Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"Blue" and "Leverage" -- Same formula, different execution

Previewing the new TNT series "Dark Blue," I kept getting this weird sense of deja vu. The series, debuting today at 10 p.m., centers on a team of cops who go deep undercover to bring down bad guys. Yes, that's right -- another cop show. But that doesn't account for my weird sense that I'd seen the show before. I kept watching and little bits and pieces just kept striking me as so familiar. You had a team made up of a rag-tag assortment of misfits, led by a brilliant but troubled professional still mourning the loss of a loved one. The team includes a tough loose cannon and a mercurial woman. It all felt so familiar...oh wait! I know where I've seen this before! On "Leverage," the TNT series that starts its second season tonight at 9, only an hour before the premiere of "Dark Blue."
Carter Shaw (Dylan McDermott), the cranky leader of "Dark Blue's" cops, is an almost perfect mirror of Nathan Ford (Timothy Hutton), the cranky leader of "Leverage's" band of thieves. Both are dark-haired, smart, slightly arrogant and secretly mourning someone they care about. Carter, unlike Nate, leads a three-man team, not a four-man one. But there are similarities within. "Dark Blue's" Dean (Logan Marshall-Green) is a mysterious gun-slinger and skull buster, not unlike Eliot (Christian Kane), the enforcer on "Leverage's" team. And there's even a slightly flaky blond chick in the "Dark Blue" mix, Jamie (Nicki Aycox), sort of a less larcenous twin to Parker (Beth Riesgraf), "Leverage's" resident nutball.
But despite these similarities, "Dark Blue" is vastly different from "Leverage." Its tone is much darker. In the premiere, Dean has gone missing and might be irreversibly sucked in to a gang of thieves. Another team member, Ty (Omari Hardwick), is facing pressure about his dangerous job from his wife. And Carter seems intent on ticking off everyone from his team to a group of agents investigating the gang Dean's hiding out with. Unlike on "Leverage," there are no jokes. And unlike on "Leverage," there is no fun. There is no life.
"Dark Blue," at least that first episode, seems to be collapsing under the weight of its own seriousness. McDermott is good, as always, and it was fun to see Kyle Secor of "Homicide" pop up in a smallish role, but much of the show just lies there. You know you're in trouble when your show has shootouts and chases and still manages to be boring. I'm not sure exactly what the problem is, but I just couldn't engage with any of the characters.
But maybe the show just needs time. At first, I didn't like all the characters on "Leverage," either, and was particularly put off by Riesgraf's brittle, mannered work as Parker. But, over the course of the season, I warmed to Riesgraf and Parker and the rest of the show. "Leverage" isn't brilliant TV, but it is fast and funny with appealing characters. I wasn't too impressed with the first episode of the new season, which spends too much time reassembling the gang of thieves after their separation at the end of last season. We know this team isn't going to separate. Why waste valuable time trying to convince us otherwise? I'd rather see Parker scale a building or Eliot busting heads or team tech guy Alec Hardison (Aldis Hodge) crack wise with the speed and wit of a young Will Smith. But there was enough of that stuff to hold my interest, and I'm sure more is coming in future episodes.
"Leverage" is a light, engaging heist show -- the perfect summer diversion.
It might have surface similarities to "Dark Blue," but, in entertainment value, these series are different as can be.
"Leverage" returns tonight at 9; "Dark Blue" premieres at 10 p.m.

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