What follows is a survey of some of the current fictional crime shows on TV. Not all. Cable is long and life is short. Also, instead of labeling series as good or bad, I like to think of them as being smart or stupid, with gradations, of course. The former would be a show that, bottom line, works in every aspect – writing, casting and presentation. Binge- and even DVR-worthy. The latter is a show that is a painful mistake from opening credits.
MR. ROBOT (USA) is the ultimate example of a smart TV show. It’s currently on hiatus but probably available on demand somewhere and I suggest you hunt it down. Sam Esmail has created a brilliant, anarchistic , savagely satiric and FUNNY series about a mentally-disturbed computer programmer (Rami Malek) who is lured by a scruffy man of mystery (Christian Slater) into leading a group of malcontent hackers hell-bent on doing what Ted Koppel fears the most – using the Internet to bring down America. The acting is extraordinary. The writing is exquisite, full characters, knife-sharp dialogue, shocking surprises and a continuing plot that is as neatly worked out as a perfect puzzle. On top of that, the direction is as effective as it is unusual, with the camera placed at positions that initially seem arbitrary, but, in fact, add much to the effect of the scenes. A BIT OF CAUTION: because of the intricacy of the complete season, this is not a series you can pick up at episode four or five. More than HOUSE OF CARDS, this is a series ideal for binging.
As for stupid shows, look no further than SCREAM QUEENS (Fox). Ignoring the performances, which may be acceptable for all I know, the show isn’t funny enough to be a comedy, or tense enough to be a thriller. The creators should take a look at the competition, SCREAM (MTV, currently on hiatus), which isn’t exactly Hitchcock material but manages to stir up enough suspense to get you through the commercials. And, unlike QUEENS, it keeps the camp and bitchiness at a reasonable level.
MINORITY REPORT (FOX) is so overly-clever, it’s stupid. A science fiction series based on a Stephen Spielberg-Tom Cruise movie about visionary cops who can predict crimes before they happen, it is simply too complicated for TV. The only reason I can tag line the show is because I saw and sort of understood the premise of the movie. The series pilot kept circling the main gimmick, and, not incidentally, shifting the emphasis from the Cruise character to that of his handler. Bottom line: it seemed too muddled to be worth the effort of sticking with it.
While all stupid shows are bad, not all smart series are good. Case in point: QUANTICO (ABC). Judging by its pilot, it’s about a class of FBI recruits, one or more of whom engineers a terrorist plot on US soil. It features a young woman, Alex Parrish, (played by Indian actress Priyanka Chopra) who becomes the number one suspect and has to find the real terrorist to clear herself. The pilot was smart. Sharply directed and written. Well-acted. Twists, Crisp dialogue. Judging by the ratings, people like the show. But I didn’t much care about the self-serving, overly-aggressive Alex or any of her fellow recruits enough to spend any more time on them and their no-doubt multiplying problems.
This year’s FARGO is as smart as the last. Taking us back to a time when the first season’s heroine was but a little girl, it is properly quirky, shocking, brutal, and strangely endearing. There’s a much-feared, above-the-law family, the Gerhardts, headed by the always reliable Jean Smart. The equally-reliable Jeffrey Donovan plays one of her ferocious, dim-bulb sons. Kirsten Dunst is a bubble-headed but surprisingly adaptive hair stylist who accidentally rolls over the youngest Gerhardt (Kieran Culkin) just as he’s trying to make his getaway after mowing down a judge and the employees in a diner. Dunst doesn’t just hit and run, she drags the body home. Then she and her butcher husband (Jesse Plemons) cut the corpse into steaks. It’s that kind of show. There are big city mobsters (Brad Garrett and Bokeem Woodbine, to name but two) out to remove the remaining Gerhardts. The law is represented by a fearless, no-nonsense, heroic cop (Patrick Wilson playing a younger version of last season’s Keith Carradine) and his father-in-law, a wise and observant sheriff (played by Ted Danson behind a white beard). The story, so far, is as strong as the cast.
