Elmore Leonard doesn’t make adaptations easy. The many successful films and one great TV show produced from the renowned author’s work seem to indicate otherwise, but for every “Out of Sight” and “Justified,” there’s a “Killshot” and “Karen Sisco.”
Now, after a hailed novel and two feature films, “Get Shorty” becomes the latest Leonard crime story to get the series treatment, and it’s a lot closer in quality to its titular inspiration than its lesser sequel, “Be Cool.” But aside from being pretty darn good, this take goes its own way.
Anyone familiar with the 1990 book or 1995 film will certainly recognize the plot, but creator Davey Holmes’ new show isn’t doing an impression; not on any level. From the casting to the construction, this version of “Get Shorty” is its own beast. The hour-long drama may not be the next big breakout in the golden age of TV, but it’s an engaging, well-told tale of two businesses with troubling moral parallels and two men who represent both sides.
Chris O’Dowd takes on lead duties as Miles Daly, a long-time enforcer for a crime lord stationed just outside of Las Vegas. Miles spends his nights recouping investments and burying the bodies of those unable to pay up, but he starts to consider a change in professions when his family deems him too unsafe to be around.
His latest assignment leads him to a writer, that writer leaves him with a script, and from there, Miles is all about the movie business. His two worlds collide in unexpected ways, tying his passion project to his former profession, but Ray Romano’s Rick Moreweather proves the most consistently rewarding addition to his life. Not only is Rick a producer with the means and motivation needed to get Miles’ script off the ground, but Romano continues to impress with his post “Raymond” dramatic work.
His comic timing remains impeccable, but his shrugging, self-deprecating sense of humor plays perfectly into a beaten down dreamer who’s been scrounging the bottom of the artistic barrel just to stay in the business. Now, he’s got a good script again, and his internal conflict — constantly torn between using his old dirty tricks and doing it the right way one more time — is carefully doled out by Romano.
He’s not around as often as O’Dowd, and that’s fine – mainly because the Irish lead is even more impressive, but also because the supporting players are very well cast. A few bigger names will catch your eye, including Topher Grace (who, between this, “Ocean’s 11,” and “Robot Chicken,” is making a career out of spoofing his self-image) and Alan Arkin (the father of executive producer and director Adam Arkin).
Just don’t sleep on the fresh faces. Sean Bridgers (“Rectify”), as Miles’ partner-in-crime, makes the most of his character’s fish-out-of-water experience, and Goya Robles (“11:55”), who plays the crime lord’s right-hand-man Yago, infuses a wannabe bad boy with the right amount of pathos during brief, pensive moments. Billy Magnussen deserves credit, as well, for bringing such pure, youthful exuberance to an up-and-coming actor forced to survive via dark deeds.
But back to O’Dowd: A cultish favorite from “The IT Crowd” and various European TV shows, O’Dowd has yet to break big in America. He has his fans, to be sure, and has snagged a number of choice roles in studio blockbusters. “Get Shorty” isn’t likely to be what pushes him into true stardom, either. It’s distributor lacks the necessary name recognition, and the show — for as much as it would like to be — isn’t as groundbreaking as “Fargo.”
O’Dowd, however, very much is. The producers wisely let him keep his lovely Irish accent rather than forcing a brutish American backstory on his character. The accent serves to help separate Miles Daly from Chili Palmer, who originated in the book (and was played by John Travolta in the movie), but O’Dowd’s choices go much further in distinguishing his mobster-turned-movie-producer from past incarnations. His confidence isn’t embodied in a slick smile or consistent swagger. It’s that kind of exhausted, “been there, done that” understanding that’s earned from experience.
Miles knows bullshit when he hears it and doesn’t acknowledge the glitz and glamour intimidation of showbusiness. He recognizes it as a sign of inclusion and figures out how to use that to his advantage. The game is the game, be it in the back alley of a casino or the backlot of Paramount. He’s not out of his element in Hollywood. He knows this is his element.
It’s this perception of the “Get Shorty” story that makes the series tick. The movie mined misunderstandings and intimidation tactics for quite a few jokes about the movie business and the mob. It worked well, and Travolta’s take on Chili Palmer — a great white among a sea of toothless sharks — fit because the character didn’t. Apropos of television, the series knows it’s playing the long game. Miles cons his way into the biz through sheer will and a bit of luck; not unlike the romanticized Hollywood success story. He had to fight to get in, but he belongs in the water and he’s swimming well.
The Epix series is a dark comedy told at the length of a traditional drama. That it works as all three is why it works at all: This “Get Shorty” isn’t like the others.
“Get Shorty” premieres Sunday, August 13 at 10 p.m. on Epix. The first three episodes are streaming now for free online.