With its high-power, torture-shock opening, booming soundtrack and mean-streets lighting, "Dark Blue" clearly passed through the hands of someone who knows a bit about blockbusters. That would be executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who brings his singular talents to TNT via a tale of a group of undercover cops so deep and damaged and unlike their fellow officers that the line between cover and identity, between truth and justice is perpetually blurred.
This promising construct suffers a minor setback when the head of the team, Lt. Carter Shaw, shows up. Played by Dylan McDermott and a requisite three-day beard, Shaw moves through a hospital corridor in mirrored aviator shades, trailing a few tubercular coughs and tough-guy wisecracks. "You guys are doing nothing for the stereotype," he says to two cops chowing down on doughnuts. "This better be good, I haven't seen 7 a.m. since 1992."
McDermott is going for tough and life-scarred (there will also be some unidentified-pill popping later on). But when he removes the shades (which presumably he snagged from the prop department of one of those debauched-Southern-sheriff movies so popular during the late '70s), he is all blue eyes and frat-boy handsome, the dreamboat so many swooned over during "The Practice."
It's a problem that plagues the rest of the show and the next episode -- McDermott never quite convinces as Shaw, a cop so good "he should have a penitentiary named after him," as one FBI agent snorts. Clearly in the throes of a Painful Past (Dead wife? Partner killed through some perceived failure on his part?), Shaw has rejected the normal path of rising in the force, electing instead to form a special ops undercover team.
This group operates so far off the grid that within minutes we learn that one of Shaw's guys, Dean (Logan Marshall-Green), has gotten so far in with a local master criminal that he has participated in the torturing and possible murder of an undercover FBI agent. (So much for interdepartmental communication.)
Worried that Dean may have flipped, Shaw pulls team member Ty (Omari Hardwick) away from his lovely new wife ("It's the Prince of Darkness," she says, informing Ty of Shaw's arrival) and sends him after Dean. But not before recruiting Jamie (Nicki Aycox), a young rookie who lied her way into the police academy.
It is an intriguing plot formulation with just the right mixture of gunplay, slick setups and character development to promise a satisfying addition to TNT's catalog of raggedy-cool cop shows ("The Closer," "Saving Grace"). One wonders how writer Doug Jung will handle the obvious glitch -- deep undercover typically takes much more time than a weekly series can realistically portray -- but the various personal arcs seem compelling enough to compensate. Marshall-Green's Dean, who sidles along the line between cop and criminal like a man on an increasingly narrow ledge, is vivid and intriguing, while Hardwick proves that Ty's wife does have something to worry about -- the transformation of Ty as he goes undercover is fairly astonishing.
Aycox isn't given too much to do as Jaimie, and one hopes she is not there simply to provide the necessary feminine concern for Shaw, a man so uncomfortable in the daylight he might, in another series, turn out to be a vampire.
As with most star-vehicle shows, "Dark Blue" will succeed or not depending on how well McDermott connects with his character and the audience. In the first two episodes, the actor is quite visible as he attempts to settle himself into his role, flexing this muscle like a ballplayer breaking in a new glove and uniform. To be fair, the damaged and seemingly heartbroken hero is so familiar these days that there is a law of increased expectations. It's going to take more than an unshaven cheek and a few hollow coughs to make the character real, but "Dark Blue's" great supporting cast and high production values may buy its star enough time to disappear as effectively into his role as his undercover team disappears into theirs.
When: 10 tonight
Rating: TV-14-V (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with an advisory for violence)