Although I can see why it still attracts writers and actors, the undercover cop genre has seemingly gone stagnant. This makes me sad because it’s a genre I love on the big screen — “Serpico,” “Point Break,” “Donnie Brasco,” “The Departed” — and on TV — “The Mod Squad,” “EZ Streets,” “Sleeper Cell.”
The major beats of the undercover genre are all crystalized. You await the scene where the stern authority figure threatens to pull our hero off the case because he’s in too deep. You await the scene where the hero’s wife/girlfriend complains that she doesn’t know who she’s sleeping with anymore, because he’s in too deep. You await the scene where our hero has to cross that line and do something illegal, because he’s in too deep to let his cover slide. In a movie each of things things can happen two or three times, but in a TV series, you can be stuck playing out the same beats multiple times in every episode.
No matter how bland the genre has become, it can still be a showcase for some terrific performances. I watched CBS’ “The Handler” for Joe Pantoliano and Hill Harper. I watched A&E’s “The Beast” for Patrick Swayze.
While some of the performances in TNT’s new drama “Dark Blue” are solid, none of them are compelling enough to elevate what is otherwise an oppressively gloom, by-the-numbers entry that just pushes the genre deeper into its rut.
[Full review after the break…]
Dylan McDermott stars as Carter Shaw, a street-wise cop so consumed with law and order that he’s let his marriage, his family and his personal life slip away. Yes. He’s that street-wise cop.
He runs a team that includes Ty (Omari Hardwick), still trying to be the best husband he can be, in-too-deep Dean (Logan Marshall-Green) and newcomer-with-a-past Jaimie (Nicki Aycox). They’re an elite off-the-books undercover squad with mostly unlimited resources, getting close to Los Angeles’ biggest drug pushers, arms dealers and potential terrorists.
But there’s a catch.
As Shaw explains, “You start spending more time as an addict or a thief or even a killer than you do as yourself. Sooner or later, you’re gonna forget which parts are the cover and which parts are you. How long can you pretend to be something before you become it?”
Whoa. That’s deep. Or else it’s just familiar. “Dark Blue” is just another show that suggests that as noble as police officers are, in general, the most noble cops of all are the cops who have to act for a living.
As I’ve said before, there’s something patently absurd about the idea that undercover cops can balance enough different aliases to allow them to go undercover and solve a different case each week, but it’s a lie that TV drama like to perpetuate. I prefer shows that acknowledge the ridiculousness of that premise, something like “Burn Notice,” where Michael Westen just whips out a different silly accent and he can instantly ingratiate himself to all manner of crooks and thieves in no time at all and despite having cozied up to more than 30 Miami-based criminals in a year, he almost never runs into past associates or people he helped put away. Because “Burn Notice” is mostly a comedy, you don’t sweat the plausibility. You can similarly suspend disbelief for “Leverage,” which returns for its second season paired with “Dark Blue.” The “Leverage” gang pulls off a different con every week, but they travel the country, wear funny costumes and make wisecracks.
“Dark Blue,” however, aspires to be gritty, real and intense and only gritty, real and intense. Because this is a Jerry Bruckheimer show, the strong production values are a foregone conclusion. Directed by Danny Cannon, who crafted the visual style for several of Bruckheimer’s hits, “Dark Blue” is murky and cinematic and, like much of Cannon’s work, characterized by a heavy use of filters and showy lighting. It’s also a vision of Los Angeles that’s nearly dystopic, an LA devoid of overly iconic palm trees and landmarks, but also devoid of neighborhoods and humanity. It’s all abandoned warehouses, downtown lofts and sterile asphalt back-alleys.
The cases in the first two episodes are similarly sterile and divorced from anything Los Angeles-specific. It just happens that LA is a likely hub for untouchable (but easily infiltrated) criminal masterminds.
Bringing down said masterminds is such hard work that there’s no room for levity and the characters only pause long enough for introspective monologuing on the nature of their jobs. There’s a recent why shows like this, but not this, have a quirky computer guy or a lab tech, somebody to serve no purpose other than cracking a few jokes and leaving. Yeah, sometimes we end up hating those character, but in their total absence, they’re missed.
If nothing else, McDermott is playing to his strength in “Dark Blue.” That is to say that he delivers 80 percent of his lines in a growling monotone. He delivers another 10 percent like he’s on the verge of bawling at a his own sincerity. And then for the other 10 percent, he bellows in righteous indignation. Everything we know about the character comes when Kyle Secor, as a meddling FBI agent, reads his file out loud to him. “Dark Blue” is that kind of show.
Of the supporting players, Logan Marshall-Green makes the strongest impression, continuing a career trend of being slightly memorable in unmemorable vehicles like ABC’s “Traveler” and the feature “The Great Rave.” Because he’s the officer who’s “in too deep,” he has the showiest part, at least in the pilot. In the second episode, shifted to the background, he isn’t so interesting. I did find myself thinking how much better A&E’s “The Beast” would have been with Marshall-Green in the Travis Fimmel role, or else how much better “Dark Blue” would be with Patrick Swayze standing in for McDermott.
I also found myself thinking that Ryan Atwood (Benjamin McKenzie) and Trey Atwood (Marshall-Green) now both find themselves playing dedicated LAPD officers overcoming the obstacle of coming from good families on procedurals.
That, in turn, lets me embed this clip:
I feel like I owe Logan Marshall-Green an apology, but not nearly as much of an apology as Marissa Cooper and Imogen Heap do.
Hardwick gets the main arc in the second’s second episode, while Aycox’s secret may be interesting. They’re both OK.
“Dark Blue” airs at 10 p.m. on Wednesday, following “Leverage.” While I don’t have the time to do a review of “Leverage,” the show remains a respectable (if sometimes forgettable) mixture of well-meaning plotlines, likable characters and frequent fun. Maybe if the two are paired for long enough, some of the fun from “Leverage” will bleed into “Dark Blue.”