Sunday, September 30, 2007

Bright Spots with Badges

I may have been too hasty in lamenting that this new fall TV season was bleak for lovers of crime fiction. Sure, there’s little to like, and lots of publicity about gimmicky programming around vampire private eyes and bionic babes and Neanderthal nebbishes. But there are still a couple of promising series, even if the odds against their surviving in a realm where game shows and sitcoms rule are slim.

The first of these is K-Ville, which stars Anthony Anderson and Cole Hauser as street-cop partners in New Orleans. But this isn’t the same Big Easy that provided that backdrop for Bourbon Street Beat (1959-1960) and Longstreet (1971-1972). The action here takes place in a New Orleans battered by Hurricane Katrina, ignored by the Bush administration, and then lied to by an incompetent president. Hoodlums have stolen street signs so that the police have a harder time finding their way around. Residents are still waiting for insurance companies to come through with settlements that they’ll never see. And local white grandees are willing to sabotage rebuilding efforts, if only to prevent all those poor black folks who moved to Houston after the storm from coming home again. “Dysfunctional” doesn’t even begin to describe the Crescent City in which Anderson’s Marlin Boulet and Hauser’s Trevor Cobb try to keep the peace--and bring a little optimism to the citizenry every now and then. Visitors from out of town may not see it, but Louisiana’s most beautiful burg has troubles that will take a generation, and better leadership in Washington, D.C., to overcome.

There are some disappointing elements of K-Ville. As has been pointed out before, Hauser’s character is supposedly an ex-con who, at the time of the Big Blow, escaped his cell, joined the military, served in Afghanistan, and then returned to the States for a job in the New Orleans Police Department with no one the wiser. Hah! Total fiction. And Anderson’s Marlin, a local boy who embodies the hope a nation feels for his historic city’s revitalization, leans way too far into earnestness and sanctimony; if leavened with a dollop of humor now and then, his demeanor would be easier to take.

Nonetheless, this Monday night series (which, believe it or not, now has me watching two FOX programs a week, the other one being Hugh Laurie’s House) is a serious, non-forensics-dependent cop drama, the likes of which we haven’t seen--at least on American network television--since NYPD Blue turned in its shield two years ago. There’s tremendous potential here both for stories rooted in economic, racial, and governmental frictions, as well as the halting relationship-building between leads Boulet and Cobb. K-Ville, which films on location in New Orleans, is already helping to boost that city’s economic recovery. If FOX will only give it the time it needs to achieve a more comfortable balance between the maudlin and the blackly humorous, this show might also give a boost to cop-drama lovers bored with CSI and Law & Order clones.

The other bright spot I see in the fall TV season is Life, a Wednesday NBC series featuring Damian Lewis, a Welsh-descended English actor (though you’d never know it, by listening to him on the show), who plays Los Angeles police detective Charlie Crews. Like K-Ville’s Cobb (and, three decades earlier, Jim Rockford), Crews is a former jailbird. He’s been exonerated by new DNA evidence, after having spent 12 long years in the slammer for a murder he didn’t commit. His legal settlement with the state of California not only gives him back his job, but it also leaves him with a rather significant chunk of change, which he’s used to buy a new car and a house he hasn’t yet gotten around to furnishing. His former compatriots on the force can’t understand why, with all his money, he’d bother to return to duty, and they don’t trust him, as a result--especially not his boss, Lieutenant Karen Davis (Robin Weigert, looking far more respectable than she did as Calamity Jane on Deadwood), who just wants him gone for good.

By all accounts, Crews is different than he was before he went “up the river.” He’s now less of a by-the-book cop, has adopted a Zen-like calmness, and demonstrates quirks that might make Bobby Goren, of L&O: Criminal Intent fame, jealous. (Actually, Crews strikes me as a combination of Goren and Detective Michael Raines, from last year’s too-short-lived series Raines.) And he has a new partner, the quite lovely Dani Reese, played by 27-year-old Sarah Shahi, a former model and cover girl for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders’ 2000 Swimsuit Calendar, who went on to portray a lesbian disc jockey on Showtime’s The L Word. Behind her comely appearance, Reese has her own demons to keep at bay. She’s a recovering drug addict, with what appears to be a promiscuity problem and some deep-seated disappointment in what the world has offered her so far. Reese’s superiors can’t be said to have any greater confidence in her future with the force than they do in Crews’. It’s inevitable that these two misfits will come to recognize that they are more alike and dependent on each other than they would ever have expected. Or preferred. Already, in the pilot episode (which aired last week), we witnessed Reese’s realization that there is absolutely no profit to be found in ratting her partner out for his unconventional investigative tactics.

