One of the better moments in “True Detective” Season 3 is when an aged Wayne “Purple” Hays (Mahershala Ali) looks at Roland “I’m a Feminist” West (Stephen Dorff) and begs his former partner to “stir some shit up with me.” It’s the kind of favor only former lawmen can ask of each other — one last ride, for old time’s sake, off the books — and it’s also the kind of scene that perfectly prepped Dorff for duty in “Deputy.”
Fox’s new cop drama feels like a natural continuation of the star’s work in Nic Pizzolatto’s beloved HBO series. Once again, Dorff is given a shield and a gun. Once again, he’s playing a good ol’ boy who doesn’t let bureaucratic red tape get in the way of justice. Once again, I can’t stop humming “Old Town Road” every time Dorff swaggers into frame, either on the back of a horse or driving a 20-year-old truck.
When “Deputy” leans into its star’s rebellious charms, it clicks. Even better is when Dorff’s country-bred sheriff usurps expectations, whether it’s by skipping an offensive joke or taking a progressive political stance. But for as often as Bill Hollister’s attitudes buck convention, the show around him embraces them. “Deputy” is a very conventional police procedural, bolstered by its rambunctious lead and hampered by a disinterest in embodying his renegade spirit.
Directed and executive produced by David Ayer (and created by Will Beall, with Kimberly Harrison as showrunner), “Deputy” should be easily recognizable to anyone familiar with the director’s oeuvre. “Training Day,” “End of Watch,” and his attitude-forward action flick “Sabotage” all come to mind once you notice the shifty handheld cameras capturing a gritty, washed-out Los Angeles. But the series should also be easily recognizable to anyone who’s seen a single show about cops over the past 20 years. Bill Hollister (Dorff) is the no-nonsense hero, leading a rag-tag squad of loyal officers who believe in their oath almost as much as their commanding officer.
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The first episode introduces the thin, distinguishing premise: Hollister, a chaotic, headache-inducing, white hat-wearing deputy, gets an unlikely promotion when the elected sheriff dies and an arcane city statuette elevates the oldest ranking officer to his office. By broadcast standards, that somewhat literal interpretation of a modern western works well enough — hell, watching Stephen Dorff ride a horse around Los Angeles is all we really need to buy in — but the following two episodes provided for review are ripped straight from the police procedural playbook. Hollister goes after his lawbreaking white whale in Episode 2 and then leads a city-wide pursuit of a cop killer in Episode 3: two cases of vengeance, one personal, the other professional, both of which help prove Hollister won’t let anyone or anything get in the way of justice.
Unfortunately, all three entries are as predictable as they are fine with being predictable. “Deputy” doesn’t give off so much as a whiff that it wants to be more than a by-the-book, case-of-the-week cop drama. Hollister speaks in platitudes (already well-documented on social media) and his actions are so pre-determined that his surly demeanor might stem from knowing he’s in a cliched cop show and can’t do anything about it.
That being said, all that formula makes for a solid foundation. If you miss “Lethal Weapon,” “The Following,” or any other old Fox cop show, then “Deputy” will fill that void just fine. Moreover, there are a few welcome surprises, mainly in the pilot. For one, Hollister may be a cowboy with a Southern drawl, but he’s no red state stereotype. The first thing his bosses berate him for is ratting out an ICE raid, and he doubles down on his pro-immigrant position later in the pilot. Also, when he’s saddled with a personal security officer, chauffeur, and de facto partner — who’s also a young, butch, lesbian — Hollister doesn’t crack jokes about her haircut or feign ignorance about her love life. He makes quips about her size, which he should, because the audience has to believe Brianna Bishop (Bex Taylor-Klaus) can protect a man twice her weight just as much as the man does.
These are little things, but they add up. Hollister’s casual use of Spanish and strict censure of police misconduct go a long way, given that “Deputy” could’ve catered exclusively to the conservative Fox news crowd. Instead, it’s a touch more open-minded, and the action scenes are solid to boot. Sure, it would be nice to see Dorff & Co. try to stir up a little more trouble, but there are certainly worse cop dramas on the air right now — and only one can literally take its horse down the old town road.
“Deputy” premieres Thursday, January 2 at 9 p.m. ET on Fox.