While I enjoy a good whodunnit, I’m not a fan of cop dramas. It’s a personal prejudice that I know costs me a lot of good TV. I can take or leave all manner of “CSI” or “Law & Order,” watching few episodes per year out of professional interest and responsibility, not desire. I admired aspects of “The Shield” and “NYPD Blue,” but not enough to stick with them. I’m embarrassed to say that I avoided “The Wire” for nearly three seasons before giving it a shot and getting sucked into the best TV show of our time.
So imagine my excitement at ABC premiering the New York police dramedy “The Unusuals” on Wednesday (April 8) and NBC launching “Southland” on Thursday (April 9). In nothing else, the synchronicity of these thematically similar shows gives me the chance to tackle both in a single review. So that’s something, eh?
While both shows do a number of things well and boast top notch ensemble casts, I’m only looking looking forward to Episode Two for one of them.
[Which one? Full reviews after the break…]
I’m not sure which network needed to step back and postpone their premiere — both shows are already so late in midseason they’re nearly summer shows — but “The Unusuals” and “Southland” are too much alike to be kicking off one night apart.
Both shows are true ensembles, but they both use relatively young officers — Amber Tamblyn in “The Unusuals” and Ben McKenzie in “Southland” — as the point-of-entry to introduce viewers to this insular world. In both cases, the young cops come from lives of privilege — Tamblyn’s character is a Park Avenue debutante, while McKenzie’s dad is a 90210 lawyer — which is screenwriter shorthand for “They didn’t need to choose the profession, so why did they?” And in both shows, the fresh-faced cops are forced to use their guns in climactic moments, an innocence-shattering experience.
Those are structural similarities. While each show acknowledges (or embraces) the idea that some cops are crooked or sleazy or just plain criminals, they also repeatedly emphasize both the nobility of the profession and the idea that precincts and squad cars are their own world apart from the one they’re protecting and serving. Both shows contrast the way the public views cops from the way cops view themselves and both scripts — Ann Biderman wrote “Southland,” while “The Unusuals” was created by Noah Hawley — are littered with declarative sentences about the essence of police work and cop-dom.
“You know what a cop is to most people? Garbage man.” (“The Unusuals”)
“You’re a cop, because you don’t know how not to be one. If you feel that way, you’re a cop. If you don’t, you’re not. You decide.” (“Southland”)
Both shows build their big moments around monologues about why cops keep coming back to work each day, Jeremy Renner speaking for “The Unusuals” and Michael Cudlitz” for “Southland.”
Like I said, it’s more than just skin-deep, what these two have in common.
Fortunately, they have different strengths, so viewers should have no trouble distinguishing which show is right for them.
Directed by Chris Chulack, the “Southland” pilot aspires for a level of gritty authenticity that calls to mind “Collateral” meets “Training Day.” While Los Angeles has been the location for countless cop shows, I can’t think of any show in recent years that has so comfortably captured a certain aspect of the city’s underbelly. It’s not pretty, but it’s true and respectful to Los Angeles’ neighborhoods and their ethnic diversity.
Of course, let it never be said that naturalism is all that natural. It’s just another aesthetic choice, so while the digital look and bleeped obscenities might make you briefly think you’re watching a slice of life, the long-term effect is more like watching a slice of cable. And by the time they whip out an extending Cops Return to Their Homes After a Long Day of Work montage, set to The National’s “Fake Empire,” you’re just watching another John Wells-produced series, which is what NBC probably wants you to think, hence giving “Southland” the old “ER” slot formerly intended for the far superior “Kings.”
The stars of the pilot are McKenzie, as the probie, and Cudlitz, as his training officer, but the cast is tremendously deep and with Shawn Hatosy, Regina King, Kevin Alejandro, C. Thomas Howell and Thomas Everett Scott among the other leads, the writers won’t face many weak links. Other than Howell, playing a crazed, politically incorrect boor of a veteran, none of the officers has been interestingly delineated thus far, but with a cast like this, you can get away with sketching characters in broad strokes.
