Thursday, March 27, 2008

Third Watch Revisited
It happens all too rarely, but every once in a while, network television hits a nerve in the collective consciousness, and makes a statement about society as a whole by examining its microcosmic components. For six seasons, from September 1999 to May 2005, NBC’s Third Watch consistently accomplished just that. Ostensibly, the show focused on the day to day exploits of the cops, firefighters and paramedics of the fictional 55th precinct )nicknamed “Camelot” by the cops who work there because it sits at the corner of King and Arthur) and 53rd Fire House of New York City, who work the 3-11 PM, or “third watch” shift. That was really only a springboard, though. Third Watch was really about humanity’s tenuous hold on the urban landscape it’s created.

Of course, the series had it antecedents—Hill Street Blues, ER and Emergency come to mind immediately—but Third Watch went a step further, weaving its characters into the larger personality of the city itself. What series creators John Wells (ER, The West Wing) and Edward Allen Bernero (Criminal Minds) accomplished with Third Watch remains a benchmark in the annals of dramatic television. And while it was never a runaway ratings blockbuster, it maintained a following sufficient for it to run 132 episodes over six seasons. Along the way, it garnered critical acclaim, Emmy nominations and awards for some of its actors. It was a complex series that literally hit the ground running, and ended even more explosively than it began.

Finally, almost nine years after it originally aired, Third Watch: The Complete First Season is available in the United States as a six disc DVD boxed set. (It’s been available as a Region 2 disc for a couple of years now, albeit slightly altered.) While it’s somewhat odd it’s taken this long for the series to make it to DVD, this edition was worth the wait. Admittedly, I may be a little biased. I watched Third Watch religiously throughout its six season run, rearranging my schedule constantly as NBC shifted it from one timeslot to the next. I’ll readily admit I was a junkie—the recurring characters made me care about them, and I ended up caring about the fleeting situations in which they became embroiled in the course of a shift’s work.

Time being what it is, I’d more or less resigned myself to the idea that Third Watch was consigned to syndication and basic cable, with disjointed episodes running out of context, much like 24 reruns. Third Watch: The Complete First Season masterfully lays the groundwork for the series, introducing characters who would be pivotal through the run of Third Watch. It was an ensemble cast to be sure, and no single character was a showboater—all were integral to the overall story to each individual episode, as they were to the larger canvas of the series, which continually evolved with each episode.

In the end, though, Third Watch wasn’t about cops or firefighters or paramedics—it was more akin to contemporary knights errant unknowingly slaying invisible dragons. They were blue knights who never strayed far from their blue collar roots. The fact that they were equally concerned with the rigors and pitfalls of their daily lives as they were with the demands of their jobs gave the series a resonance unmatched by any other series of its type. It moved at such a breakneck pace that sometimes the subplots seemed trivial—much in the same way real life works. Third Watch was a rarity—it moved at the pace of life, leaving ragged edges in its wake.

It’s fitting that the DVD collection is presented in 2.0 stereo and its original 1.33:1 video format. Enhancing it would only detract from its original intent. Extras are kept at a minimum, too—a retrospective featurette featuring the writers and some cast members, and the almost obligatory gag reel of flubbed lines. The almost 1000 minutes of drama in this collection make it stand as one of the greatest network series of the New Millenium, if not of all time.

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