In the film version of LIMITLESS, Bradley Cooper was a writer who, according to the IMDb, uses a mysterious pill “to access 100 percent of his brain abilities.” Since the movie had a, well, limited effect on the box office, a TV version seemed a dubious bet. And some critics who saw the pilot gave it a thumbs down. But they were wrong. The show (CBS) is not only smart, viewers like it. As they should. It has the fairly familiar setup (MINORITY REPORT, iZOMBIE and, I suppose CASTLE, FOREVER and WHITE COLLAR) of official lawperson teamed with brilliant but quirky partner who uses an unusual skill to solve crimes. But it’s developing a unique set of complications. The pills (called NZT) keep our hero Brian Finch (winningly played by Jake McDorman) at the top of his game, but can result in an excruciatingly painful death if he is not given a different pill to counteract that unpleasant aftereffect. Just another example of modern medicine. Until recently, the savior pills were doled out by Mr. Sands, a cold villain played by Colin Salmon, a British actor with an extremely dynamic presence. But Bradley Cooper, who drops by the show every now and then (pilot, sweeps week), has just given Brian a supply of the antidote. We’re still not sure if Bradley is good or sinister, but we now know his “assistant,” Mr. Sands kills people. Brian and his FBI handler (played by Jennifer Carpenter, late of DEXTER) have the right chemistry. Therein lies a complication. Her dad, who died recently, had been taking NZT. With Brian’s help, she’s investigating the death. Mr. Sands doesn’t want that. So – long story short – I’m in.
BLINDSPOT (NBC) is kinda like a combination of Ray Bradbury’s THE ILLUSTRATED MAN and NBC’s smarter offering, THE BLACKLIST. It’s about a an amnesia victim (Jaimie Alexander) who appears in Times Square covered with tattoos and little else. Each tat has a meaning. So far they’ve been clues to plots to take down America, but one on her back refers to her FBI handler, Kurt Weller (Sullivan Stapleton). He’s a bit of a sad sack who’s convinced the illustrated Jane Doe is a girl he had feelings for in his youth and whose mysterious disappearance somehow involves his father. The show’s premise is intriguing enough that I’ve stayed with it, but the plots are starting to seem awfully familiar – tat leads to terrorist who almost succeeds until Jane Doe, using remarkable fighting and gunplay skills, saves the day. Alexander is beautiful (think Audrey Hepburn with even better cheekbones) and does sincere and karate as well as anybody. But Stapleton, whose long suit – ebullient, flamboyant action – was well-used in the Showtime series STRIKE BACK and one of the 300 flicks, here is being held back, limited to casting sheep eyes at Jane Doe, watching her beat up terrorists, and being generally moody. Also, the neckbeard was no prob in STRIKE BACK’s third world settings but seems a bit much for FBI’s Manhattan office. Ashley Johnson’s vivacious tech whiz has become more and more prominent as the series progresses. Probably because she’s the only one in the FBI office who seems to be fully awake and invested in the work.
iZOMBIE (CW). Any show that can get me to watch its protagonist dine on brains more than once (and with a smile on my face) gets my vote. Creators Diane Ruggiero and Rob Thomas gave us VERONICA MARS, another very smart series with a strong female lead, witty dialogue and twisty plots. Casting is one more secret to their success. Here, Rose McIver is the hapless but heroic Olivia “Liv” Moore, former med student, who is infected during a zombie attack on a yacht party. But, though chalk pale, she looks, feels and acts a whole lot healthier and upbeat than those monsters on WALKING DEAD. She’s also much more fun to watch as, working as assistant to a glib coroner (Rahus Kohli), she dines on gourmet-prepared grey matter that provides not only sustenance but temporary memory and attributes of the corpse. This allows Liv to assist Detective Clive Babineaux (Malcolm Goodwin, recently of the gone-too-soon BREAKOUT KINGS) in solving crimes, while providing actress McIver the opportunity to display an amazing thespian diversity. Not quite as impressive as Tatiana Maslany’s multi-character turn in ORPHAN BLACK, but close enough. Aside from Kohli and Babineaux, both of whom capably add to the series’ lightning pace and patter, Robert Buckley, as Liv’s former and now current (if very careful) flame, has stalwartly gone through hell battling zombies, anti-zombies and drug addiction, while David Anders essays the villain of the piece, the former zombie we love to hate who infected Liv and continues to plague her with relentless glee.
