The first shot in K-Ville remembers the storm. A white man bursts up through flooding waters, gasping for air, his face twisted in panic. “New Orleans,” reads the title card. “September 1, 2005.” Going forward, you might forget this shot, but it’s important, not only to the premiere episode’s plot, but also to its tangle of race and politics, as these are framed by the storm and its aftermath. More water shows up in the next shot, introducing New Orleans police officer Marlin Boulet (Anthony Anderson) as he struggles to rescue citizens from flooded streets and homes. Determined if overwhelmed, Marlin nobly manages the horrors multiplying all around him.
His partner, Charlie (Derek Webster), is less composed. “I had to shoot a dog,” he confesses, “It was chewing on one of the bodies. I was thinking, you know, if it was that hungry, it might start on someone else alive.” In that undone moment, Charlie embodies all the irrational, fearful, and ineffective responses to Katrina, official and individual. While it’s a lot to dump onto a single character, Charlie also provides Marlin’s point of emotional departure: for the rest of the episode, he will be haunted by the image of Charlie jumping into his car and driving off in a splash of water and darkening daylight. The camera on Marlin pulls out in that “you are alone in the universe” sort of way, hectic and harrowing, his private pain signifying everyone else’s.
“Two Years Later,” K-Ville begins again, still focused on Marlin’s pain, refracted into the many shards left by the storm. As the camera pans over devastated houses and sidewalks, Pitbull raps, “Where we fight for freedom, / If it ain’t about oil, then we don’t need ’em,” underscoring the point that too little has been done to restore New Orleans’ impoverished areas. Again and again, the series highlights these areas, making visible the injustices and political gaming that continue to afflict the area. Infuriated by what he sees — right out his kitchen window — Marlin absorbs and projects the anguish of his community. And because he’s played by Anthony Anderson, at once credible and intricate, Marlin almost pulls it off.
Marlin’s immediate concern is his neighborhood, literally: “Now’s not the time to be bailin’ on the Upper Nine,” he asserts. When he spots young Elvin (Stephen Edmond) digging up a cypress tree, Marlin roars out the door to stop him. “You a tree thief now?”, he yelps. The kid admits he’s been stealing and reselling trees and shrubs: “People gotta landscape,” he explains, a U.S. flag flying high in the background over his head. And people have to earn money, have lives, and create a sense of order. None of it is easy in New Orleans. Marlin is devoted to the law and straight lines, except when he sees those lines as unfair to people in need. In those cases, post-Katrina, he develops his own moral code, making him selectively judgmental: he frowns when he learns his neighbor Kaja (Fahnlohnee Harris) has bought a car with “two FEMA checks,” but understands.
The primary problem for Marlin and K-Ville lies in its buddy-cop show checklist. On the job, he confronts “the new partner thing,” because, for all its interesting local details and race politics, K-Ville is a generic project. Cobb (lumpy Cole Hauser) provides the other half of a predictable dynamic, being white, an outsider, and possessed of a highly-trained-up background helpfully enumerated by Captain Embry (John Carroll Lynch): an ex-Army Ranger who “did Special Ops two years near Kandahar.”
The pair go on to fight or collaborate, depending on what’s expedient for the plot, their combined skills solving the crime of the week. In the first episode, Cobb provides a valuable reading of “bullet patterns” at a crime scene while Marlin intuits the shady dealings by a security firm, staffed by “Gulf War vets turned mercenaries,” currently overseeing surveillance at a large casino.
Granted, the shadiness is pretty much announced by the facts that the firm is called Black River (read: Blackwater) and is headed by a very shifty-looking Gordon Wix (William Mapother). Embry again provides the exposition: the company “happens to be employed by our federal government. They got FEMA projects, they supplement our troops in Iraq, they also give millions in campaign contributions to a particular political party.” In other words, they’re all that’s wrong with contracting to weapons-bearing “outsiders.” And they’re the episode’s most visible effort to tap existing controversies as the basis for its conventional plot: local entrepreneurial corruption, federal oversight lapses, and deep-seated racism exacerbated by recent events. This plot is not uninteresting, but it also occasions some standard-seeming slam-bang action sequences, punctuations that don’t develop character so much as they take up time: crashing cars, lots of gunfire, and very few citizens or other cops in sight.
Also expected, Marlin’s personal investment involves his family, referenced here in the most cursory way. His ex-wife Ayana (Elise Neal) and daughter Tawni (Jiya Fowler) show up for a few minutes, so the villains can threaten them and send Marlin over an edge. This much is manifest in the first episode’s most striking and anomalous moment, when Marlin faces off with Wix in the interrogation room. While the detective doesn’t solicit any information, the scene compares surviving Katrina to surviving war. While jaunty rent-a-killer Wix makes fun of Marlin’s suspicions (“I don’t mean to be rude, but if we wanted to be assassins, we’d go to the Congo or Syria. They pay a lot better”), he also remarks Marlin’s severe pain and trauma: “I’ve been in a lot of wars, seen a lot of things. Your eyes right now? They’re the eyes of a soldier who’s on the verge of a breakdown, a man who’s not gonna last. So with respect, you ought to consider a vacation.” The camera closes on Marlin’s eyes, a single beadlet of sweat tracing down his forehead. He does look a little scary.
Still, it’s not clear just how far into that breakdown Marlin is headed. For dramatic purposes, as The Shield, Damages, and Rescue Me (all basic cable/FX shows, as opposed to network/Fox shows) have underlined, the more wrecked a protagonist, the better. Marlin so far looks to have risen above the ordeal of the storm, but the end of the first episode indicates that he is, indeed, wounded to the point of collapse. A stunningly convenient/contrived discovery reveals not only a secret in Cobb’s past that makes him indebted to Marlin, but also that Marlin’s commitment to legal niceties is not so hardcore as it may have seemed.
For all its cop-show banalities, K-Ville still brings a couple of crucial changeups: the mesmeric Anderson and the still roiling storm. And if it the first episode overkills the point by closing with Vaughan Penn’s cover of “Who’ll Stop the Rain?”, it also promises that Katrina, still central to so many people’s lives, will remain central in this little bit of weekly TV as well.