Friday, January 8, 2016

Pilot Review: Shades of Blue

Shades of Blue (Thursdays at 10:00 on NBC)

NBC is betting the horse on Jennifer Lopez. She's a good one to bet on, considering her ability to open terrible movies to big bucks at the box office (The Boy Next Door, most recently). But is Shades of Blue the best vehicle for the Latina superstar? Not necessarily, no.

Lopez is Detective Harlee Santos, a NYPD cop struggling with providing for her teenage daughter. To give her child everything she needs (a car, college tuition, cello lessons), Harlee turns to corruption. Her mentor and squad leader, Lt. Matt Wozniak (Ray Liotta), heads up the unit that accepts bribes from local bookies and the like. But while training a rookie (Dayo Okeniyi, The Hunger Games), she has to cover up the fact that he shot a suspect who didn't draw first. This puts her in the crosshairs of IA, and, later, of the FBI. Robert Stahl (Warren Kole, Stalker), an agent intent on eliminating police corruption, gives Harlee a choice: wear a wire to get dirt on Wozniak, or go to prison.

"Corruption is corruption," Stahl says. Or is it? This where the gray areas alluded to in the show's title come into play. Harlee argues that violent crime is down in her precinct, and druggies and gangs have moved away from schools because of the pressures her squad, especially Wozniak, have placed on these criminals. Don't the ends justify the means? Is it really wrong to be "corrupt," when the crimes the FBI is trying to bust Wozniak for are money laundering and accepting bribes? Who's being hurt by these crimes? (We'll forget, for now, the fact that Harlee covered up a bad shoot from her rookie trainee to make it look like a clean kill.) Not the communities, Harlee says, who are being held together by the not-exactly legal but possibly-safer methods of the corrupt cops. So the question Harlee comes to wrestle with is if the overall safety of the people she protects is worth shattering some laws and dishonoring the shield she carries. Where is the line drawn?

It's an interesting, though not new, question for a cop show to tackle. This kind of story has been told for decades, most successfully on The Shield. So Shades of Blue isn't really breaking new ground. But the promise of watching Lopez v. Liotta is enticing. Lopez has a natural charisma that makes up for her character's blandness (struggling single mom who will do anything to provide for her daughter... yawn), and Liotta's intensity and menace has always been a strong suit of his, and that's no different here. They're the reason to return to this otherwise thoroughly mediocre show. Academy Award-winning director Barry Levinson (Rain Man) brings a sure hand to the pilot, but there's no flash or interest to his competent guidance. Adi Hasak's script is standard fare with no really memorable dialogue or scenes, though one particularly insipid line stands out from the first few moments: "They're bisexual. Each flower is both male and female." That's not what bisexuality is, nor does it have anything to do with the show. There's also a scene late in the episode of Harlee driving her car over and over into a concrete divider while she cries and "Chandelier" plays on the radio; in case you didn't get it, she feels trapped (nothing like Sia, who's "gonna fly like a bird through the night") and like she's pounding her head against a wall. Obvious scene is obvious, just like everything else in Shades of Blue.

Still, it's not terrible. Despite the corrupt-cop thing being done time and again both on TV and film over the years, with the current state of policing the police happening America thanks to a heightened vigilance of corruption by the masses, Shades of Blue feels kind of important. It's morally reprehensible to see cops expanding the grays areas of their job into the black and white areas, but that's also the point: holding these people accountable for their above-the-law behaviors, righting wrongs, and realizing how quickly the shades of gray can consume you and turn you into someone dangerous. I assume, anyway, that that's the realization Harlee will eventually come to, since that's what the pilot has setup for the remaining twelve episodes. It's a very ordinary, not especially deep theme for a show to explore in 2016. But with Lopez and Liotta leading the audience to that breaking point, it could at least be a passable journey.

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