The Good Guys: Stop or My Partner Will Shoot
- Friday, July 23, 2010
Cop shows go back to television's early days. Like Westerns, they were another carryover from radio's programming formats. Dragnet with stoic Joe Friday and his partner was the prototype for the many police procedurals of the decade, such as M Squad and Highway Patrol. Later in the 1960s, N.Y.P.D., Ironside, expanded on the genre and anyone watching TV in the 1970s would recall Starsky and Hutch. The last series was as much a buddy series as a crime show, as the titular police detective heroes drove around in a bright red Ford Torino with a big white racing stripe and were known for their macho attitude.
In the 1980s, crime took a more authentic turn with the coming of the Law & Order franchise, while at the movies the cop buddy genre went large with the Lethal Weapon series and its imitators. By the 1990s, the cliché of the maverick cop who lives by his own rules had become as worn as Starsky's old leather jacket. Critically acclaimed character-driven procedurals like Hill St. Blues and later NYPD Blue were followed by popular team series like the many CSI and NCIS procedurals. So is 2010 the time to revive the buddy cop show?
The Good Guys aims to bring back the appeal of the buddy film by forcing the pairing of two opposite types, a by-the-book suit and a crude, womanizing specimen of the 1980s, preserved in an amber of booze and attitude. Colin Hanks plays the former as Jack Bailey, a 21st century male who is a bit too much of a nebbish to fit in well with the rest of the force. He's saddled with keeping an eye on his veteran partner, Dan Stark (Bradley Whiford), a mustachioed shoot-first-and-ask-no-questions-later rogue still living in the glory days of the 80s but who can't be trusted with challenging cases. (Is "Stark" supposed to remind us of "Starsky?")
The Dallas police department keeps the odd couple detectives assigned to petty property crime cases to keep Stark out of trouble but this bull keeps crashing around ‘til clues are inevitably discovered that lead to a much bigger case. For example, in the pilot, Stark and Bailey are investigating a stolen humidifier and stumble upon a drug smuggling case. About every 5 minutes there's either a blazing gun battle or an explosion, or both -- another emblem of 80s cop buddy movies. In fact, for a comically slanted crime series, The Good Guys is surprising in its casual violence with its colorful villains regularly blowing away their victims. And like the more seriously violent Starsky and Hutch, which had a comic supporting player, Huggy Bear, there's a recurring black character: petty criminal, Julius.
Every episode plays out with a series of time-jumbled plot lines as the picture freeze-frames and a caption appears telling us what happened leading up to the moment. In one episode, the Good Guys are investigating a vending machine break-in when they see a body falling outside the hotel window. Freeze frame— title ("90 seconds earlier")-- and a flashback to the rooftop where a pimp was forcing a hotel manager off the roof. Such scrambling of linear storytelling is a writer's trick to surprise the audience while suggesting the plot is more complicated than it is, and these titles are often accompanied by the sound effect of a gunshot like Law & Order's signature "chhnng-chnng" sound.
Whitford, acclaimed for his acting on The West Wing, plays Stark with gusto, intended to disgust and exasperate Bailey and the viewer, but by the end of the pilot, we see they are starting to grudgingly respect their differing approaches to law enforcement. However, like classic episodic television, no matter how big the case they stumble onto and solve, by next week they are back on petty crimes and each other's nerves.
The dialogue aims to sound clever and funny but the personality clashes are so obvious that it soon feels, like the plot, too formulaic. In an age where the character complexity of even stock characters like bad boy Sawyer on Lost and just about every lead character on a TNT or USA network series shows surprising depth, Bailey and Stark seem two-dimensional. Colin Hanks, playing a priest in Mad Men's second season, showed how good an actor he is. Here, he's reduced to doing something he must surely know reminds us of his dad Tom in any number of earlier roles playing slightly prissy or flustered characters -- like Tom's detective character Turner to Stark's slobby Hooch.
Stark is even given the macho cop's emblem of power, a sporty car, like Starsky and Hutch's Torino, or Miami Vice's Sonny Crockett and his Ferrari, but it's also stuck in the 80s -- a Pontiac Firebird Tran Am, which Stark loves more than life itself or any of the women he makes passes at each week. Bradford, a producer on the show, throws everything he has into the Stark character and it must have looked good in the pilot script, but I found the macho man shtick grew tiresome quickly. Maybe the buddy-cop show is better left in the 1980s, if The Good Guys is what it looks like in the 21st century. These two guys are simply too derivative of a genre that was of its time and they bring nothing new to the table to freshen it up.
Alex Wainer, Ph.D. teaches media and film at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He is a regular contributor to theFish.com.
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