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Not Enough and a Bit Too Much

Dear TNT: Just change your name to The Law & Order Channel and be done with it. A good 80 percent of the time I flip to the "we know drama" station, the golden boy of Dick Wolf's police-procedural sweatshop leaps forth to helpfully instruct me in the division of labor between cops and D.A.'s. I'm not saying TNT should stop raking in greasy fistfuls of cash on the backs of Sam Waterston, Jill Hennessy and the ghost of Jerry Orbach. I'm just saying they should be honest about it.

Still, I have to believe that people who watch the same Law & Order reruns day in and day out might eventually begin to crave something just a little bit different, without having to flip over to USA for its reruns of L&O spawn SVU and Criminal Intent. TNT's challenge, then, is to make something that is just novel enough to register a flicker of brain activity in the average viewer, but not so different that the viewer becomes confused or frightened by the inexplicable absence of wisecracking men in trenchcoats.

In The Closer, TNT has succeeded brilliantly. The new summer series is somewhere on the extremely low end of the sliding scale between "entirely average" and "actually sorta good." Kyra Sedgwick, whose mouth has mysteriously swelled to frightening, Grover-esque proportions, stars as an Atlanta-bred veteran of the FBI tasked with running an elite crime-solving unit in Los Angeles. None of the Generic Multiethnic Cops in her unit like her, of course, because she's bossy and female and From Somewhere Else. But that's OK, because Sedgwick is one of those magically brilliant TV detectives -- think Columbo in "Steel Magnolias" drag -- who always gets her perp. Also, she smiles a lot, and says "Thank yew so much!" in an accent that practically drips molasses. Because, you know, she's from the South.

Somewhere deep inside The Closer there's a thoroughly decent show struggling in vain to escape, largely thanks to the efforts of its cast. J.K. Simmons is in it, for one thing. While I don't regret missing his turn as a psychotic gay Nazi inmate on Oz, he's been a pleasure to watch in every other role I've seen, including The Closer's by-the-numbers boss guy. A few other cast members aren't too bad -- Sergeant Helpful Sidekick and Detective Nerdy Japanese-American can be fleetingly endearing, and the lone woman on Sedgwick's squad of detectives makes some genuinely intriguing facial expressions. (The writers have yet to give her a single word of dialogue, far as I can tell. Maybe her character's mute?)

Sedgwick, despite the cloying accent, works hard to give her prickly, flawed heroine a depth that the writing doesn't necessarily provide, and she's unafraid to be startlingly, refreshingly cruel. But the writers can't help shoving her quirks right up your nose. Look! She's from out of town! She gets lost while driving! Look! Everyone thinks she's ugly until she gets an L.A.-style makeover! Look! She's a recovering sugar addict! See how whimsical and human she is? See? See?

On top of that, the plots try to be edgy and shocking, but could successfully be unraveled by the average five-year-old. The Closer's signature interrogation-room scenes also fail to be distinctive or stylish in any way; they have all the fire and intensity of C-SPAN2. (I've been watching The Wire and the great, Jon Seda-less early seasons of Homicide: Life on the Street on DVD, so my standards for interrogation scenes may be slightly elevated.) The whole thing's just aggressively mediocre, and kind of depressing for the potential it thus far fails to fulfill. But the ratings have been great so far. Mission accomplished, TNT.

To no one's surprise, the ratings for Fox's The Inside have been anything but great. You might expect me to start whining about how thoroughly gifted creator/showrunner Tim Minear can't catch a break following the cancellations of Firefly and Wonderfalls. Think again. I can entirely understand why people wouldn't want to see this show: it's uncomfortable, depressing, and perhaps the darkest thing I've seen on network TV. None of which means it's not worth watching.

Pretty blonde model Rachel Nichols plays Rebecca Locke, a rookie FBI agent who joins an elite L.A.-based squad of profilers on the hunt for nefarious serial killers. The crimes are viscerally gruesome, the killers truly sick, and there's a lot of standing around in morgues. I know, I know, you liked this better when it was called "Seven" and/or "The Silence of the Lambs." But Minear, one of the most talented veterans of Joss Whedon's sprawling Buffyverse, has more in mind than forensics and procedure.

For one thing, Agent Locke is seriously damaged goods -- the survivor of an eighteen-month abduction when she was 10. Her hallucinatory flashbacks of her abductor, a leering slimeball with a cowboy shirt and an ice cream cone, are skin-crawling. And what seem at first glance to be signs of Nichols' utter inability to act -- her stiff body language, wide Bambi eyes and robotic line delivery -- make perfect sense in the context of her character. The cool, lovely professional profiler is a thin porcelain shell Rebecca's built to protect herself. In her character's very worst moments, Nichols lets us see the outlines of something truly horrible fluttering underneath, trying to break through.

Her boss Virgil Webster (Peter Coyote) sees this too. He just doesn't care. Web manipulates and exploits Rebecca, using her personal understanding of evil to close his cases. He's her dog trainer and daddy figure all in one, and she's his prized bloodhound. It's perfectly understated in its creepiness, as are the hints that Web himself may be as dangerous and sociopathic as the people he hunts. Coyote's performance makes Web devilishly fun to watch, combining humor and malice in every measured line or cool stare.

Agent Paul Ryan (Jay Harrington) is the angel to Web's demon, recognizing Rebecca's damage and doing his best to keep it from consuming her. On any other show, he'd probably be her dead-obvious love interest and a flawless hero. Here, he's happily married, his interest in Rebecca is downright brotherly, and his heavy-handed moralizing to Web makes him just enough of a stick-in-the-mud. The tug of war between Paul and Web, and the way Rebecca unconsciously sways between the two poles of their influence, is one of the show's most intriguing elements.

Given the overwhelming darkness of the show, Minear is smart to add comic relief, courtesy of his old pals Adam Baldwin (from Firefly) and Katie Finneran (from Wonderfalls). As the other two agents on the squad, Baldwin is a marginally more civilized version of Firefly's thuggish Jayne Cobb, while Finneran comes across as Dana Scully with a freshly implanted sense of humor. But they're both terrific, playing every witty bit of dialogue or amusing character moment for maximum entertainment. As the team's tech guy, Nelsan Ellis is also thoroughly charming; it's a shame he only gets about one scene per episode.

There's a lot to like about the show -- and a lot that explains its microscopic ratings. Some of the dialogue, particularly in the pilot, makes so many references to "darkness" and "pain" that it sounds cribbed from some 14-year-old Goth's LiveJournal. You can very nearly see the seams between the moments of slick, obvious procedural the network demands and the smarter, subtler show Minear's trying to create. And the subject matter, though respectably unflinching, isn't fun: skinned corpses, rape and pedophilia in the first three episodes alone. Why isn't this on FX? The edgy elements would be a much better fit alongside The Shield and Nip/Tuck, and Minear would likely suffer less pressure to give the show a mainstream appeal it just won't achieve.

The Inside is light-years better than the we're-not-even-trying conformity of The Closer, but it's hardly fun summer viewing. In his superb scripts for Angel, Minear could confront real evils under a protective layer of horror-movie tropes. Here, the abyss does a little too much staring back.


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