Blair Underwood Is the Angry Black Man in 'Ironside'

Lesley Smith

In practice, Ironside is intense, sexually active, and 40-something -- his anger a compelling reaction to a dazzling career cut short.


Airtime: Wednesdays, 10pm ET
Cast: Blair Underwood, Brent Sexton, Pablo Schreiber, Spencer Grammar, Neal Bledsoe, Kenneth Choi, Nick Sobotka
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: NBC
Director: Peter Horton
Air date: 2013-10-02

It's a boom time for basic cable drama. AMC, FX, and even USA are offering viewers complex lead characters, multi-layered plots, and some terrific acting. Even when shows like Covert Affairs or White Collar tip toward the frothy, a sophisticated directorial touch and zippy dialogue keep the entertainment engaging. Such inventiveness is harder to find on network TV. And the repetition there is becoming, well, repetitious: even with an obvious well of talented writers and directors from which to draw, NBC has opted yet again to revive a long dead-and-buried series, in this case, the late '60s Raymond Burr vehicle, Ironside.

The Ironside premiering on 2 October is revamped to resemble yet another overcooked CSI-clone. Its first episode introduces Ironside (Blair Underwood), an idiosyncratic (sometimes downright abusive) genius surrounded by eager young followers who do what they’re told and pant for praise. The inhabitants of those pallid roles in Ironside include sturdy TV bit-parters like Neal Bledsoe (as former banker Teddy) and Spencer Grammer (as the sole female character Holly), who look good and speak clearly, even if their lines do nothing but prop up a limping plot.

Even the talented Pablo Schreiber, best remembered for his heartbreaking turn as Nick Sobotka in The Wire can’t put any flesh on the bones of young ‘tech, Virgil. NBC's publicity material describes him rather sensationally as “a man who wrestles with the dichotomy of being one of NYPD's toughest cops in the city and a loving family man at home." But throughout the first episode, Virgil's facial expression suggests he's a man gripped by terminal anomie.

The limits apparently imposed on Sobotka are repeated in other performances. Stunningly, Ironside fails to capitalize on its major acting asset, Blair Underwood in the title role. A black paraplegic protagonist may theoretically seem a "diversity" goldmine, but the primary change from the old Ironside to the new one has to do with the new one's anger. In the abstract, this may be daring (an angry black man on TV) or stereotypical (an angry black man on TV).

In practice, Ironside is intense, sexually active, and 40-something, his anger a compelling reaction to a dazzling career cut short. But this character, ostensibly complex, is lost amid the procedural details of the premiere, in which an investigation of a suicide generates only the most anodyne crime-fighting action for all that potential energy. In fact, the plotting of the premiere oscillates between sensational and sanctimonious, splattered, whenever creativity runs thin, with the raw entrails of Ironside’s maudlin backstory.

As the team is searching a suspect’s room, Ironside withdraws a gun from beneath a cushion. When asked how he found the weapon, he intones smugly, “The view is different from down here.” Really? No one searching the room where a potentially dangerous suspect was found would think of moving the pillows to see what that suspect has hidden? This is the best the writers can come up with as an instance of Ironside's particular genius? We might all lament that Underwood has never achieved the primetime dominance his seven-year stint in L.A. Law 20 years ago promised. And we might further be infuriated that he's punished here with a series of embarrassing flashbacks to the days when Ironside and his erstwhile partner Gary (Blair Sexton) romp with their wives, or amble the streets like 10-year-olds in the one great summer of their youth.

It’s all a bit Sharkmeets Hallmark… and Hallmark wins. Or perhaps that’s unfair to Hallmark, which often has, at least, sincerity on its side. Ironside is an exercise in cynicism, a safety-first raid on the vaults with not a shred of respect for either the its prospective audience.






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