“You didn’t get to the end, so you really don’t know what the hell is going on.” Hank (Donal Logue) isn’t exactly surprised when he hears this. He’s used to not knowing what’s coming or even what’s going on in front of him. But when Ellie (Rachel Miner) tells him he needs to finish watching the sex tape she’s in, he takes her seriously. And so he carries her pink cell phone with him from room to room, letting it play through to the end, so he can start to see “what the hell is going on.”
Hank’s a private detective in San Diego, unlicensed. As such, he lives on a familiar kind of edge, the kind negotiated by ex-cops and recovering alcoholics. In the smart new FX series, Terriers, Hank has a few other accoutrements you’ve seen before—an ex-wife, Gretchen (Kimberly Quinn), whom he still loves, and an ex-partner, Detective Mark Gustafson (Rockmond Dunbar), whom he still trusts. He’s also got a scruffy new partner in his new detecting business: a one-time thief, Britt (Michael Raymond-James) makes an apt sounding board for Hank. As they talk through the legal boundaries they’ll need to skirt in order to solve cases, they tell themselves they’re doing the right thing, most of the time, anyway. And so, when they get involved in the long-story arc jump-started by that sex tape, they not only expect the unexpected, but they also take some pleasure in figuring out the plot’s twisty-turny perversities.
Premiering 8 September, Terriers teases out both the pleasures and the perversities. When Hank decides to help Ellie out of loyalty to her father, an old friend and former drinking buddy, he doesn’t think twice about it. Still, his decisions have rippling effects, even as he seems to take them one by one, each moment demanding a shift in priority and direction. This makes the story structure more layered than linear: even when Hank and Britt think they’ve solved a case, another consequence complicates and extends their involvement.
It’s plain enough how this concept applies to their investigations, though the details only emerge gradually. An early encounter with wealthy developer Robert Lindus (Christopher Cousins) introduces his less than straightforward interests, as well as his young blond son, an emblem of how intricate his own motivations might be. While the show provides some standard-seeming villains—expensively outfitted and imperious—it also pits Hank and Britt against or in league with a number of less obvious types, including Hank’s sister Steph (played by Logue’s own sister Karina Logue). When she shows up in the fourth episode, she helps to stretch your understanding of him, as he copes with her unexpected decision to go off her meds and exit the hospital where she’s been living. But she’s not just the crazy sister. Instead, Steph (an MIT grad) offers another view of Hank, in glimpses of their shared past and in her independent mind, made visible in frame compositions that tell story as well as dialogue. So, when he asks Gretchen to look after her for an afternoon, Steph walks through the background of their conversation in the kitchen, reminding them that she can hear them and reciting the “rules” concerning her care: “Don’t leave her around any sharp objects, don’t let her read any Proust,” she says, her figure out of focus as Hank and Gretchen also understand their parts in this knotty, multi-part relationship. “Never take her to the wild animal park, never serve her red wine with fish, blah blah, blah, blah, blah.” As Steph observes here, social propriety is arbitrary, no matter whom it’s designed to contain. “You can read Proust,” he says.
Hank’s own excesses, his steps outside such propriety, take a variety of forms. Britt has scenes apart from Hank—mostly with his incredibly insightful and patient girlfriend Katie (Lauren Allen)—but for the most part the show keeps you inside Hank’s experience. This means you see him share a particular language and sensibility with Steph, worry about Gretchen’s upcoming marriage to Jason (Loren Dean), and confess to his AA meeting that he’s buying their old house from her. When a fellow member advises against it—“You’ll be living in a museum of all your past mistakes”—the look on Hank’s face simultaneously conveys his agreement with this assessment, his lifetime of regret, and also his enduring optimism.
Like co-creator Shawn Ryan’s The Shield, Terriers features charismatic, complicated grown-ups wrestling with a lot of past mistakes, even as they continue to make them. Though Hank and Britt are accused repeatedly of behaving childishly, they know enough to see what they’re doing, and measure it against other so-called adult behavior (say, cheating on land development projects or following proper investigative procedures). Guys who’ve gone wrong now trying to go straight, they value loyalty and intelligence. So, when Mark warns Britt, “You gotta know he’s gonna let you down, it is not in Hank Dolworth to do anything but self-destruct on people and when he does, everybody catches shrapnel,” the new partner nods and listens, but takes the risk.
But as his decision is indicated in a brief gesture, his world—the ways that all choices are interconnected—is repeatedly visible. Emotional and moral stakes are revealed in evocative framing: when Hank’s on an elevator with a suspect, the camera hovers low, shadows emphasizing the angles of his face. Or when he shares a dinner with Gretchen and Jason, trying his best to be the cool ex, long shots of the group hint at tensions that everyone wants to get over. And repeatedly, Steph compels attention, whether she’s scurrying to hide in her brother’s attic, acting the part everyone else expects, her face dour but her eyes lively.