Jonny Zero

And we can make money to burn
If you allow me the latest game.
I don’t ask for much, but enough room to spread my wings,
And the world finna know my name.
— Roots with Cody Chestnut, “The Seed 2.0”

Just released after four years in prison, Jonny Calvo (Franky G) hits a bus to New York City, the skyline showcased in on-beat frames, the soundtrack booming the Roots. The tint is slightly sepia and the angle slightly skewed as Jonny makes his way across the bridge to a schoolyard, marked by a U.S. flag blowing in the same wind that tosses garbage in the street. And as he looks through the chain-link fence that separates him from his young son, Jonny smiles, tentatively and genuinely. Behind him comes the menace: his former associate in shiny black SUV, trying to pull him back — as they say — inside.

Dynamically directed by action filmmaker Mimi Leder and shot by Michael Grady, the pilot episode of Jonny Zero looks great, all urgent pulsing and colorful ingenuity. This goes some distance toward disguising the essential banality of the script, which has Jonny set up to fight bad guys and less bad guys if he wants to stay clean — that is, out of prison and within reach of his son, little Vincent (Sean Moran). Running from the SUV, Jonny heads down an alley, where a bucket drummer pounds his instrument; the camera cuts to Jonny’s parole officer Gloria (Aunjanue Ellis) calling his name, then calling the cops to “report a failure to appear.” Jonny arrives just as she’s spelling his name, slides into the chair opposite her desk and explains his tardiness: “I missed my bus,” he beams, all happy-cat teeth. She’s unimpressed, but sends him in search of legitimate work, mopping floors at Captain Jack’s, a pirate-themed kids’ restaurant. (Little does he know that he’ll soon be wearing an octopus costume and carrying a pizza through a crowd of screaming meemie kids, who actually look less childish than the gang goons who stop by to harass him.)

Here at the restaurant, the requisite legend emerges, since one of the kitchen workers, a geek named DJ Random (GQ), details some of the more excessive points of Jonny’s rep, that is, he’s a former bouncer, dealer, and/or junkie who supposedly twisted a guy’s head off (other storytellers have him killing a guy with one punch), thus leading to his recent manslaughter conviction. The designated sidekick, Random immediately pushes his way into Jonny’s business by inviting him to stay at his jerry-rigged abandoned-warehouse digs. Their relationship seems primed to provide the series with the tiredest of homosexual anxiety jokes, demonstrated in the pilot when a woman watching from behind the duo mistakes their efforts to remove a ring stuck on Jonny’s finger for a dollop of gay sex action.

Such broad strokes do Jonny no favors. As a tough guy with a soft heart, he’s already burdened with clichés (he doesn’t like guns, he’s got an available gorgeous ex-girlfriend to ensure his straightness). The first episode lays out most of these in a hurry, from the poignant dad and rejected son to the ex-brute who now only wants to do right.

No surprise, this proves to be something of a trick, as Jonny is hunted by two reprehensible types. The first is his former employer, a British gangster named Garrett (Ritchie Coster), whose minions are the ones driving the SUV and dropping in at Captain Jack’s. Spotting Jonny being outright dissed by his grocer dad, Garrett steps up, melty ice cream cone in his paw: “Father-son relationships,” he sniffs, “they’re complicated.” And with that, Garrett recalls his own patriarchal difficulties, resolved when he cried at his dad’s funeral, brought on by the fact that Garrett killed him. On the other hand that’s really the same hand, FBI agent Stringer (Chris Bauer) wants Jonny to return to work for Garrett, in order to play Stinger’s “best bitch informant.” Grrr.

Stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place, Jonny’s starting to resemble every other ex-con who ever tried to swagger and make sense in a tv series. Still, he perseveres in his own pursuit of the straight and narrow, and finds himself lucky when a victim is literally tossed to the street in front of him by a really mean bouncer. A plainly out-of-his-element white guy (Victor Slezak) engages his help to find missing daughter Danni, a.k.a. Velvet (Brennan Hesser), currently working in strip and goth clubs — apparently a different joint each night, as she’s fired every time Jonny finds her and makes a scene. She’s cute and high-voiced, so as to seem young, but also experienced enough so that her hanging round with Jonny doesn’t look untoward.

At the end of the first episode, the newly formed trio escapes an exploding building. As they run off down the street, Jonny and company look for all the world like yet another coming of the mod squad. Designated “alternative detectives,” they will be taking cases that legitimate cops won’t take, the Team Angel of the human set. Already they seem appropriately confused, cynical, and frankly silly all at the same time.

While the appeal of the adult-inclined “urban” police drama is surely time-tested (NYPD Blue, the Law & Orders), the youth-oriented version has yet to be secured in any enduring form. Perhaps this is a function of kids — performers and viewers – growing up. Or perhaps the rebel-youth angle can’t be shaped to fit the law-abiding cop model over time. From the resilient New York Undercover to the decidedly less earnest Players and Fast Lane, the search for a reliable hip-hop cop show formula remains unsuccessful. Here again, in Jonny Zero, the mix is shaky, as Frankly G works the charisma angle, the girl’s a wifty cipher, and Random is just flat-out corny.