Thursday, January 14, 2016

REVIEW: 'Shades of Blue' - Harlee Takes a Lie Detector Test as Wozniak Grows More Suspicious in 'Original Sin'

NBC's Shades of Blue - Episode 1.02 "Original Sin"

Harlee struggles with becoming an FBI informant while Wozniak suspects every member of his crew. Paranoid that Wozniak's search will lead to her, Harlee suggests polygraphing the entire crew, a plan that backfires. An appeals case sends Wozniak to watch tapes from his first encounter with Harlee, revealing a dark secret from her past. Espada helps Tess deal with her husband's infidelity.

There is a briskness to the way that Shades of Blue is choosing to tell its story. That was apparent in the opening moments of last week's premiere that put a definitive time frame on this season. This narrative arc would only encompass two weeks. That's not a whole lot of time - especially considering how drastically Harlee is going to change as an individual. So there really isn't a whole lot of time to relax. The narrative needs to keep things urgent and tense which does hinder these opening episodes a little bit. So much of the show is about plot. It's about Harlee being coerced into doing something she doesn't want to do and betray her boss and friend who is up to something that she has no idea about. She isn't able to relax into being an informant for the FBI. She hasn't provided one single piece of evidence that Stahl can use in his investigation of this unit. So far, she has just been trying not to get caught by Wozniak who already knows that there is a "rat in his crew."

It was somewhat problematic at the end of the series opener when Wozniak told Harlee that she was the only person he could trust. He knows that someone in his unit is working against him. That puts him on edge because of this very mysterious contract he has coming up. It establishes a closeness between Harlee and Wozniak that wasn't completely on display in the first hour. Yes, their families are really close and she trusts him with the absolute truth on the job. But those actions weren't enough to signal him letting his guard down for her. This episode does set out to correct that a little bit. He doesn't want to see Harlee as a potential suspect. But over the course of the hour, he has to take that concern more seriously. It creates tension that is actually meaningful even though the action is still largely filled with exposition.

This is a show that is also defined by lies. Harlee has to think quickly in order not to get caught by Wozniak. The show brings attention to these lies and horrible acts that she now has to commit just in order to protect her cover. Wozniak isn't a dumb man. He's a lieutenant for a reason. But he also has that crazed look in his eyes that makes him a very volatile figure on the show as well. It's unclear how far he is willing to go to handle this threat. That's been poorly defined because it's unclear just how important this mysterious job actually is. Stahl delivers a throwaway line saying he can connect Wozniak to a money laundering operation. And yet, that's a horrible way to let the audience in on that piece of information. So much of the show so far has been in watching Harlee flail around doing whatever she can do to survive. That can be an appealing quality. Jennifer Lopez plays it quite well actually. But the show has only scratched the surface of what these characters and stories can be. It needs to have a willingness to go deeper. Right now, it's defined by a lot of artificial conflict. Plot contrivances force the story forward. The characters aren't defined enough to keep the audience from noticing those plot hurdles.

So eventually, Harlee is hooked up to a lie detector with Wozniak asking her if she is the FBI's informant. It's a pretty interesting sequence because it's played opposite a previous interrogation between the two from a decade prior. In that questioning, Wozniak wants to know if Harlee framed a man for a crime he didn't commit because he's Cristina's abusive father. A lot of it does play as exposition. But it's compelling to watch too. This is the moment where a friendship forms between Harlee and Wozniak. He understands why she did what she did. He listens to her heartbreaking story and understands that this is a good cop who isn't afraid to bend the rules just to get some effective justice. She was simply doing whatever it took to ensure a better future for her and her daughter. That's something he could understand and exploit to his own benefit. That plays opposite the present-day interrogation which is effectively the end of the Harlee-Wozniak dynamic as it used to be. She is lying to him in order to protect herself. She has multiple ways of tricking the lie detector. She's nervous about getting caught but she has also burned herself in order to have pain fool the machine and is also very emotional given the uncertain whereabouts of her daughter. All of this works too. She is able to pass the test.

However, Harlee may have been able to fool the machine but she wasn't able to fool Wozniak. She really is making this mission overcomplicated. It was her suggestion in the first place to use a lie detector to find the informant. She's getting trapped in many different lies and is starting to break as a result. Stahl doesn't care. He's solely focused on the mission - and isn't afraid to bend the rules to get what he wants as well. Harlee has pushed the boundaries but that has only gotten her even more trapped in this situation. It's because of all of these complications that Wozniak is able to figure out that Harlee is lying to him. Even that moment though plays a little bit like a plot contrivance sadly. The only reason why Wozniak is looking at that previous interrogation is between a new attorney comes in and says that Cristina's father could be getting out of jail soon. This is an incredibly personal case to Wozniak because Harlee is like family to him. But it also points to a tell that Harlee has when she's lying. It's a horribly obvious tell too. She brushes hair off of her left ear whenever she lies under extreme pressure. It was apparent the second she answered the question. And it's very good of Wozniak to notice it. So that means the pressure will only increase on both Harlee and Wozniak as the season progresses. So far, that has been an intriguing and compelling premise for the show and it should continue being that.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Original Sin" was directed by Barry Levinson with story by Jack Orman & J. David Shanks and teleplay by Jack Orman.
  • The Tess subplot is so very weird. All she seems to care about is her husband cheating on her. Apparently, she went to get proof and had sex with the woman as well. It's all too weird and complicated to make a whole lot of sense. Plus, it doesn't make her a compelling or interesting character to watch. She's largely just annoying.
  • Loman spends the day at a donut shop which is a pretty awkward story beat that is very distracting. And then, the show wants to be serious for a moment and talk about race relations with the police. That's just not a subject this show can handle all that well right now.
  • One of Stahl's superiors at the FBI knows Harlee and thought she would have been a high ranking member of the NYPD if Wozniak hadn't corrupted her mind.
  • Harlee is already starting to sense that all of this is about to go horribly for her. So, she tries giving lots of motherly wisdom to Cristina. But none of it lands because of a poor phone call connection.
  • As expositional as that previous interrogation was, it is meaningful in stating just how dark the show is planning on pushing Harlee as a character. That's very enticing for the future.