Neither ABC’s “The Unusuals” nor NBC’s “Southland” is going to reinvent the cop-show genre, and neither one is likely to be a game-changer for their respective networks. But both shows are well-produced and -acted, and they’re both decent enough ways to spend an hour.
If I had to choose one — and I don’t, since “The Unusuals” premieres at 10 p.m. ET Wednesday and “Southland” starts at 10 p.m. Thursday — I’d probably go with the ABC show. Its collection of eccentrics and loose cannons feels like one I’d rather spend time with over the long term than the earnest law enforcers on the NBC series.
And that, in a nutshell, is a difference between the two shows. Both have large ensemble casts whose work and lives intertwine, and both are told through the eyes of a relatively green officer. But by injecting a healthy dose of humor — and hints of a larger mystery — “The Unusuals” offers the more compelling squad.
It stars Amber Tamblyn (“Joan of Arcadia,” the “Traveling Pants” movies) as Casey Shraeger, an NYPD detective whom we meet working undercover as a prostitute. She’s pulled off the street and into the department’s homicide squad to help work the murder of a possibly dirty cop — and is paired up with the dead detective’s former partner (Jeremy Renner).
Her new squad also includes partners Leo Banks (Harold Perrineau, “Lost”), who never removes his bulletproof vest, and Eric Delahoy (Adam Goldberg, “Entourage”), who has both a brain tumor and a death wish; camera-seeking careerist Eddie Alvarez (Kai Lennox); and a sergeant (Terry Kinney, “Oz”) who wants his precinct to be rid of corruption.
That’s where Casey comes in. She’s the daughter of wealthy parents who can’t quite fathom why she became a cop, and there are a couple of amusing scenes in the pilot between Tamblyn and Joanna Gleason as Casey’s mom that explore this dynamic (mom can’t understand, for instance, why Casey can’t use her badge to investigate the housekeeper). But her background also means she can’t be bought off, and her sergeant explains that’s why she was brought in — to investigate and weed out the corruption in the precinct.
The pilot doesn’t delve too deeply into this aspect, and by all indications the show will focus more on week-to-week cases. But having this bigger story as a backdrop is a good way to flesh out the show’s characters — who are pretty well-drawn for a pilot — and keep the show moving along even when the crimes are inevitably ones we’ve seen versions of in other shows.
Tamblyn and Renner play well off one another, as do Goldberg and Perrineau, whose fatalistic outlook on the job and life makes for some of the show’s funnier moments. The combination of those elements makes me want to see more of “The Unusuals.”
“Southland” has a few things to recommend it as well, but it doesn’t feel quite as cohesive as “The Unusuals” does — which maybe isn’t a surprise, given its quick but convulsive trip through the development pipeline. The rookie here is Ben Sherman (“The O.C.” star Ben McKenzie), a uniformed LAPD officer fresh out of the academy who’s assigned to training officer John Cooper (veteran TV cop Michael Cudlitz, “Standoff”). Cooper is big on tough love and teaching Sherman the reality of the streets, as opposed to the formal training he got at the police academy.
The cast also includes Regina King, Tom Everett Scott, Kevin Alejandro, Shawn Hatosy and Michael McGrady, all of whom play detectives, and Arija Bareikis as a fellow uniform. The pilot spreads its focus among several cases, including the random shooting of a teenage boy and a young girl’s disappearance, with emphasis on how much Ben is having his eyes opened to the reality of the job he’s chosen.
The show, written by Ann Biderman (“Public Enemies”) and executive produced by “ER’s” John Wells, occasionally stops to let characters speechify about the nobility of the job or the problems facing people in crime-ridden areas, and those moments feel more than a bit clunky. The show looks gorgeous, however, making great use of L.A. locations and employing a documentary-like shooting style that lends some urgency to the action (there’s even some bleeped-out profanity for added grit).
Other than a couple of moments with King’s Lydia Adams and a show-ending revelation about Cudlitz’s Cooper, though, “Southland” is a little light on character development. That’s not a fatal problem for a first episode, but a little bit better understanding of who these people are and why they’re so dedicated to the job would help round out the show and make it a worthy addition to NBC’s cop-show legacy.