I can understand the success of the Shonda Rhimes duo, SCANDAL and HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER (both ABC). They’re flashy, highly-exploitable series, their main products being the always marketable shock and sex. A while ago, after happily binging on the first two seasons of SCANDAL, I suddenly realized, admittedly a bit late, that the writers had reduced the main elements – the on-again, off-again romance between the series protag, DC fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), and US President Fitz Grant (Tony Goldwyn), Olivia’s equally o-a,o-a relationship with her powerful and sinister father (Joe Morton), and the secondary problems of her staff and the prez’s – to the moves of a video game. Press a button and this happens, press another and that happens. Plot construction be damned. Even worse, as Olivia’s moral standards, at the White House and on the job, began to wane, there became no one character to root for in the series’ large, roiling cast. That problem was apparent almost from the start of MURDER, where the lead, defense attorney and teacher Annalise Keating, does everything she can, including maybe even murder, to a) win her cases and b) hide her past and present indiscretions. And, as the show progresses, she proceeds to batter and berate her hand-picked class of future barristers until they dismiss any hint of decency they once possessed. The fact that Viola Davis, the actress portraying Annalise, is so skillful and presents such a powerful presence only helps to highlight the character’s lack of the right stuff. Her protégés, not exactly nature’s noblepersons from episode one, have become as vile and venal as they wanna be. I don’t know what the point of this series is, unless it is to shake the already flimsy stature of members of the legal profession.
The preview of THE PLAYER (NBC) led me to hope that it would be a different, better series. It looked like it might be a sort of Ross Thomas setup with a cool, immaculately-dressed Wesley Snipes somehow forcing rugged, raffish man-of-action Philip Winchester (STRIKE BACK) to do ridiculously dangerous things for . . . the good old USA, maybe? Instead, the dangerous deeds are part of a reality show-game played by big time gamblers. In other words, crimes are allowed to take place and info is being withheld from professional law enforcement so that international one-percenters can amuse themselves by betting on whether a single man can stop killers or terrorists within a specific time allotment. What could have been fun with these guys and Charity Wakefield, the hot British actress who plays Snipes second-in-command, now seems cynical and cheesy. Stupid.
ROSEWOOD (Fox) has an old-fashioned format: heterosexual, seemingly antagonist teammates solve crimes. It relies heavily on Morris Chestnut’s outgoing performance as a high-flying pathologist with health and mom issues, but, combined with good, combative dialogue between him and abrasive Miami Detective Annalise Villa (Jaina Lee Ortiz), it’s enough to keep one moderately amused until EMPIRE. And there’s the added pleasure of Lorraine Toussaint as Rosewood’s mom and Domenick Lombardozzi (another ex-BREAKOUT KINGS stalwart) as the couple’s frustrated police captain.
NARCOS (Netflix), created by Chris Brancato, Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, is a riveting semi documentary that makes for an ideal weekend binge. Ten episodes, running about fifty minutes each (though they seem much shorter, a key binge plus) cover the rise and fall of Medellin crime lord Pablo Escobar, told from his POV and that of two near-obsessive American Drug Enforcement agents, Steve Murphy and Javier Pena. The acting — led by Wagner Moura as Escobar, Boyd Holbrook as Murphy and Pedro Pascal (whose head, you may remember was popped like a Oogie doll’s in GAME OF THRONES) — is terrific. The pace is breathless, the execution (like the drama’s frequent executions) is swift and efficient. Evidently the guys at Entourage were correct in thinking that the Escobar story would make for compelling viewing. Way more compelling than a feature film of Entourage. One caveat: though the season ends well, there is a vaguely open end that, alas, has given birth to a season two. It seems as if that might be pushing it, but I hope not.
As I said at the start, there are just too many shows. I’ll end with a few short opinions:
* critics seem to love JESSICA JONES (Netflix) but I don’t get it. The show plays like a series of depressing experiences for the heroine — not my idea of a good time — and the continuing plot seems heavy-handed and predictable. Not ideal for binging.
*I like both THE FLASH and GREEN ARROW, (CW), but evidently the Warner folks used up all their innovation when it came to transferring SUPERGIRL to the home screen (CBS). I don’t think there’s ever been a sillier, less interesting comic book adaptation including HOWARD THE DUCK. I suppose the show may appeal to pre-teens, but it will not serve as a feeder to anything created by Lena Dunham.
*AGENT X (TNT) — closer to MAN FROM UNCLE than SECRET AGENT, it’s entertaining, often witty and is blessed with a strong cast led by Sharon Stone as this country’s Vice President, Gerald McRaney as the old pro spymaster, John Shea as the president and, just to stack the deck, semi-regulars Jamey Sheridan and James Earl Jones. Jeff Hephner is the title character and more than fills the swashbuckling bill.
I love talking TV, so iff you agree or disagree with any of the above. or have your own takes on the current crime shows, please drop a line.