Not so long ago, a respectable police drama with a well-known star in the lead role would have been no-brainer must-see TV. But we’re living in the now of streaming and on-demand television abundance, where every show must be engrossing enough to distract from the lure of one’s ever-expanding binge-watch bucket list. And NBC’s Shades of Blue — a ride-along through a maze of cop cover-ups, double-crosses and corruption featuring Jennifer Lopez in her first on-camera foray into scripted TV — is not quite engrossing enough to pull off that trick.
It’s slickly made, often diverting and the kind of character-driven plot-twister that will likely appeal to regular viewers of the Chicagos (Fire, P.D., Med) or The Blacklist, which serves as the Thursday night lead-in for Shades. But that’s probably not enough to put it at the top of anyone’s viewing priority list ahead of, say, How to Get Away With Murder (the Viola Davis vehicle that will return to ABC’s airwaves and compete against it in February), or Netflix’s Making a Murderer, or any of the thousands of murder- and non-murder-related programs on Hulu, Amazon, or your overflowing DVR.
A key opening set piece in the pilot, which airs tonight at 10 p.m. ET, sets the central narrative in motion. Veteran cop Harlee Santos (Lopez) and a rookie (Dayo Okeniyi, Thresh from The Hunger Games) are about to enter an apartment where a drug deal may be going down. While Harlee is distracted by a child in the hallway, Loman, the rookie, bursts in and impulsively shoots and kills the dealer, who turns out to be unarmed. Harlee immediately swings into action, concocting a version of events in which the dealer shot first, then planting evidence and firing a bullet into her partner’s leg to make it all look convincing. “The truth is in the paperwork,” she says with great import, so we’ll know she’s really making a broader, ironic statement about how she and her law enforcement colleagues operate.
Before that first episode ends, Harlee, who’s also a single mother, will get busted by the feds while taking a bribe, agree to become an FBI informant to avoid prison and time away from her daughter, and start to get itchy when Lt. Matt Wozniak (Ray Liotta), leader of Harlee’s team of crooked detectives, says he smells a rat in their precinct. The questions that run through the initial batch of episodes shared in advance for critics: How long can Hallie avoid being exposed as a mole? And how many more secrets and lies are these cops hiding? (Answer: Lots.)
In recent months, the news has been filled with incidents of police brutality and badge-holders overstepping their authority. That should give Shades of Blue a cultural relevancy, but the series never engages deeply enough with those issues to feel urgent or important. Loman, a black man who comes from a neighborhood where it’s common to distrust police, grapples with guilt over the fact that he killed the dealer, who was also black. Although his conflicting feelings are acknowledged — his remorse eventually leads him to become romantically involved with members of the family of the man who was shot — his story is oversimplified and marginalized by other elements of the plot.
Liotta, Drea de Matteo (The Sopranos) and Vincent Laresca (Graceland), all veterans of shows and films about crime and punishment, settle naturally into their roles as members of Wozniak’s crew, occasionally getting some meaty dialogue on which to gnaw. (While confronting a younger woman who’s having an affair with her husband, de Matteo says scornfully, “You are just sweat and friction.”) Viewers accustomed to watching Santino Fontana exchange witty repartee and song-and-dance numbers with Rachel Bloom on the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend may appreciate seeing him play a snarky detective here, although his presence almost makes one wish that Shades of Blue would temporarily go full Cop Rock.
As for Lopez, it makes sense that she chose to headline and executive produce this show, which gives her the opportunity to play a gutsy yet vulnerable woman and hit some emotional beats without having to stretch too far outside her comfort zone. That word is the real problem with this series: It’s too comfortable. This is a drama that exposes the underbelly of New York policing and the complicated reasons why people betray one another, but never once dares to let Lopez’s eyeshadow contouring look semi-askew. On Shades of Blue, sh*t hits the fan repeatedly. But nothing ever looks truly messy.
Shades of Blue premieres on NBC tonight at 10 p.m. ET.