Suddenly, badder's better -- bada bing!

Although mainstream TV generally favors smudge-free protagonists, more than a few elite crime series owe their success to complex characters with defects the size of sinkholes.

Among them are volcanic bigot Andy Sipowicz of ABC's "NYPD Blue" and USA Network's obsessive-compulsive sleuth, Adrian Monk, along with such memorable Brits as gloomy Inspector Morse, destructively driven Jane Tennison of "Prime Suspect" and Eddie Fitzgerald, the ruinous forensic shrink of Granada Television's original "Cracker" series that preceded ABC's inferior copy.

How bent was "Fitz"? Not very ... if you equated normalcy with a boozy, chain-smoking, gambling-addicted slob of a philanderer who once stole from his suffering wife's handbag to pay his debts.

He and the others are angels, however, compared with TV's new generation of crime series antiheroes.

Not merely flawed, HBO mob chief Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), dirty cop Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) of FX's "The Shield" and smoothie drug lord Miguel Cadena (Yancey Arias) of NBC's coming "Kingpin" are prime time's very own axis of evil.

There was a time when series built around amoral cads crumbled in the ratings, most notably NBC's dark 1980s comedy, "Buffalo Bill," and Fox's blackhearted "Profit" in 1996. Both were boldly executed works that deserved longevity. Both expired rather swiftly, "Profit" after a cup of coffee.

But then came "The Sopranos," which redefined TV's crime genre while becoming something of a cultural phenomenon despite appearing on a pay-cable channel reaching far fewer homes than did broadcast networks. Even those who haven't watched the series know of Tony, a level of recognition making "The Sopranos" a role model for other TV entrepreneurs to follow. If they can only figure out how to do it.

The moral ambiguity first explored so profoundly by "The Sopranos," for example, now simmers in "The Shield" and especially in "Kingpin," where Cadena's wickedness, as emerging boss of a Mexican drug cartel, co-exists uneasily with his family values. Like Soprano, the ruthless Mackey and the deceptively silky Cadena at once are murderers and fathers who are devoted to their kids.

As in Stanford grad Cadena thinking he's a good dad merely because he plays games with his 8-year-old son and tucks him in at night. When not destroying lives to preserve his wealth and status.

This drift toward deplorable protagonists who achieve success through crime emphatically bucks tradition in an industry where loose ends usually aren't tolerated in drama and bad guys generally get their comeuppance before the closing credits.

That makes the popularity of "The Sopranos" and "The Shield" -- which returns Tuesday after earning a strong cult following and an Emmy for Chiklis in its first season -- all the more intriguing.

Have they found an audience because Americans are now more accepting of human fallibility, or perhaps are more cynical than in earlier years when the TV industry assumed viewers would reject weekly visits from bad guys who didn't fail?

And does the commercial success and high visibility of these two series bode well for "Kingpin," a hugely promising effort from gifted producer-writer David Mills, 41, that NBC values so highly that it recently moved up the show's premiere to the all-important February ratings sweeps?

We'll see about that, and whether viewers take to its relatively unknown cast, whose arguably best-known regular, Brian Benben, shows up as a darkly comic plastic surgeon who draws a paycheck from the cartel.

First choice to play Miguel was Mexican star Jorge Salinas. But his English wasn't up to it, said Mills in his trailer office at NBC in Burbank. "So we went looking, and out comes Yancey." Who nails the role, by the way, providing one more reason why NBC's admiration for "Kingpin" is justified.

How good is it? So good, its tone so distinctive, that it could be on HBO.

Perhaps it already is. However long "Kingpin" lasts, "it will end tragically," Mills promised. "Miguel is a man who is slowly destroying himself because of the choices he's made." A Latino Tony Soprano? "The difference is that Tony Soprano knows he's a criminal," Mills said. "Miguel wants you to think he's a businessman. He thinks he's smarter than anyone else in the room. Yet he's so unaware of himself and about what drives him."

Giving Miguel "that little goose," as Mills puts it, is his lawyer wife, Marlene (Sheryl Lee), who in her own way is as callous as her husband, and whose coke habit infuriates him. Talk about your irony.

The contrast with "The Shield" is striking.

Seething, sledgehammering Mackey and his gang of LAPD thugs resume their nasty criminal escapades Tuesday as free of nuance and subtlety as ever, still selling protection and profiting from the drug culture they pretend to battle. Their boss, Capt. David Aceveda (Benito Martinez), has become nearly as corrupt in his quest for a seat on the City Council.

What should be obvious to anyone with an IQ above 60 -- that Mackey and his palookas are vicious scum -- has somehow eluded the "good" cops they work closely with. Although Det. Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder) may be on the verge -- duh -- of an epiphany.

Although Mackey is now equally engaged in recovering his kids from his wife, who has fled him, he remains little more than a raging force of nature.

On the other hand, "Kingpin" opens its initial six-episode run Feb. 2 -- temporarily supplanting "Boomtown" -- with scripts so densely written and principal characters so layered that it's fair to surmise that "The Sopranos" put some of the bada in NBC's bing.

Which would be a hoot, for NBC, more than any other competitor, has yelped like a wounded animal in response to critical praise heaped on HBO and its New Jersey gangster series.

Mills wrote for the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal before switching to TV. His other credits include "NYPD Blue," "ER" and "Homicide: Life on the Street." But his road to "Kingpin" was strewn with rejection slips after he collaborated with another former newspaper reporter, David Simon, on "The Corner," a stunning HBO miniseries about Baltimore drug addicts that earned an Emmy in 2000. Mills subsequently spent his time writing scripts for series pilots that never got made, affirming how solidly failure is built into the system.

"Then I heard NBC wanted to do a show about a drug lord -- probably a mix between 'The Sopranos' and [the movie] 'Traffic,' " Mills recalled. "They obviously wanted to do something different."

Mills didn't quite buy it. "Part of me wondered if they would come to their senses and back out at the last minute. But at every step of the way, they got more and more excited. You would have thought that they would start acting like a network at some point and screw it up. But they are committed to breaking rules almost more than I am."

Nor did NBC change its tune when "Kingpin" was coolly received by test audiences. "They still didn't act like a network," Mills said. Instead, he said they started mentioning other shows that tested badly, like "Seinfeld" and "The West Wing," both of which became enormous hits.

"Kingpin" is already a hit with a viewer named Mills, who one could see was visibly moved while watching an especially transfixing episode in his trailer. "It's magic when it works," he said.

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