J.Lo’s new character is a tough, complicated detective who slaps down bar pickup lines (“I don’t do witty banter”), can hold her own in a fight — and is as good at taking bribes as she is at protecting little kids from seeing bad things happen. On NBC’s “Shades of Blue,” her Harlee Santos seems, in the show’s best moments, like a corrupt relative of her 1998 “Out of Sight” character Karen Sisco, which remains Lopez’s best performance — one I always hope she’d eventually prove wasn’t a fluke.
It’s a welcome return to non-reality TV for the singer/actress, who hasn’t done this (barring a couple of guest spots, including on “How I Met Your Mother”) in two decades. And with the first two episodes directed by Barry Levinson, Lopez (and crime-show) fans have lots of reason for hope. Can we put “The Boy Next Door,” “Maid in Manhattan” and all the rest of Lopez’s bad casting choices behind us, finally? Can J.Lo become this year’s Matthew McConaughey and reinvent her acting career with an ace turn in a broody crime series?
Unfortunately, the rest of this show, from creator Adi Hasak (“3 Days to Kill”), struggles to be worthy of its star, and mostly comes up short. Other than Ray Liotta, who plays Santos’ crooked but loyal boss Wozniak in a slight twist on the character he always seems to play, everyone else here (including Drea de Matteo, as well as Santino Fontana of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”) is a stick figure. And the show’s dialogue, which aims for noir, is often groan-worthy: “One slip at the wrong time, and we all go tumbling down,” Liotta’s character warns Lopez. “And I don’t tumble well.” Or my favorite (also Liotta): “Every betrayal begins with trust!” Well, yes. Duh.
But at every turn, there’s J.Lo, outshining everything around her and making you wonder what this series could have been in different, more creative hands (and on a prime cable network, where most of the edgiest storytelling is happening these days). The series starts strong, with Santos and her new partner (Dayo Okeniyi) arriving at a drug bust, whereupon the rookie accidentally kills an unarmed man. Santos coolly covers up for him, explaining to her shaken partner that “the truth is in the paperwork.”
“Shades of Blue” takes every opportunity to showcase Lopez’s glamorous grit, including a scene in which she trains intensely with a boxing sparring partner and eventually straddles him, segueing directly into a tryst in the (deserted, I guess?) gym. “That wasn’t a date,” she reminds him as she’s leaving the locker room. J.Lo takes what she wants! Awesome!
Unfortunately, most of what makes her character interesting — the dichotomy between her being really good at and emotionally invested in her job as a protector of the public, while being involved in a kickback ring with other detectives — is too easily explained away with moralizing. Everything this detective does, she does for an altruistic reason (her teenage daughter). So when she’s nabbed by the FBI and made into a mole, her only chance to continue life as a functioning single mom (and not a convict) is to comply. These are easy rationales to get on board with, but they don’t make this show, or Santos, all that compelling.
Nor does the supposed cat-and-mouse element of the show, where we watch as Woz starts to think there’s a rat in his crew and Santos struggles to keep it together to seem like the loyalist she’s always been. It’s a conceit that a) we’ve seen a million times before and b) could easily be contained in a 90-minute film. What’s more, the show seems to get increasingly lazy about how the FBI sting works; Santos is forever getting hauled out of work to hop into a SUV or a nearby bathroom for a chat. These are veteran detectives she works with; presumably, someone’s going to notice that pretty quickly.
Moreover, as the show moves forward, both Lopez and Drea de Matteo, the only women of note in this macho series, increasingly seem like constant victims of bad male behavior. Without giving too much away, Santos’ rationale for joining the kickback crew in the first place is tied to an earlier domestic-violence incident. And when she’s roped into the FBI sting, her handler (Warren Kole) is a stalkery creep who manhandles her while putting a wire on her. Meanwhile, de Matteo’s character spends most of her onscreen time complaining that her husband is cheating on her and wondering how to save the marriage. One assumes that both of these storylines will eventually be resolved with some sort of (probably violent) vengeance, but it’s still depressing to see both of these strong female actresses stuck in a show that fails the Bechdel test at every turn. What might this show have been in a female showrunner’s hands?
Ultimately, Lopez’s performance still proves she’s ready for something great. Why not get her in one of those increasingly popular auteur miniseries, a “True Detective” or “The Fall”? She’s clearly got a taste for the genre, and she could do wonders collaborating with a showrunner who aims to subvert, rather than echo, the crime-show paces we all know by heart.