The writers of Life spend a bit too much time focusing on Crews’ excusable disorientation with how society has evolved during the dozen years since he first sat down for a prison meal (a theme that’s been well worked before in Buddy Faro and the old Dan Dailey mystery series, Faraday and Company). And since everybody presumably understands by now that Crews was falsely incarcerated, it seems his fellow cops might cut him a bit more slack on that score. Nonetheless, the protagonist handles the pressure well, answering criticism from his colleagues with a flurry of Zenlike philosophizing that cuts them down a few pegs, even if they don’t quite understand how, or why. Crews is an engaging blend of outer intensity and inner tranquility, with just enough physical tics to signal his creaking switches between the two. That he’s also determined to figure out who set him up for a murder conviction all those years ago, gives the episodes an intriguing through-line. Was his ex-partner responsible? Or maybe Lieutenant Davis? If the writers of Life can follow the arc of this ongoing investigation with somewhat more polish than was applied to the running subplot about the murder of Dr. Jordan Cavanaugh’s mother on NBC’s Crossing Jordan, they should have a winner on their hands.

Sadly, the remainder of this fall’s crime-related TV debuts haven’t convinced me to continue watching. Gerald So contends at Crimespace that the comic spy thriller Chuck, which stars Zachary Levi “as an electronics store techie whose brain is bombarded with thousands of state secrets when a rogue spy sends him an e-mail,” is worth tuning in. But I prefer my mysteries and crime series to be more forthright and realistic. For now, I’ll stick with Life and K-Ville, and hope that the nets can come up with something more creative than a Knight Rider remake for their midseason substitutes.

I still like the idea, voiced last year in Salon by James Frey of A Million Little Pieces infamy, that the U.S. television networks should revive that old series standby, the straightforward private-eye show. “I think the time has come,” wrote Frey. I wholeheartedly agree.


cameron hughes said...

I think K-Ville has incredible potential, but is pretty awful right now. Life is excellent, but I can't help but think it'd be better as a P.I. series.

I absolutely love Chuck though.

Cameron Hughes said...

Oh, and a straight-up P.I. series? I've always wanted to see Block's Scudder on HBO.

That said, the best P.I. series in years was Veronica Mars and before that, Tim Daley's extremely short lived EYES

Kevin Burton Smith said...

While I agree with James Frey that it would be good to have a return to "straight-forward" P.I. shows, I question his lumping in of those 1980s cheesefests with Rockford.

I mean, come on, James. ROCKFORD smiled at the audience -- he didn't offer a smirk or a sneer, retreating into "very special" episodes or slack jawed nostalgia.

ROCKFORD is Grade-A prime. Those other two shows are hamburgers of dubious origin at best, television tofu trying to pass itself off as real food.

What we need is a Mannix for the new millenium. It was the success of back-to-basics, meat-and-potatoes Mannix in the sixties that spawned the 70s P.I. boom that gave us such classics as CANNON, ROCKFORD, HARRY O and BANACEK.

MAGNUM and HAMMER, those smirky, self-congratulatory sneers at the audience, should more reasonably be lumped in with RIPTIDE, SIMON & SIMON, SNOOPS, DELLAVENTURA and most of the rest of the deriviative, gimmick-ridden, barely passable P.I. shows we've had to suffer through since.

By the way, whatever happened to the P.I. novelist James Frey?

He wrote a couple of decent P.I. novels featuring Joe Zanca, a boxer turned gumshoe, but he now seems to do mostly writing guides. (His WRITING A DAMN GOOD MYSTERY is, well, damn good, but it would be nice to see Joe again).