A USA-style quirky procedural done with FX-style grit and character depth, “Terriers” debuts on Wednesday (Sept. 8) night with an engagingly loose pilot, only to grow darker, tighter and better with each passing episode.
With an all-star creative team including creator Ted Griffin, co-showrunner Shawn Ryan and executive producer Tim Minear, plus directors like Craig Brewer, Clark Johnson and Rian Johnson, “Terriers” almost immediately accomplishes what many shows struggle to do in a lifetime: It finds a voice, a tone and a setting and every second feels natural and unforced, even as the stakes rise.
One of the fall’s best new shows, “Terriers” continues FX’s recent development hot streak (which will remain intact through at least the superb pilot for January’s “Lights Out”).
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Like I said in my lede, “Terriers” has the core premise of a USA show. Former cop Hank Dolworth (Donal Logue) and former ne’er-do-well Britt Pollack (Michael Raymond-James) live in a beach community of San Diego, where they live a rather unmotivated life as unlicensed private eyes.
But Ocean Beach isn’t like USA’s blue sky versions of Miami or The Hamptons. It’s probably a nice place to vacation if you like your beachside towns grimy and washed out and somewhat tawdry.
And Hank and Britt aren’t your typic Carver/Hammett gumshoes, though they lay bare the realities of the Marlowe/Spade archetypes.
Hank is a recovering alcoholic whose pithy one-liners are just a part of a potentially dangerous self-destructive streak. He remains in love with his ex-wife Gretchen (Kimberly Quinn) and has no interest in cutting that cord.
Britt, meanwhile, is a charming rogue, less clever than his partner until we learn about his dark past. While Hank wallows in his singeldom, Britt is involved with aspiring vet Katie (Laura Allen) and they seem ready to settle down, even if a dog might turn out to be too great a commitment.
“Terriers” could fit into the slick, ultra-efficient problem-solver format of a “Burn Notice” or a “White Collar” or even a sunny shaggy dog mystery like “Psych,” but these characters aren’t so far above the underbelly themselves. Instead, “Terriers” is more in the tradition of a “Veronica Mars,” “Big Lebowski,” “The Long Goodbye” or “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” where the perceived glamour of the profession has been lost in the mire of petty criminals and the need to make ends meet.
In the early stages of the pilot, “Terrier” hints at being that USA sort of low-impact procedural, where even if characters get a cut or a bruise, they’re cleaned up by the next episode, but serialized elements revolving around shady local land deals and the death of one of Hank’s old friends begin to loom over the normal cases of the week. Hank and Britt start off scruffy and they only get worse and you never doubt the “there but for the grace of each other” sense that without this friendship, both men would go off a cliff.
Though FX hasn’t shied from star-driving hour-longs in recent years — look at Glenn Close in “Damages” or Timothy Olyphant in “Justified” — the network has been just as comfortable building shows around variably familiar character actors. “Terriers” fits into that category, with characters who pop because of the characters and not because of a movie veteran trying basic cable.
Certainly Logue is a known factor on the big and small screen and he’s toplined shows (“Grounded for Life,” “Knights of Prosperity”), been a supporting player on shows (“Life”) and done guest roles aplenty. Still, unless you happen to be a big fan of “The Tao of Steve” (a perfectly acceptable preference) you’d probably be hard-pressed to name that most Donal Logue-ian of performances on his resume. I wonder if “Terriers” may become that role, as Logue instantly inhabits Hank in all of his uncertainness and assumed bluster. Then again, perhaps why Logue has avoided any sort of defining role is that he almost always seems to evince a similar kind of immediate comfort, even with characters less realized in the writing.
That comfort is mirrored by Michael Raymond-James, who “True Blood” fans will recognize from the show’s first season, but who will be a fresh discovery for many viewers. Raymond-James has a lot of Robert Downey Jr. in him, a somewhat similar appearance and a tangibly similar playfulness as an actor. Britt is a con man at least as much as he’s a PI and Raymond-James has the kind of wily approachability that makes people (and viewers) want to trust him.
As with Logue, Raymond-James never looks like an actor playing a private eye on a genre TV show. And together, the two men have a chemistry that’s utterly unforced. Hank & Britt have the potential to join House & Wilson, Chuck & Morgan and a couple others in the current pantheon of TV homosocial relationships. It’s the rare buddy dramedy that thrives on the co-dependent neediness of its two main characters.
But “Terriers” isn’t a two-hander. As Hank’s former partner on the force, Rockmond Dunbar takes what could have just been short-handed as the Samuel L. Jackson/Ving Rhames/Tough-Talking Black Guy detective and makes him a good guy who’s sometimes every bit as much worth rooting for as our heroes.
The female characters aren’t quite as developed, but they aren’t just toss-offs. Quinn’s character has no real life of her own, but she brings different sidings to Hank, while Allen and Raymond-James have an interesting chemistry of their own.
There are early moments in “Terriers” where it feels like the weekly adventures might just be shaggy dog stories themselves, good for a couple twists and turns, but not necessarily adding up to anything greater. However, in the last couple episodes sent to critics for review — I’ve seen up to Episode 5 — the building serialized plot, coupled with important details from Hank and Britt’s backstory, show that “Terriers” is capable of being more substantial and that, possibly, that that’s where its aspirations lie. That’s a good sign for an already very good show.
“Terriers” premieres on FX on Wednesday, Sept. 8 at 10 p.m.
And now, I leave you with…