On the one hand, it should come as no surprise that a TV spinoff of a 1990s action movie franchise is reverse engineered from a semi-successful TV spinoff of a 1980s action movie franchise. “L.A.’s Finest” looks a lot like Fox’s “Lethal Weapon” — there’s the loyal-but-edgy partner dynamic, the crazy action scenes, the hourlong, case-of-the-week structuring, the lead characters’ loner and family woman archetypes — even the spouse’s profession is the same. (Though “L.A.’s Finest” never explains how an LAPD detective and an assistant district attorney afford a freaking mansion near downtown Los Angeles — more on that later.)
But “Lethal Weapon” premiered on a well-established, freely accessible broadcast network. Its ratings success makes sense given the continued demand for procedural dramas from audiences who still tune-in for live TV (or keep up via their DVRs). “L.A.’s Finest” is launching Spectrum Originals, a new original programming service available through video on-demand to Charter Spectrum customers only. That means this first offering is meant to keep current subscribers happy, draw new subscribers to Spectrum, or both — and after three episodes, it’s hard to believe such a familiar cop drama will do either.
Let’s go over the core of Spectrum’s pitch, also known as what’s going on in “L.A. Finest”: For one, the series is only loosely tied to the “Bad Boys” franchise. Gabrielle Union reprises her role as Syd Burnett, who was first introduced in “Bad Boys II” as the sister to Martin Lawrence’s Marcus Burnett and secret girlfriend to his partner, Mike, played by Will Smith. In the sequel Roger Ebert called “a bloated, unpleasant assembly-line extrusion,” Syd was an undercover DEA agent on assignment in Miami, but she’s now part of the LAPD after an unspecified fallout in Florida.
As far as “Bad Boys” tie-ins go, that’s it. Sure, someone says “this shit just got real” and pilot director Anton Cropper dutifully mimics Michael Bay’s spinning 360-degree shot, but the former feels forced and the latter is mistimed, ending on the back of the speaker’s head as he delivers some cool-guy police jargon. (Bless you, Evan Handler, an always welcome presence, but this isn’t your role.) “L.A.’s Finest” has about as much of a chance at attracting die-hard “Bad Boys” fans as that fandom does of filling up a high school basketball arena.
With a limited brand audience, the series brings in Jessica Alba to help boost interest. It’s not that Gabrielle Union lacks fans — she’s the best! — but this duo needs to measure up to Smith and Lawrence’s ’90s era stature, so why not enlist the battle-tested, ex-Dark Angel (another remnant of pre-Disney Fox)? Alba plays Nancy McKenna, an ex-Navy car enthusiast and gun specialist who’s now a no-bullshit detective and cool mom. She wears unbuttoned, thin, cape-length sweaters that billow behind her as she shoots at bad guys, and she looks pretty cool… even if the nagging impracticality of her fashion seems even more glaring next to her multi-pocketed, cargo pants-sporting partner.
And the impracticalities stack up. Unlike “Lethal Weapon,” where Murtaugh (Damon Wayans) is married to a high-end attorney at a private practice, there’s no explanation for the McKenna’s expensive lifestyle. And the pilot’s climactic moment is one of those “this only seems possible in slo-motion” kind of choices where everyone should be dead instead of walking away unscratched. But this is a procedural, and those who like these kind of shows are usually ready to forgive such leaps of logic as long as the witty banter is catchy enough and the action scenes plentiful. “L.A.’s Finest” gets the second part right, but the chemistry isn’t comparable to Wayans and Seann William Scott, let alone Smith and Lawrence.
To its credit, “L.A.’s Finest” gives both its leads complex histories that are called on early to provide added twist appeal to the series. The action is competent and consistent, while reducing the supporting male cops to a joke — both Zach Gilford and Duane Martin play detectives named Ben — makes for a cute commentary on the series’ gender role reversal. (Twenty years ago, the men would be the leads and the women would be the one-dimensional support — kind of like the “Bad Boys” movies!)
Still, the show doesn’t get that much credit for its feminist bona fides, thanks to tone deaf moments like when a professional investigator takes the blame for her son’s kidnapping because she pissed off a cartel by, um, doing her job. As she cries and says it’s all her fault, the police commissioner silently endorses her assumption instead of saying, “Hey, thanks for finding and exposing the bad guys! That’s exactly what you were hired to do!”
Anyone who’s already a Spectrum subscriber, and who’s already interested in “L.A.’s Finest,” and who’s already made the time to read this much of the review, well, you’ll probably forgive these kind of faux pas. But everyone can find another show exactly like this one on Fox or other broadcast networks, USA or other cable outlets, and even streaming services. They don’t need Spectrum for this kind of show, and this specific show doesn’t do much to make it feel needed at all.
“L.A.’s Finest” premieres Monday, May 13 exclusively on Spectrum’s On Demand platform.