With USA’s original dramas, it’s all about formula: sticking to USA’s own formula while tweaking everyone else’s. There are certain elements you know to expect from show to show – attractive duos or trios who banter well with each other, mysteries to be solved (even if they’re of the medical variety), pretty locations (their much-discussed “blue skies” approach) – while at the same time expecting them to mess with a format that’s familiar from other networks. So “Burn Notice” is a private eye show where the detectives is a former spy, “Royal Pains” is a hospital drama where the doctor makes house calls to the extremely wealthy and “White Collar” is a cop drama where one of the cops is actually a crook. It’s not about giving you something new, but about giving you something familiar in slightly fancier packaging than you’re used to. And it’s worked very, very well for USA over the years.
But the USA formula has become so familiar at this point that when you combine it with one of the more formulaic ideas in filmed history – buddy cops who bicker constantly even as they close every case – you get something as flat and tedious as “Common Law” (which debuts tomorrow night at 10).
“Common Law” stars Michael Ealy and Warren Kole as LAPD detectives Travis and Wes, who are, as the cliché goes, as good at solving crimes as they are driving their captain (Jack McGee from “Rescue Me”) nuts. It’s not just that they like to color outside the lines – Travis, for instance is fond of popping off his gun to deal with nuisances – but that they fight amongst themselves so much that they have to be sent to couples counseling to keep the partnership working.
“We wanted to keep the magic alive,” Travis quips to a uniform cop who asks why they’re going to see Dr. Ryan (Sonya Walger from “Lost”).
Because it’s now apparently Hollywood law that any show about close-knit male friends or partners have jokes about them being mistaken for a gay couple, this happens early and often in their first group therapy session with Dr. Ryan. They explain that they’re “police partners,” which leads one of the other patients to ask, “Like the Village People?”
(Because when you’re dealing with a trope that was popularized in a 19-year-old “Seinfeld” episode that introduced us all to the phrase “not that there’s anything wrong with that,” the way you want to freshen it up is with a reference to a band that peaked in relevance 34 years ago.)
Both the therapy scenes and the very idea that these two very macho guys are doing couples counseling together is meant to be funny, but those scenes are to actual comedy what margarine is to butter: you can appreciate the resemblance even as you know it’s not close to the real thing. (And unlike certain margarines, it’s not better for you than the real thing.) It’s forced whimsy, there because it fits the formula and not because it’s actually funny.
And when you remove the couples counseling from the equation, what you have is a beyond-generic cop show, where the cops slide across hoods while chasing suspects, get yelled at by their boss for bending the rules – “Why,” McGee asks, trying very hard not to look embarrassed at delivering the line, “do my two best detectives have to be the biggest pains in my ass?” – make six mistakes in their investigation before inevitably getting it right at the last possible moment, and can’t stop talking about how different they are from one another.
I’ve liked Michael Ealy a lot ever since his work in Showtime’s “Sleeper Cell.” He’s got leading man charisma, and he’s also shown in other roles (including the “Barbershop” films) that he also has a touch with light comedy that you need to front a USA show. Actually, I like most of the actors involved (even the lesser-known Kole did a good job in a handful of episodes on “The Chicago Code” as Jennifer Beals’ driver) and wish they were working on a show that wasn’t so oppressive and lazy in its use of clichés. Though we’re told constantly that Travis and Wes together are the best there is at what they do, the show never provides convincing evidence that the combination is brilliant enough to justify keeping them together rather than just assigning them each new partners, nor do Ealy and Kole have the instant, obvious chemistry of other USA frontmen like, say, Tim DeKay and Matthew Bomer on “White Collar.”
“Common Law” opens, as most USA shows have lately, with an extra-long pilot, which runs 67 minutes without commercials. The idea is to give viewers extra time to get to know the characters at the start, but the execution here mainly involves repeating the same three or four character points – that Travis has slept with every woman in the department, that Wes is having trouble letting go of his ex-wife – over and over, and even the bonus time can’t make the murder they investigate any more interesting.
Even with the couples counseling gimmick, “Common Law” is ultimately too much like every other traditional cop show you’ve ever seen, even as it’s also too much like every other USA show you’ve ever seen.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org