I watched the first episode of the new Jennifer Lopez cop drama Shades of Blue and thought, “This is kind of crazy — how are they going to make this a weekly show?” And I immediately wanted to see a second episode. After I watched the second episode, I thought, “Wait — this is getting even more strange; how are they going to keep this thing going?” So I watched a third episode. (Thank you, NBC.) And then I have to admit, I watched a fourth. I wouldn’t exactly call Shades of Blue addictive, but it certainly does keep you wondering.
The show stars Lopez as Det. Harlee Santos, hardworking single-mom busting perps under the command of Lt. Bill Wozniak, played by Ray Liotta. But Wozniak and his crew — which includes The Sopranos’ Drea de Matteo as a cop having marriage problems — share a secret: they commit crimes (extorting local businesses, taking bribes) while rationalizing their actions by saying they’re arresting bigger criminal fish. (The first two episodes are directed by the superb Barry Levinson, which also helps a lot.)
It’s unusual for a network show to feature a hero who is thoroughly — legally and morally — compromised the way Lopez’s Santos is, right from the get-go. The cable-TV comparison is inevitable: Liotta and his minions are kind of like Michael Chiklis and his law-breaking law-enforcers in FX’s The Shield. Except that because this is network television, Shades of Blue can’t veer too much into shades of black — of true, irredeemable evil — lest it become a show that alienates network-TV viewers, who like their protagonists relatable (think Mariska Hargitay in Law & Order: SVU, or virtually any star of any CBS crime drama).
The premiere sets up Shades’ trickiest, least believable plot-point: Wozniak’s crew comes under suspicion by the FBI, and that agency puts the squeeze on Harlee to wear a wire and rat on her boss and co-workers. We’re supposed to believe — from tender scenes of Harlee going to her daughter’s school music recitals — that she’s doing double-dirty-work for the higher good of being able to pay for the child’s prep-school education.
Throughout everything, Lopez gives a solid performance — perhaps the best dramatic work she’s done since her first-rate film, Out of Sight (1998). Liotta is excellent as well — as he should be, since the man who helped make Goodfellas great ought to be able to handle a little NBC crime show with relative ease. But Shades of Blue’s biggeset problem is this: beyond Lopez and Liotta, the rest of the cops are bland clichés (de Matteo’s marital-woes subplot is particularly trite), and as the series proceeds, Harlee’s efforts to keep her FBI-informant status a secret from her co-workers becomes very strained.
Which leaves me half-heartedly rooting for a show because I like the performances of its stars, even though I know that its premise is as shaky as the moral ground upon which Det. Harlee Stantos stands.
Shades of Blue airs Thursday nights at 10 p.m. on NBC.