Amid all the hustle and bustle on the corner of 150th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem, hardly anyone notices the woman checking her reflection in a car window.
Only when the paparazzi arrive do passersby begin to realize that Jennifer Lopez — yes, JLo herself — is in their midst, looking surprisingly approachable in jeans, tousled bob and a white T-shirt with a troubling brown stain.
The actress-dancer-singer-producer whose name has become synonymous with blinged-out glamour is filming a scene for her new series, "Shades of Blue," and has just wrestled a perp to the ground, rolling in (simulated) dog poop in the process.
Much has been made of Lopez's make-under in the drama, which premieres Thursday on NBC. As she says later in her plush trailer, "I wanted to change my look completely and be like the antithesis of what people are used to seeing me as." Getting dirty on a muggy August morning is just one more way she's bringing verisimilitude to Harlee Santos, the mildly corrupt Brooklyn cop she plays.
"We knew from the very beginning she was only interested in playing this character authentically," says NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke. "The kind of sexy glamorous thing was never really part of her definition of the character, although she can't avoid being sexy and beautiful."
In many ways, "Shades of Blue" isn't so much a departure for the actress, raised just a few stops away on the 6 Train in the Bronx, as it is a return to form. It's easy to forget the former Fly Girl and star of frothy romantic comedies "Maid in Manhattan" and "The Wedding Planner" made her name playing tough girls in stylish crime capers such as Steven Soderbergh's "Out of Sight" and Oliver Stone's "U-Turn."
For NBC, "Shades of Blue," whose two-hour premiere is directed by Oscar-winner Barry Levinson, allows the broadcast network to dabble in the kind of morally ambiguous tales more often found on cable. A struggling single mom with a teenage daughter, Lopez's character is perfectly willing to accept kickbacks to supplement her income. She and her fellow detectives are enabled by their boss, the quietly terrifying Matt Wozniak (Ray Liotta), who uses the mantra "the greater good" to justify a wide array of malfeasance. But when Harlee is caught soliciting a bribe, the FBI pressures her into becoming an informant, pitting her against her work family.
Opening with a scene in which Harlee's partner accidentally shoots and kills an unarmed man, "Shades of Blue" also asks difficult but timely questions about police misconduct. NBC is betting that a glossy megastar — albeit one sporting sneakers and the odd dog-doo stain — will help attract viewers to this darker fare.
"You're competing with cable and cable is so gritty. There's great stuff on network television but TV has such a high bar right now," Lopez says in her trailer as the fourth hour of "Today" plays silently on a flat-screen TV. "It's a character piece about human nature. Good people do questionable things. We're all trying to do our best but we all make dumb choices at times."
The show is the first regular series role for Lopez, who had guest spots on such dramas as "South Central" early in her career before moving into film and music. It's also just one of three major projects she's launching this month, in addition to her judging gig on "American Idol," which began its final season on Wednesday, and a residency at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas beginning Jan. 20.
"I have to approach this like I'm going into the biggest marathon race of my life and I'm going to win. That's the mentality that I have to have, I can't get nervous or scared," Lopez says of her intense schedule, adding, "but I'm overwhelmed most of the time." As if on cue, Lopez's 7-year-old twins bound noisily into the trailer and enthusiastically greet their mother.
Bypassing the traditional pilot process, NBC ordered "Shades of Blue" directly to series in February 2014, but filming did not commence until mid-2015 in order to accommodate Lopez's jampacked schedule. This created minor setbacks — for instance, the network had no clips to show advertisers at its upfront presentation in May — but it allowed showrunner Jack Orman and his staff time to write most of the 13 episodes before filming began, a luxury rarely afforded in broadcast television.
"It was worth it in the end to be able to let the show have a process that was more thoughtful," Salke says. In a show of confidence, the network has given "Shades of Blue" a spot following "The Blacklist" on Thursday nights, where it will settle into its regular 10 p.m. time slot Jan. 14.
Lopez's producing partner, Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, first read the pilot script written by Adi Hasak ("3 Days to Kill") three years ago and was struck by "how complicated the characters were," she says. "I couldn't decide if they were good or bad, and I realized what they were was human."
Lopez was at first involved only as a producer, and it took some effort to get her to play Harlee. "I said, 'Don't look at the medium, look at the role,'" Goldsmith-Thomas recalls. "The best movies are on television, the best characters, the best writers."
Despite the show's cable-ish themes, the team brought it to NBC first. "The truth is, if you're going to do it, why not take it to a place where you can get the widest audience?" says Goldsmith-Thomas, noting the "very cable mentality" of the network's chairman, Bob Greenblatt.
The series works on network television because of its high-stakes plot and thriller pacing, Salke says. "It's not a slow burn, which sometimes you can indulge in in cable without the pressure of ratings. There is an urgency and a tension to the show."
Of course, it also helps to have a major star at the center. Still, going directly to series is risky for NBC, which like its broadcast rivals, hasn't had great luck with shows developed with this model. The network bought 22 episodes of "The Michael J. Fox Show" sight unseen only to cancel it after 15 aired. Meanwhile, it sold "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," co-created by Tina Fey, to Netflix where it earned seven Emmy nominations for its first season.
"Shades of Blue" gets a pedigree boost from the involvement of Liotta and Drea de Matteo, who plays a fellow cop. Both actors are best known for their work in acclaimed mob dramas — Liotta as the gangster turned "average nobody" Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas," De Matteo as the ill-fated Adriana in "The Sopranos."
"They wanted somebody who could bring a legitimate edginess to the thing," Liotta says. The actor says he was excited by the opportunity to reach a broader audience after years starring in "independent movies that nobody got to see" but admits to some initial apprehension about Lopez.
"She was the question mark. All I really knew about her of late was her singing.... My biggest fear was I'm just going to be in the JLo show. She's just going to be the main person and I'm just going to give her orders from behind the desk."
Assured the drama would play like a genuine two-hander, Liotta said yes, and has been impressed by Lopez's work ethic and unflinching commitment to the gritty material. "She's a frigging machine," he says. "I was the diva."