Tune in Tonight: "Private Eye"
It was announced last week that Josh Brolin had been cast as Gurney Halleck in Denis Villeneuve’s remake of Dune. That’s not surprising, because virtually every human being, actor or not, will eventually be cast in Denis Villeneuve’s remake of Dune, but it’s especially not surprising because Josh Brolin is required by law to be cast in every movie, particularly if there’s a large budget and considerable special effects. Currently starring in two separate Marvel properties existing in different universes, he presumably has enough money to build a Scrooge McDuck gold coin chamber in his home.
Once upon a time, however, before he looked like he was dynamited out of a chunk of handsome granite, he was a babyface greaser rocking an impressive ducktail and talking in a vague Southern accent in 1987’s Private Eye, a short-lived crime drama in which NBC attempted to ride the coattails of its own success with Miami Vice. Michael Woods starred as Jack Cleary, a former cop turned renegade detective, with Brolin as Johnny Betts, the James Dean impersonator who assists him, in the kind of “only in Hollywood” 1950s where everyone tools around in flashy convertibles and hangs out at the local drive-in restaurant. The money spent on period-accurate clothing and familiar hits of the time like “Earth Angel” and “Tequila” was siphoned away from the script, which relies on already tired tropes like the hard-living private dick, and the rebel with the heart of gold, with a soupcon of cringy racial stereotypes.
In this episode, the seventh in a mediocre twelve episode run, Johnny hangs out in East L.A., which is treated as a dark and mysterious hinterland where mere mortals fear to tread, and “the women are more dangerous than push button knives.” Often shot in shadowy darkness, the best way to tell when the action is taking place there is when Spanish guitar music swells on the soundtrack. Johnny immediately takes a shine to Angela (Angela Raza), a pretty Mexican girl, but draws the ire of her brother, Eddie (Josh Cruze), and his buddies. Less than ten minutes into the episode, and it turns out that this is a surprise double whammy: not only does it star a very young Josh Brolin, but also a very young Benicio Del Toro in a supporting role as Carlos, Eddie’s second in command. With even bigger hair than Brolin, Del Toro is already exhibiting that quirky, jittery energy he would show a few years later in The Usual Suspects, and virtually every other role after that, playing aliens even when his characters aren’t supposed to be aliens.
Though Johnny makes the dubious claim that “I come from the barrio myself! It’s called the Tennessee hills!” Eddie and his pals are unimpressed, and steal his car as payback for daring to speak to Angela. Detective Jack is on the case, which seems to involve both a stolen car ring, and a heroin smuggling ring, in a way that is may more complicated than a show that could be easily summed up as “Sonny Crockett Meets Dragnet” needs to be. Anyway, Eddie ends up dead, and Johnny is framed for his murder. Angela, who’s known Johnny for maybe an hour or so, nevertheless believes that he’s innocent, and even puts her reputation on the line to protect him. The scenes between Johnny and Angela are supposed to add some poignancy to the episode (you can tell because the Spanish guitar music is slow and mournful), even though it seems highly unlikely that Johnny, who mentions numerous times that he’s poor white trash from Tennessee (besides the fact that it’s the 1950s), needs to have it carefully explained to him why it’s socially unacceptable for him to be seen hanging around with a Mexican girl.
“Joo don’t know what kind of trouble jour getting into, ese!” a mustachioed car mechanic named Loco (Mike Moroff) warns Jack, in a Speedy Gonzales accent. Don’t cringe too hard, though, because Loco is actually an undercover cop, working to bust the heroin/car theft ring. Loco and Jack shake down Carlos, who reveals that the mastermind behind the whole thing, including Eddie’s murder, is Miguel. Now, you might be thinking “Gena, did you mention a Miguel? I don’t recall there being a character named Miguel.” I did not, mostly because Miguel (played by Robert Beltran, for a while Hollywood’s go-to actor for playing characters of indeterminate ethnicity) is, until the last five minutes of the episode, a minor character who only has a few lines in two early scenes. Nevertheless, it’s supposed to be a shocking revelation that he’s the bad guy. “Looks like we’re having ourselves a real Mexican standoff,” Jack says, while actually having a Mexican standoff, and the fact that Miguel doesn’t shoot him right then and there proves that he can’t be that bad a guy.
Jack and Loco save Miguel from barrio justice (and yet more dramatic guitar music), and the case is solved. Spending time with Johnny has somehow inspired Angela to become a role model in her community, and she thanks him for that with a chaste kiss on the cheek before disappearing into the night while Johnny looks on wistfully, like she’s returning over the border to East Germany, instead of a neighborhood in his own city.
Of all the TV shows I’ve watched for this column, this is certainly one of them. I tend to rate shows according to how long they felt, and this felt exactly 49 minutes long, no more, no less, so for that it earns a rating of perfectly average. It came at a time when television was at peak “all flash, no substance,” particularly when it came to cop shows, and a look at Private Eye’s episode guide shows that there wasn’t one single plot that hadn’t already been done before, some several times over. The sole difference here in comparison to Miami Vice, Crime Story, the even more forgotten Hollywood Beat, and other all too similar programs is its direct appeal to a teenage female audience. There’s also the extra added twist of Detective Jack having been thrown off the police force for being too honorable, which, from a modern perspective, is a rather large serving of hooey to swallow down.
Brolin, all of nineteen at the time, is fine in a role that requires little more of him than to fill out a motorcycle jacket. It wouldn’t be until twenty years later, and after his voice dropped seventeen octaves, that he’d finally find some real traction as an actor in No Country for Old Men, and many other taciturn tough guy roles since then. Here, he’s soft and cute as a puppy, dressed like a boy hoping to win a Danny Zuko look-alike contest at his school sock hop. The real standout, in an otherwise stock “shifty Latino” role, is Benicio Del Toro, barely out of his teens himself and in only his third credited performance. Though the show hardly requires it, let alone the part, Del Toro acts his little heart out, playing the part like he was imagining it showing up in an Oscars “lifetime achievement” reel someday. Unlike Josh Brolin, who needed a while to find his footing, Del Toro already knew that he had a long career of interesting weirdos ahead of him.
Original airdate: November 6, 1987