"Terriers," which begins Wednesday on FX, is a wonderfully well-conceived, well-made and well-played series about a pair of soft-boiled downmarket private detectives in over their heads in San Diego. In a fall season overly populated with cops and criminals, there may be more stylish or quirky or elaborately premised series coming your way, straining to cut an edge or push an envelope. But "Terriers," whose virtues are more traditional, is to my taste easily the best of them, and one of the brightest lights in the whole freshman class.
To begin with — and end with — there is Donal Logue, whom television has not used this profitably since "Grounded for Life," or ever. Logue plays Hank, a reformed alcoholic and former cop partnered with Michael Raymond-James' Britt, a former thief, as unlicensed investigators; that is not as high-concept as it might sound. Logue, who has been doughy in the past, seems toughened up here, though not at the expense of his emotional soft core: At 40, he has worn into himself a little, and the weathering suits him. Certainly it suits this character.
The long-arc story begins when an old friend asks Hank to find his daughter; that leads the detectives to a rich developer, a murder, another murder, and various dark secrets and conspiracies. (This thread will run through the 13-episode season, but other cases also come and go, solved within the hour.) As scruffy, working-stiff gumshoes set quixotically against well-groomed ministers of power, Hank and Britt follow in a line of Southern California private eyes that includes Philip Marlowe (especially as rendered by Elliott Gould in Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye"), Jim Rockford and Jake Gittes; indeed, except for the cellphones, "Terriers" — which at times strikes me as almost an homage to "The Rockford Files" — could have been made as easily in the 1970s as in the 21st century.
There is a limited variety of crimes to commit in this world, and an only slightly less limited number of reasons to commit them; a glut of police procedurals has led to ever more baroque and unlikely variations on the same increasingly tired stories. But given good writing and good acting, there are infinite variations to play on character, and it's the personal details and the way they're brought to life that make "Terriers" feel fresh and real. Created by Ted Griffin ("Ravenous"), the series has an unforced naturalism. It doesn't stylize grit and call it reality or serve up the perverse as an easy substitute for an interest in normal human haplessness.
FX, whose other original series have included "Sons of Anarchy," "Rescue Me" and "The Shield," is something of a network of Sad, Angry Men. There is some sadness here, and some anger (and some punching and some kicking), but the violence is not fetishized and the overall mood is fundamentally hopeful: The show's heart, one might say, is pure, free from the misanthropy or misogyny that colors so many cable dramas, either as intended subject or incidental subtext.
Indeed, Hank and Britt are both in love, the former with his ex-wife (Kimberly Quinn), the latter with his student-veterinarian fiancée ( Laura Allen), and this is portrayed as a character-building, if, in Hank's case, inconvenient. As much as anything, this is a show about partnering — old ones (including Hank's former partner on the force, played by Rockmond Dunbar) and new ones and how everybody gets along.
Our heroes make mistakes, personal and professional, and bend rules to breaking. ("You haven't done anything illegal?" Hank's ex-wife asks of their investigation. "Immoral, no," he replies.) But there is nothing "anti-" about their heroism; they are trying, in their way, to better themselves, and the local world.