ABC is debuting a new cop drama, The Unusuals (above left), tonight; NBC is debuting a new cop drama, Southland, tomorrow. This has given many TV critics the idea to review both at once. My brief take: although the two shows are very different, they each leave me wishing I could somehow smoosh them together.
The Unusuals is almost Barney Miller reimagined as a drama. It’s a sardonically humorous procedural, set in a New York that is more rough at the edges than the NYC of recent years, but more polished than the New York of the ’70s. Maybe it’s the New York that people think of when they idealize the ’70s (when Times Square wasn’t full of chain restaurants and you could rent an apartment—for a nickel!); maybe it’s a prescient vision of contemporary New York, after the recession/depression has had a couple years to put some dings back into it. It’s the kind of setting that befits a cop show more focused on characters than cases, and The Unusuals delivers there: in particular, Harold Perrineau and Adam Goldberg are brilliant together as a duo who are set on edge by the latter’s erratic behavior (which stems from a twist I don’t want to spoil). The problem is the policing; after one episode, it doesn’t really grab me as a cop show yet—partly, perhaps, because the show is so whimsical its stakes don’t yet feel real.
If The Unusuals is a quirky story about shoe-leather policing, Southland comes from the grittier, The Shield / NYPD Blue school of ride-along police story. It’s a more raw, less melodramatic series than I’d have expected from ER’s John Wells, whose Third Watch was too soap-operatic for my taste. But except for promising turns by The OC’s Ben McKenzie (as the rookie cop whose POV we mostly share) and Regina King, the show—set in a gang-violence-stricken section of L.A.—comes across as The Shield, but without the gripping politics, the morally problematic lead, or intriguing cops like Dutch and Claudette.
Perhaps I’m being unfair; ten years ago, Southland would have seemed revolutionary on TV. But now it does feel like network playing catch-up with cable, and given we still have a million crime shows on the air, viewers can be expected to set the bar high. Southland is probably the “better” of the two new shows—in terms of consistency, crime stories and technical production—but I don’t connect with it as well.
What I want, in other words, is a police show that combines Southland’s eye on the streets with The Unusuals’ eye on its characters. And either of them still has the potential to become that show. But I’m not sure how long I’ll be willing to follow them to see if it happens.