Driven perhaps by the vagueness of the characters, “Southland” strays into familiar territory very quickly. There’s a fine line between examining LA’s racial stratification and trafficking in caricatures of gangbangers and hoods. While I honestly trust that Wells and his team intend to do the former, the pilot does the latter just as frequently. There’s a failure to realize that at this point, the Dignified African American Mother spouting frustrated platitudes like “Everybody bangs around here. Shoot, we’ve got our own War on Terror right here” is every bit as cliched.
One thing you can’t say that “The Unusuals” suffers from is vagueness. In a 44 minute pilot, Hawley barely hesitates in defining his characters by their secrets and their quirks.
“Here’s the difference between you and me. You think people shouldn’t keep secrets. I think that we are our secrets,” Renner’s character helpfully tells Tamblyn at one point.
Everybody in “The Unusuals” keeps announcing their psychoses in all-caps and what eccentricities aren’t explained organically are presented in exposition to Tamblyn’s character, who has been brought in from Vice — she’s introduced as the least plausible undercover hooker in TV history — to serve as a fresh set of eyes on the out-of-control Second Precinct.
While there’s an occasional nagging suspicion that the pilot is doing more telling than showing, the advantage of injecting all of this character information so quickly is that everybody in the cast knows what they’re supposed to be playing. That’s why every single performance in “The Unusuals” is instantly more vivid than anything in “Southland.”
You see Tamblyn and you immediately think she’s miscast. You can’t shake the feeling, which is why she’s actually so perfect for the role. This woman isn’t supposed to look comfortable pretending to be a prostitute or barging into a room with a gun or interrogating a suspect, but her aptitude with these things makes you wonder how she arrived at this point at all. That Tamblyn can play wavering uncertainty isn’t surprising, that she’s got such good coming timing is more of a revelation.
Tamblyn shares most of her scenes with Jeremy Renner, partner of the cop whose death sets the pilot in motion. Renner’s been moving in the direction of some level of stardom since his performance in “Dahmer” and ABC should consider itself lucky to have gotten this young actor before the summer release of “Hurt Locker,” which will move him to the top of many feature casting lists. Renner has an off-hand confidence and yet he gives the character a darker undercurrent, which may come either from the aforementioned “Dahmer” or from the fact that he’s also a diner owner who prepares pork chops with a Skittles reduction.
We learn early on that Adam Goldberg’s character has a brain problem, but is his suicidal mania a product of his condition or is is a psychological reaction to it? Goldberg has over-played similar roles in the past on shows like “Head Cases,” but maybe he’s just more comfortable in the New York setting? Or more comfortable with his bushy mustache? Or more comfortable playing off of Harold Perrineau, whose character is defined by his justifiable fear of death? Either way, Goldberg goes loud and Perrineau goes soft and they’re a good match.
If “Southland” looks to be almost entirely stand-alone, “The Unusuals” is more effective as it lays the groundwork for its serialized aspects, which will presumably involve exposing many more secrets in the precinct. The actual procedure in the pilot, plus its use of New York City backdrops, is unremarkable. Certain nuts-and-bolts facets of the narrative are lifted directly from others hows and movies, including the use of a copy machine as a lie detector and a wacky chase scene set to the Teddybears’ “Cobrastyle.”
What “The Unusuals” has going for it, and what makes me want to see how the show progresses, is an instantly identifiable voice. When it isn’t spelling out the premise of the show, the dialogue has a certain bite, with strong turns-of-phrase abounding, all well-read by the cast. It’s smart and funny, especially the wacky dispatch announcements — “Be on the lookout for a ninja or ninja-like figure” — peppered throughout.
ABC has been frantically turning out new shows this spring and “The Unusuals” is the best of the network’s one-hour shows. “Castle” and “Cupid” have gotten more hype, but I think there’s a world of potential here.
“The Unusuals” premieres on ABC at 10 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Jan. 8.
“Southland” premieres on NBC at 10 p.m. on Thursdays, Jan. 9.
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