose ambivalent actions are not entirely illogical; we can still empathize with them.

The most extreme recent instance of this trend toward moral ambiguity is the popular show, The Sopranos. When I first visited Richard Stratton he spoke admiringly of its producer David Chase for having broken new ground in television writing. Tony Soprano, the protagonist of that show, is famously a sweet monster, a thug with a soul, a mob boss, yet a big-hearted family man.

Stratton has created characters who are just as incongruous as, but psychologically deeper than, Chase's Mafia ensemble. The fascinating thing about Street Time's characters is that we can watch them construct, move by move, the conditions for their own progressive moral deterioration. If any story has ever demonstrated the workings of karma (without ever mentioning the word), it is Street Time. Liberti and Hunter both begin with certain weaknesses and strengths, but by giving way to their worst tendencies, they create situations from which they cannot extricate themselves, however morally they may later prefer to behave. These two men are not lovable, but we do like them and wish them well. Fortunately, they are capable of learning, so growth is ultimately possible for both of them - though not for many of the morally weaker characters we meet, who succumb along the way to bullets, heroin, treachery, and bureaucratic blindness.

Yet Street Time's moral messages are by no means simplistic. If Stratton shows that moral mistakes create bad circumstances that require one to make additional moral mistakes, this is not the only possible outcome. Sometimes bad behavior does lead to bad luck, but sometimes the reverse. Thus Kevin's depraved brother Peter becomes increasingly crazy and dangerous during the first two seasons, beating up and even killing several people. Yet in the end, we find ourselves gratified that he perpetrated two of these murders, for he eliminated adversaries who would have destroyed Kevin, who was too principled to kill them himself.

Street Time's artistry accomplishes a greater degree of realism than any other contemporary show. However, realism is not even the main criterion of its value, which must be appraised primarily in terms of its moral messages. And here a critic must pause in consternation before offering any decisive judgment about the show.

Impacts on Viewers

This a violent show, mainly about people whose ideals and habits are raw, uncultivated. Whether we acknowledge it or not, every such show does influence people - and not only children. But is the influence for better or worse? It can go either way. I have gained insights from Street Time about the complex, contradictory, often unpredictable consequences of moral decisions. Most serious, thoughtful viewers who follow the whole series will probably become less judgmental after watching these characters and seeing how circumstantially constrained were their moral decisions and their fates. There are no heroes, but you'll come to feel compassion and affection for the characters.

Or not. You may simply prefer to experience something more pleasant than Street Time's relentless portrayals of violence. Of the friends who consented to watch the tapes in my living room, everyone agreed that the show was extremely well done, but the majority said they would never have watched it except to please me.

But apart from enjoyment, we must also question whether, and in what ways, the show influences viewers' ways of living. Here we must distinguish between two kinds of influence - the latent message (which must be drawn from the story by thoughtful viewers, usually after the show is over) and the simple suggestive effects that occur immediately while a viewer is seeing an action on the screen. Advertising is an example of the latter suggestive effect; an ad can stimulate one to imitate unthinkingly. The implicit meaning, on the other hand, must be inferred reflectively after the show.

Clearly, Street Time has both kinds of effects. Sophisticated viewers may derive beneficial moral insights from it - if they do think about it, which is probably uncommon. The other viewers will derive mainly harmful suggestive effects. We do not know how many people will become wiser for watching Street Time and how many will imitate it. However, the ratio would probably be unsettling, and most professionals in the TV industry understandably avoid speculating about it.

But in any case, it's clearly not the realism of a show that matters most, but the moral impact of the story it depicts, whether or not that impact can ever be ascertained.