As Ally Walker was in the midst of her run as Agent Stahl, Worst Woman In The History Of The World, on FX’s “Sons of Anarachy,” I had more than a few moments when I paused and looked forward to what the “Profiler” star would do next.
I wondered if TNT would shape a “Closer”/”Saving Grace”-style vehicle around her, or if Showtime might let her topline or co-star in one of its tragicomedies or even if CBS could build her something “Good Wife”-esque. My thought was that I respect Ally Walker and like her and as much as I relished (and she clearly relished) her wicked “SoA” turn, it might be nice to see her on a show that didn’t force me to plot elaborate strategies for her death.
On Sunday (June 12), Lifetime premieres “The Protector,” which superficially is the Ally Walker Vehicle I’d been hoping for. Unfortunately, although “The Protector” gives Walker the stage all to herself, it’s too bland and generic a project to take any pleasure in.
So Ally Walker has her own show now. It just isn’t one that I’m ever going to watch again.
Full review of “The Protector” after the break…
Although creator Jeffrey Bell’s credits include “Angel,” “Alias,” “Day Break” and “Harper’s Island,” none of that experience on formula-stretching drama has transferred to “The Protector.” Or maybe Bell looked at the life-span of his recent shows and decided there’s something to be said for slavish devotion to every imaginable genre convention.
“The Protector” stars Walker as a woman balancing her responsibilities as a single mom and a detective in LAPD’s homicide division. Actually, there’s something admirable about the purity of that logline. You hear that sentence and you think, “Well OK. Now what’s the twist? Is her partner a ghost? Does she have elaborate fantasy sequences conveyed in Japanese anime style? Does she have no sense of smell? Give me the hook!” But the executives at Lifetime didn’t think like you. They heard “a woman balancing her responsibilities as a single mom and a detective in LAPD’s homicide division” and didn’t look for more and didn’t ask for more. Most procedurals, after all, don’t spend much time at home with their leads, while “The Protector” is every bit as much about the main character’s challenges minding her domestic flock as it is about her job. I mean, the main character’s last name is “Sheppard.” It’s not a coincidence. In fact, it’s thuddingly obvious.
But most of “The Protector” works on that same level of over-articulated simplicity.
TV is full of rogue cops and rogue doctors and rogue lawyers and rogue chefs, so we know exactly what it looks like to have a main character who exists within The System, but doesn’t play by The System’s rules.
Walker’s Gloria Sheppard is a little prickly, but she’s fairly predictable as a detective and as a mother. And yet people keep calling Gloria “strange” and “crazy.” The people around her keep saying things like “You just love pissing people off, don’t you, Sheppard?” and “Why is it that everybody can be wrong except for you?” This is one of my least favorite crutches in pilot-writing and one that a disturbing number of shows fall victim to. Rather than having the character display the traits that suggest that she loves pissing people off or that she thinks everybody is wrong but her, the writers include dialogue underlining those traits. I watched “The Protector” and nothing about Gloria’s character seemed especially confrontational or especially obstinate. People also referred several times to Gloria being intuitive or playing her hunches, but again, I didn’t notice her seeming especially perceptive or driven by instinct. In a perfect pilot, other characters may gossip about the main character’s weirdness with reverential awe, but you’ll still have ample illustration of the behavior that generated the reputation. “The Closer” isn’t a perfect pilot, but it’s an example of a pilot that left no doubt that Brenda Johnson was worthy of myth-making.
On the Quirky-Crimefight-O-Meter, a sliding scale that includes characters like Vic Mackey and Patrick Jane and Charlie Crews and the entire cast of “The Unusuals” as 9s or 10s, Gloria Sheppard ranks as maybe a 2. And yet she bemuses her partner (Tisha Campbell-Martin), perplexes her fellow detectives and causes problems for her Stern Minority Authority Figure Boss (Miguel Ferrer). Their reactions all feel disproportionate to the situation, suggesting that “The Protector” is one of those TV shows that exists in a world without other TV shows.
Domestically, things are no more interesting. Gloria’s got her two kids, so she has to deal with issues like making lunches and designing costumes for school plays. She has a brother (Chris Payne Gilbert) living with her and he’s a recovering substance abuser and they have some past that seems to include a fire in their childhood, but that’s all being held for drama in future episodes, as is her recently departed ex-husband. The premise has some bullets in the chamber for later excitement, but the odd decision was made not to waste any of those shots in the pilot.
Herein lies the difference between the Lifetime version of “The Protector” and the FX or Showtime or HBO version of “The Protector.” Lifetime TV is aspirational TV. Vic Mackey was a cop and a father and at times you could argue that he was good at both jobs (or really horrible at both jobs), but you were always forced to feel incredulity that a guy who did the things he did on the job, could come home and be a father (again, increasingly less successfully as he went along). In the Lifetime model, Gloria may sacrifice a few hours sleep (and I’m betting she’ll miss a parent-teacher conference or two), but the theme is a reassuring, “Yes, you can do both of these things, be both of these women, and the sacrifice you make will rarely be too great.” I understand why that’s what the Lifetime version of this show would want to affirm, but it also results in really diminished stakes.
The smoothing out of the roughest edges makes “The Protector” a less-than-desirable showcase for Walker, who’s at her most interesting as an actress when her characters are less-than-perfect. She’s not bad here. She’s perfectly solid and watchable. But once you know you have an star willing (and sometimes able) to push, seeing her in a role that allows for this much coasting is a disappointment.
And Walker’s all alone. None of the supporting characters register in the slightest. Miguel Ferrer is playing the Miguel Ferrer role and plays it in a Miguel Ferrer way, making the biggest impression (relatively speaking) because he’s got an off-kilter backstory involving a Thai wife or girlfriend who we don’t see. Campbell-Martin mostly keeps rolling her eyes at her long-time partner’s not-so-wacky wackiness, as if the character had never worked a case with Gloria before (that’s why a fair number of procedurals begin with the hero getting a new partner in the pilot). Gilbert’s got relapses and downward spirals ahead of him, but in the pilot, he’s clean and boring. The kids are moppet-cute.
The pilot for “The Protector” was directed by solid TV journeyman Peter O’Fallon and shifts back and forth between professional and domestic plotlines without sacrificing pace and makes pretty use of the Los Angeles skyline. It’s never surprising or tense or emotional, but it doesn’t try to be.
I think that if Walker weren’t coming off of a role that produced such a visceral reaction, maybe I wouldn’t be disappointed to see her transition to a drama that generates no reaction at all. But again, it doesn’t try to. “The Protector” might be worse if it were attempting to do something ambitious and failing. Instead, it’s set the bar near the ground, but I guess some viewers will be satisfied to see it succeed. I’ll pass on subsequent episodes. I just don’t feel like I’m going to miss much.
“The Protector” premieres on Sunday, June 12 at 10 p.m. on Lifetime.