Thursday, January 7, 2016

REVIEW: 'Shades of Blue' - Harlee is Caught by the FBI and Forced to Become an Informant in 'Pilot'

NBC's Shades of Blue - Episode 1.01 "Pilot"

Harlee Santos is a detective at the heart of a tight-knit crew of Brooklyn cops lead by Lieutenant Matt Wozniak. The crew often steps outside the law to protect their precinct and their own. When Loman, the newest member of the team, kills an unarmed man, Harlee covers it up. As a big illegal job looms on the horizon, FBI Agent Stahl arrests Harlee and leverages her daughter in order to turn her into an informant.

As this first episode of Shades of Blue plays out, it feels more and more as if it's following story beats and character details that have been much better executed on cable shows such as The Shield. That then creates the problem of why should audiences watch this show when they can watch a better version of it on one of the streaming services or on DVD? The big answer to that question is that Shades of Blue stars Jennifer Lopez. She has always proven herself to be a very game actress. Here, she certainly does look pretty a lot of the time. But this premiere is largely just a starring vehicle for her. It at least does present a competent story that provides Lopez with plenty of material to work with. It's a narrative that constantly portrays her as a victim - whether it's the flash-forward teaser, the fact that she's behind on school payments for her daughter, or the FBI leveraging her daughter in order to turn her into an informant. But she plays that well. Plus, there are some pretty solid moments as well that showcase her strength and just how capable this character really is.

Lopez plays Harlee, a detective for an elite task force of the NYPD who have a well-oiled system to keep their neighborhood safe from crime. They aren't above making deals with criminals in order to help everyone's own interests. This is a system where everyone is fine taking bribes and sharing a cut with the rest of their officers. This is a tight-knit family that has truly bonded over years of being on the force together. And yet, this episode never feels like it knows what to do with its ensemble. It's an episode about Harlee and Ray Liotta's Lt. Wozniak. They are the only two major players in this story. Everyone else is just background noise. The ensemble has some talented performers as well - including Emmy winner Drea de Matteo and Tony nominee Santino Fontana. But they are basically glorified extras. They appear in group scenes where this unit all goes out to get a beer together and laugh. That establishes how close these detectives really are. Well, that plus lots of talk about how this unit is actually a family that looks out for each other. That's problematic because it doesn't really establish why that is meaningful. The only bond that's important is between Harlee and Wozniak. That's the core conflict in the show. It's captivating but it's also distracting whenever the show wants to pretend to be an ensemble.

All of this story starts with Harlee covering up for new recruit, Loman, on his second day on the job when he shoots an unarmed man. This story is important for the premiere because it shows just how Harlee and the rest of this unit operates. They are a unit that protects its own - even if that means staging a crime scene in order to avoid serious punishment for this crime. Harlee believes Loman is a good police officer. However, the audience never gets any indication of that. In fact, he doesn't really have an interesting reaction to the actions that Harlee is doing. He's more wrapped in guilt over just killing someone who wasn't armed. That's not all that interesting. It establishes the morals of Harlee. Those morals aren't destined to last given the tease at the start of the hour. Over the next two weeks, her world is about to radically change. It doesn't feel like this incident with Loman will have any importance on the overall narrative. But it does set up the opposite sides of the spectrum and how violently Harlee's world is about to change.

All of that happens because Harlee is caught as a part of an FBI sting operation. She accepts a bribe which is enough to take her badge away and send her to prison as well. They are able to manipulate her emotions by threatening to take her daughter away from her. It's a sequence that Harlee is absolutely frustrated by. She doesn't see herself as a bad cop. She's good because she makes the neighborhood a better place. She's not tearing it apart to fuel her own interests. Yes, she's concerned about paying for her daughter's schooling. But she isn't racked with guilt over the actions she has taken on the job. Of course, there are things she probably doesn't know about in this unit. Wozniak has a pretty big job that's coming up that he hasn't shared with anyone yet. That's a promising tease for the future. This moment is the big pivot in Harlee's mentality though. She reluctantly does what FBI Agent Stahl asks of her - even though she doesn't like it.

The premiere also puts the pressure on Harlee immediately. She isn't able to relax into this new position of informing on the actions of her unit. With only two weeks until that fateful confession tape, it was bound to happen too. It's much more interesting when she's confronted by Wozniak about there being a mole in the group than when she has to crash her daughter's car in order to keep her cover. That's only because the lie is just one big contrivance. She tells it before she has committed to Stahl's offer. She then has to spend the rest of the hour with Stahl over her shoulder lurking and having to make sure that her lies don't get her caught. That's more personally devastating to her than any action on the job because she loves her daughter - who is doing really well at this new school. But it's just so much more compelling to watch as Liotta goes for the crazy and paranoid. It's acting that does chew scenery a little too much but is still very compelling and entertaining to watch. As he loses his cool, it leads to a fantastic dynamic between Wozniak and Harlee. It's tension that was largely missing throughout the rest of the episode. Hopefully, the show can build on this dynamic as Wozniak thinks Harlee is the only person he can trust even though she's the one actually working against him - albeit reluctantly. That's a strong place to leave things for the future. It's at least a promising thread to pick up on next week.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by Adi Hasak and directed by Barry Levinson.
  • There's something more going on with Agent Stahl that the show isn't telling the audience yet. That basically means he functions as a mystery or a plot device instead of a character. He flirts with Harlee at a bar before she knows who he is and then just breaks into her apartment to steal a prized necklace. Not much of it really works.
  • Drea de Matteo simply pops up in order to complain about her husband and how he's probably cheating on her. It's already very annoying. At least it's a character detail though - which is more than the rest of the unit gets.
  • The premiere also shows just how far Wozniak is willing to go to keep his unit together. He sends a criminal to his execution after he learns he can contradict Harlee and Loman's story about the shooting.
  • Harlee's daughter is apparently a very skilled musician which is another detail that's told to the audience instead of actually shown.
  • The premiere even has the requisite sex scene for Lopez. Though that's a very minor detail in this first episode. Her boxing partner doesn't even have a name or personality.