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It's Not Just Another Cop Show, It's The Job

Denis Leary should have gone away. He exploded onto MTV in the early 1990s with his trademark "two words" and followed that up with a live video and CD of his performance art piece "No Cure for Cancer" and a hit song, the unforgettable "Asshole." Then MTV chewed Leary up and spit him out and he should have gone away like so many others, like all the other little pop confections the MTV candy factory churns out every month and then is done with when they've lost their flavor.

But Denis Leary didn't go away. He went on to star in films -- some underrated ("The Ref"), some just plain bad ("Operation Dumbo Drop," "Two If By Sea") -- perform voice work ("A Bug's Life"), and emcee stand-up comedy shows which end up airing on Comedy Central (like many before him, Leary found that the line between performance art and stand-up comedy is a thin one; cf. Henry Rollins). In other words, Denis Leary spent a few years noodling, taking odd jobs and showing up in some capacity in nearly 40 movies.

Now Denis Leary is back, even though he never went away. He has arrived with his labor of love, the midseason replacement series The Job which finished its first run on ABC in mid-April. I call it a labor of love because Leary is listed, not just as the star, but also as the co-creator, co-writer, and executive producer.

Denis Leary may just have found his vehicle -- finally. Assuming the show isn't cancelled already.

If it isn't cancelled, The Job is going to have to find a solid audience. And it might have trouble doing that. A quick synopsis will explain why: Leary plays Mike McNeil, a New York City detective who has a drinking problem, a smoking problem, a heart problem, a drug problem, a wife, a girlfriend, and who is hitting on his female co-worker. McNeil is not your most lovable, huggable character.

Which might be okay if this were a drama. And there is going to be confusion about that. What kind of show is The Job really? While watching the pilot, you might think: It's a half-hour, so it's a comedy. But there's no laugh track, so it's a drama. But it's funny as hell, so it's a comedy. But the main character is a boozing, pill-popping, adulterous cop on the edge, so it's a drama.

I smell confused audience. Perhaps I'm not giving TV viewers enough credit; but then, these are the same people who have failed to watch a lot of very good shows almost entirely because they were too confusing, from Police Squad! to SportsNight.

Heck, even I didn't quite catch on that the camera work is a shot-for-shot parody of NYPD Blue. A friend of mine had to point it out. After that, I had trouble not laughing for the entire half-hour, watching the camera do that little zoom-in-zoom-out-n-shake thing it always does when it's in front of Dennis Franz. But if I, TV sophisticate that I am, missed any of the humor in this series, what hope does the average peon have?

Both fortunately and unfortunately, as the half-season wore on, The Job came down more decidedly on the side of comedy. McNeil's drinking, smoking, pills and so forth began to wane in importance as the episodes progressed, being replaced by more sitcom-style plot developments and workplace humor. The edge dulled a little, but not much; by the last episode this was still a sharp, sharp show.

The pilot was, to my mind, one of the most realistic cop shows I've ever seen -- not that I've ever been an actual cop to know. But it deftly avoided many of the pitfalls of other cop shows like Blue by failing to make the job into some sort of holy calling, some sort of mythic home to Job-like characters moving through archetypal dramas. During the pilot, the cops are chasing a guy whose crime is unspecified, and when he is finally caught, it isn't by Our Hero, but happens off-screen. At the end of the episode, if we're quick, we learn what he did. At no point is catching this criminal made out to look like some holy crusade -- it's just, you know, the Job.

In the meantime, the humor is in the details. The fat cop who steals other cops' muffins. The lieutenant who can't remember the names of his two Hispanic detectives so he just calls them "Rice and Beans." The serious-looking gentlemen from Nintendo who have come to give a seminar in how to spot fake Pokémon cards, because, after all, the NYPD has so little else to keep it occupied.

Denis Leary is surrounded by a great supporting cast, too. Perennial black cop Bill Nunn ("Sister Act," "True Crime," "Save Me," "White Lie," "The Affair," "Extreme Measures," just to cover his time behind the badge) stretches his acting muscles as Pip, McNeil's black cop partner. Pip is everything McNeil isn't: He is upstanding, faithful to his wife, drug-free. He is also neurotic about his weight and his partner -- and envies McNeil a little bit, too. The word "foil" is sadly shaded with diminutive tones, but Nunn is Leary's perfect foil. You need someone like Nunn to state, "One of these days I'm gonna take your pills away," so someone like Leary can reply, "Those pills and a bottle of Bushmills are the only things stopping me from taking a hostage."

Diane Farr, late of MTV's Loveline, shows that she has skills other than holding down a couch -- she can act, too, and carry a Long Island accent like a buzzsaw. Her role involves a careful balance of love for McNeil, concern for him, and distaste for the way he runs his life. Farr nails it. And she's damned funny, too.

The other detectives rounding out the office all have impeccable comic timing coupled with a dramatic depth often missing from sitcoms assembled from off-the-shelf parts. This ain't "Hamlet" (not even "Mel Gibson's Hamlet") but it ain't Wings, either.

Like any good show, though, the real star is the writing. And the writing here is fantastic. Real, hilarious, serious, painful, everything -- these scripts are the real deal, solid work by true writers. And they've been given exceptional freedom by ABC -- no doubt feeling the Sopranos pressure -- to cuss and talk openly about sex, drugs, and racism, without a hint of moralizing. When a suspect accuses Pip and McNeil of racial profiling and McNeil delivers a rant on how on March 17th, when he's looking for someone disturbing the peace by beating up his cousin and throwing up green beer on the street, he won't be looking for Puerto Ricans -- that's more real than anything I've heard from one of the "good guys" on TV in a long, long while, and that includes Sipowicz's convenient on-again off-again racism.

In short, The Job is a great show. One of the best. With any amount of luck, it will be back in full force for the fall of 2001.

No, Denis Leary didn't go away. Instead, he brought us The Job. Let's hope he gets to stay for good this time.


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