“L.A.‘s a big place with lots of bad people. And contrary to popular belief, I don’t know ‘em all.” Grrr. All grizzled face and sunglasses indoors, Carter Shaw (Dylan McDermott) isn’t about to take any insinuating lip from anyone—not FBI agent Hollis (Kyle Secor) and not his own Captain Maynard (Tyrees Allen) either. No. Carter lives on his own sort of edge, determined to get all those bad people he knows and doesn’t know, one episode at a time.
As the center of Jerry Bruckheimer’s latest TV series, Dark Blue, Carter is predictably jaded, smart, and wounded (he tends to watch old recordings of his now dead wife, laughing and wrestling with him on a lovely green lawn). When he’s called in to a hospital ICU at the start of the pilot, he’s also tired. “This better be good,” he cautions the donuts-munching uniforms who called him. “I haven’t seen 7am since 1992.” You know, double grrr.
In fact, it’s slightly less than good. Carter’s looking at an FBI agent now nearly dead, his face mushy and red, his body broken. His lack of shock identifies as someone who’s been around, in this case, the head of a deep-undercover team, one that “technically doesn’t exist.” That means it gets lots of money and leeway, at least until, in the second episode (colorfully titled “Guns, Strippers, and Wives”“), he needs “$100,000 by the end of the day”—here the captain draws a practical-seeming line, one that forces Carter to start selling bricks of baby laxative-as-cocaine in order to raise the funds. For all his tough talk, Carter’s moral borders are actually pretty easy to parse: as veteran team member Ty (Omari Hardwick) explains to newbie Jamie (Nicki Aycox), “There are two things you need to know about Carter: there’s nothing he wouldn’t do to protect us and there’s nothing he wouldn’t do to get his man.” The problem, Ty adds, is not knowing which comes first in any given situation. But even as he says it, you know that he knows what comes first.
That’s not to say Carter’s priorities aren’t tested. In each of the first two episodes, the primary dilemma has to do with one of Carter’s “guys” making an apparent error in judgment, either going too deep or not staying deep enough undercover. That Carter has to sort out such mistakes makes him seem wise, or at least stern, daddy to the younger detectives. The dynamic is familiar, and plot outcomes are unsurprising.
Still, the series’ look is rather grand and movie-like, dark certainly, but also saturated and vivid. Its first scenes—the lead-up to what lands that FBI agent in the hospital—show brutal, bloody, electric-zapping torture (it’s not so topical as it might seem at first). The villain, a local Franzine (James Russo looking characteristically pugnacious), instructs his own men as to how to abuse the victim, until at last he can’t stand it and does the deed himself. That his minions look away from the abuse suggests just how terrible it is, as do the background thunder and lightning. When Carter describes Franzine for the feds as “kind of a jack of all crimes, the untouchable crook,” he’s hiding the fact that one of his own guys, Dean (Logan Marshall-Green), is undercover with him—he’s not hiding it very well, though, as Hollis and his partner (Jose Zuniga) discover this detail within minutes (how the bad guys have missed it is not so clear).
What follows is something of a race against time, as Carter and Ty and Jamie try to contact Dean before the federal agents move in on the whole insidious shebang. As you may guess, Carter’s overarching ethos is not so different from Franzine’s. Both leaders demand loyalty and obedience and frown on creativity and hot-dogging. When Franzine learns one of his guys has a contraband cell phone, he explains that any outside phone calls require lying, and that’s not allowed. “Lying brings suspicion,” he says, his voice silky and utterly scary. “Suspicion compromises us.”
This is Carter’s thinking as well, which is why, when he puts an officer “in play,” that officer has to let go of all connections to “real” life. This can make the difference between “going under and stepping over” a little hard to read, and on occasion trigger Carter’s control-freakiness. Ty puts it this way: “You start spending more time as an addict or a thief or even a killer than you do as yourself, sooner or later, you’re gonna forget what parts are your cover and what parts are you. How long can you pretend to be something before you become it, right?”
Right. Except that it’s hard to forget when the issue comes up repeatedly. This makes the primary concern for Carter’s UC officers less existential than narrative, their acting a matter of negotiating weekly twists and resolutions, granting each one an emotional arc, and ensuring their ethical boundaries are intact. Their blue is less dark than medium.