Don’t be put off by the bland title, the lame permanent time slot or the pilot’s weak opening sequence. “The Marshal,” which airs tonight in “NYPD Blue’s” time slot before being consigned to Saturdays at 10 p.m., looks like a fun ride, a crime drama with more laughs than gun battles.
Jeff Fahey (“Lawnmower Man”) stars as Winston MacBride, a Deputy U.S. Marshal who tracks down felons on the lam. “Quick with a quip” tends to describe too many of these types of TV cops, but MacBride has an understated, smart wit. More intriguingly, those he hunts down are genuinely engaging folks whose crimes and foibles make them unusually empathetic.
Tonight’s opening sequence strains a little too hard to underscore MacBride’s off-the-wall crime-stopping methods. But once the main story line unfolds, in which a random chain of events unearths a refugee from the ‘70s anti-war movement, the disarming unpredictability of the series begins to manifest itself.
The radical in question is a small fish in the equation; MacBride is after something bigger, even if he’s not exactly sure what. Healthy dollops of black humor lace the proceedings as the true crook’s bizarre nature makes his hiding out as entertaining as the manhunt. Logic is jettisoned a little too freely during the climax, yet the show remains satisfying throughout.
A future episode, “The Great Train Robbery,” shows off the series’ strengths even more persuasively. Two dunder-headed pseudo-lovers rob strip bars; their cluelessness and loutish bickering actually serve as the undoing of MacBride’s sophisticated sleuthing.
Fahey, vaguely resembling Michael Keaton and recalling his edgy wit, plays MacBride as just on this side of cool, a perfect foil for all the confusion that surrounds him. A nice touch has him returning home at the end of each episode to his apparently long-suffering family.
* “The Marshal” premieres at 10 tonight, then will be seen Saturdays at 10 p.m. on ABC (Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42).