I had no plans to blog about TV so soon but last Friday's episode of Outlaw gave me no choice. You remember Outlaw? From NBC? The lone prime-time show in all of TV land with a Latino lead? Jimmy Smits as Cyrus Garza, unrepentant womanizer, gambler, self-retired from the US Supreme Court? I wrote about it here. And do so again today.
The episode in question opens with Judge Garza canoodling in a Vegas hot tub with a naked blonde. Justice Samuel Alito, we are reminded in this risque scene, Garza is not. The phone rings mid-canoodle and Garza's got a new case. In Arizona. Yeah, that Arizona, home of phantom beheadings, Sheriff Joe, and the draconian anti-immigrant bill. In this ripped-from-the-headlines, made-for-TV case, a white cop has shot a Mexican. Bad enough, race-relations wise, but it gets worse: shot Latino turns out to be a legal citizen. A taxpayer. Speaks English and everything. Uh oh. White cop is in big trouble.
As the facts of the case unfold, turns out the Latino guy was loitering on a street corner, minding his own business. But since said street corner was "two miles from the border," and it was night, that was enough probable cause for the cop to stop and ask for some papers. Homeboy, of course, gets pissed (wouldn't you?), a scuffle ensues, and next thing you know the white cop shoots the dude. Three times. Once in the back. Judge Garza to the rescue as he flies to Arizona to take up the timely case. (Unclear, at this point, what happened to the naked blonde. Just sayin'...)
If ever there was a clear example dramatizing how racial profiling can spin out of control, this scenario was it. And on prime-time TV no less. Grist for civic minded, water cooler discussions on the complexity of illegal immigration. Practically a public service broadcast. Will the cop go to jail? Were the civil rights of the guy violated? And, hey, doesn't the Latino actor look a lot like Richard Montoya from Culture Clash? In any case, heady issues to tackle in a TV show. Props to the NBC network whose usual contribution to the public interest are healthy diet tips on The Biggest Loser.
As a Professional-Latino-Who-Cares-About-Such-Things, I fast forwarded my TiVo to see what would happen next.
And wouldn't you know it, things get even more interesting. A major plot twist. The ol' second act reversal. And in the first three minutes. Garza, the Latino lawyer, the Mexican American, the Brown guy, doesn't automatically side with his fellow wronged Raza. ¡N'ombre! That would be too obvious. Instead, Garza chooses -- that's right, CHOOSES -- to represent the White cop. Become his advocate. Vigorously defend his gringo client, the cop who shot the Chicano. What tha--? Wow! Badass twist. Did not see that coming! I sat up in my chair, eager to see how this would play out.
A Brown guy representing a white cop who shot a Latino US citizen who the cop assumed was an illegal because the guy was Brown all in the context of a controversial law legally sanctioning racial profiling? What kinds of insights regarding racial profiling, the law, and it's fair application to illegal immigrants, I wondered, would these topsy turvy dramatic elements lend themselves to exploring? Well, it turns out, not many. What started out so promising became, as the story plodded on, muddled, confusing, and, finally, problematic.
The basic defense of the crew-cutted cop was not that he hates Mexicans, but that he was only following the law. He had no choice to stop him. And so when the Latino guy resisted the cop, again, had no choice but to shoot the unarmed man. And did I mention three times. Once in the back. Hm. Sounds to me like a bit of an over reaction: U.S. citizen doesn’t want to show his passport when standing on a street corner, cop shoots him. But no one seemed to address that issue. Other arguments took center stage...
Garza, it turns out, is a big proponent of States’ rights, he actually says it right before the second commercial. States rights, as we all know, is -- and has been -- code for all kinds of racial shenanigans, primarily by Southern states trying to deny various civil rights of its Black citizens. What this has to do with the Arizona case is not made clear by the TV writers. That’s the muddled part. The problematic part happens at the closing arguments.
(PLEASE NOTE: I have, admittedly, skipped over all kinds of plot business. Mainly because the story beats seemed only to be red herrings existing solely to waste time between the ads for new cars. I’m talking scenes like the Latino guy is a hot head, so maybe he deserves to get his ass kicked by the cop. Another where the cop is recorded saying racist comments, and then Garza proves they were taken out of context. One where Garza and his Black Guy Best Friend drink a couple of beers while parked at the foot of the 20 ft steel border wall with Mexico (yeah, I know, it makes no sense) and a cop harasses them. Another where the comely legal assistant who has a crush on Garza and so may or may not appear at the Judge's door that night in slinky lingerie bought at the hotel gift shop. And of course a scene where angry Chicano protesters almost flip over vendido Garza’s car. Blah blah blah. Like I said, plotty business stuff to get us the final act.)
In any case, CUT TO end of the show and the Cop on the stand: Would you have stopped the Latino guy if he was white, the prosecutor finally asks him? Dramatic pause as everyone waits for his answer. No, the cop finally admits, I wouldn’t have. The courtroom gasps. The cop is toast. That is until Cyrus Garza steps up for his closing argument, and stands before the jury:
It is irrelevant to this case, Garza tells them, whether the Arizona law is just or not. What matters, he argues, is that we don’t send good men to prison to make a point about a law. That would be un-American. Nobody should be sacrificed so politicians can send a message. For that reason, he concludes, the cop must be acquitted.
And of course they do. Not guilty. And to add insult to injury, the jury foreman reading the verdict is a Latino. And they made a special point to have the actor correctly roll his rrrr’s when pronouncing the shot dude’s Mexican name. I guess that’s their version of dramatic irony.
But what bothered me about the show wasn’t so much the sloppy ending, or the way an interesting premise and a twist on character expectations was not fullfilled. What set me off was Garza’s sanctimonious argument about how un-American is was to “sacrifice a man for political expediency, to send a message.” What tha--? Talk about a one-sided argument.
What do you think, I would ask Garza, what do you think the whole point of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signing the anti-immigrant law is if not to send a message at the expense of not one guy, but millions of Latinos? People who look just like you. Every half-baked proposal to build a wall or ban Spanish or get rid of Ethnic studies is nothing more than Republican politicians sending a message to their right wing base that they are indeed tough on immigrants. To vote for them in the primary. All on the backs of Latinos, illegal and otherwise. Not that is un-American.
Anyway, didn’t mean to rant so long. This is, at the end of the day, a network TV show and not a Spike Lee movie. Still, I was really hoping for some kind of profound and transcendent resolution to the ideas, legal and moral, that the show purported to explore.
Didn’t get it.
And the comely legal assistant who was contemplating showing up in the Judges room in slinky lingerie? They failed to deliver on that too. Oh well, there’s always next week. Or maybe not. Ratings for the show have been pretty bad. And as much as this week's episode annoyed me it at least got me thinking. And writing. Not only that, but with the loss of Outlaw the entire American TV landscape will once again be absent a TV show featuring a Latino in the lead.