All this week, Uproxx’s Late Night Week will take a look at late-night past, present, and future, from talk shows to late-night comedy, and beyond. First up, a look back at a strange chapter in CBS’ late-night history in the years before David Letterman.
In early 1991, CBS execs — still smarting over the high-profile failure of The Pat Sajak Show, and more than two years from the launch of The Late Show with David Letterman — threw up their hands about late night and decided to fill the 11:30 hour with a collection of cheap (i.e., largely Canadian) crime dramas, under the umbrella title Crimetime After Primetime. Many of these had their cheesy charms (at the time, I was partial to private eye show by Sweating Bullets, aka Tropical Heat, whose opening credits I cannot recommend highly enough), and Stephen J. Cannell’s Silk Stalkings proved so popular that it ran another six seasons on USA after Letterman’s arrival killed off Crimetime After Primetime.
But it was another Cannell drama that’s most interesting from our viewpoint 25 years later, and another instance of the super producer being way ahead of his time.
A few years before, Cannell and Frank Lupo had given CBS Wiseguy, a drama about an undercover FBI agent that was a precursor to many of the modern serialized cable dramas. For the Crimetime After Primetime block, he was responsible not only for Silk Stalkings (and thus America’s introduction to the name “Mitzi Kapture”), but for Scene of the Crime, an anthology series where each episode presented a new story with new characters, but with a twist: The same group of actors appeared in every episode, changing looks and identities each time, so that last week’s victim would be this week’s killer.
For the most part, Scene of the Crime was a traditional TV anthology in the vein of The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Cannell (who was more famous than the average showrunner of the era because every episode of his series ended with the image of him pulling a sheet of paper from a typewriter) even addressed the audience at the start and end of each episode.
But by employing the same small repertory company of Canadian actors (the most recognizable one today is probably Stephen McHattie) and letting them constantly cycle through one role after another, Cannell beat Ryan Murphy to the punch by a few decades(*). Though American Horror Story et al generally stick with one story — and one set of characters — across an entire season, imagine seeing Sarah Paulson or Jessica Lange taking turns killing each other in 13 different roles apiece every year, or John Travolta playing Robert Shapiro one week, and then the Unabomber the very next, all under the same title.
(*) These repertory anthologies were slightly in vogue in the early ’90s, as Carol Burnett tried something similar on the comedy side of things with Carol & Company.
Like most of the Crimetime After Primetime shows, Scene of the Crime hasn’t had much of an afterlife. There’s no home video release and no streaming library has it, but there are a few clips on YouTube. Here’s the season 2 opening credits, which features each actor in multiple roles:
And here’s McHattie as a kidnapper holding Teri Austin and Sandra Nelson hostage:
As you can tell from those clips, this wasn’t one of Cannell’s artier shows. But the idea was fun — and prescient.