"Dark Blue" puts atmosphere before story

Sat Jul 11, 2009 1:36am EDT

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NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Television loves the troubled, iconoclastic loner.

Outside, they're antisocial, quirky, radical and unique. But inside, they're just wounded puppies, warped out of the social norm by tragedy; given half a chance, they'd be frolicking on the lawn with their loved ones.

Which means they're not really radical or unique after all. Especially not since so many shows have abandoned actual character development for this form of shorthand.

"Dark Blue's" Lt. Carter Shaw, who heads a covert undercover group with shady detectives and no oversight, is one of the latter. He wears sunglasses indoors. Doesn't shave. Has insomnia. Wields a shotgun. Emotes, "I see things that need to be fixed." And Has A Tragic Past. Of course.

That he's played by Dylan McDermott -- who even in 8 o'clock shadow seems like your nice neighbor -- could cause cognitive dissonance-related whiplash in anyone.

TNT's "Dark Blue" looks good. Executive producers Jerry Bruckheimer, Danny Cannon and Jonathan Littman wrote the "CSI" low-lit, color-saturated playbook, and there's a harrowing opening scene that owes David Fincher his props. But "Blue" is a confusing mix of cliche and posturing that seems more interested in framing a shot than telling a story. I'm still not 100 percent sure just what the lead bad guy's gang actually does to be bad. Sure, they torture, set fires and shoot one another, but "Jack of all crimes"? Do you get a WGA card for that?

Being thrown in medias res doesn't help: One of Shaw's crew is so far undercover he might have flipped, so the pilot spends its time figuring out which side he's on. In the process, the narrative just grows murkier and murkier until bullets fly, people get shot, the credits roll and you're left wondering, "What the hell was that?"

But not in an "I must come back next week to find out" way. Cop shows are a dime a dozen, and highly stylized ones briefly do well as shiny objects that entrance viewers. But nothing lasts without a core of direction and a protagonist who inspires intrigue and curiosity rather than eye-rolling. When the title of your series seems to describe its lighting setup better than anything else about it, it's time to reach for the "off" switch.

(please visit our entertainment blog via www.reuters.com or on blogs.reuters.com/fanfare/)

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