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TV Review: The Stealthy, Noir-y Charms of Terriers

Logue and Raymond-James

I’d heard buzz about FX’s new series Terriers, but for the first two episodes, I was baffled. Sure, I like Donal Logue, with his shaggy noggin, Tao of Steve cred, and that name out of Nabokov. I appreciate a good, gritty detective drama as much as the next dame. But Terriers didn’t seem like anything special — just your run-of-the-mill crime procedural, about an ex-con and an ex-cop teaming up to solve cases in San Diego. And I’ve developed a serious allergy to procedurals.

Then I saw episode three and got it. Terriers isn't a crime procedural after all: That was just its TV disguise. It's actually smart noir, complete with a dark conspiracy arc and a taste for kink. Indeed, what the show has pulled off is beginning to look like one of the more effective stealth techniques out there: look like a procedural so you don't scare viewers away, then sneak in something more interesting.

On both network and cable, the schedule overflows with slicker subgenres of procedurals: the lighter, comedic variety (Castle, Bones, Royal Pains); those starring quirky-or-alienating antiheroes (House, Monk, Lie to Me); the full-on, necro-porn rape-fest (CSI); and the soap-dish romance (Grey's Anatomy). None of them, whether fun or gross, takes themselves particularly seriously, and we're not meant to either.

But perhaps because TV creators are so endlessly pressured to produce them, the genre has also become the scaffolding beneath some of the most subversive TV, including The Wire, which exploded and exploited the genre all at once. Or Dexter, which adopts a stylized criminal's-eye view to say something deeper about masculinity and violence. Such ambition doesn't always work: Dollhouse attempted something admirably insane with the format — Charlie's Angels as radical feminist zombie dreamscape? — but found its tone too late. (Occasionally a series goes in the opposite direction. I liked the first two episodes of the BBC's upcoming Luther, starring The Wire's Idris Elba, but the third had a plot so exploitative, it hardened my heart to the show.)

Terriers isn't The Wire, but it's got the potential to be more than eye-candy. If it sticks around, it could be a success story much like The Good Wife, which has grabbed viewers with its L.A. Law looks, then kept them around with moral complexity and elegant performances. And now that I think of it, maybe one reason the brilliant-but-canceled Lone Star didn't attract an audience was its lack of a case-of-the-week structure — which is both understandable and alarming. As much as I admire the procedural-as–Trojan horse technique, I'd hate to think that's the one way a show can get traction.

Anyway, watch Terriers. Logue plays Hank Dolworth, a recovering-alcoholic private dick. He's rattling around in his ex-wife's house, the one he bought on a masochistic whim. ("Of all the rats in the world, I had to have a cheese snob," he moans, hovering over an empty mousetrap.) His life is a mess of cases gone sour and, as of episode four, he gets caught in a criminal tangle that might stump the brain trust over at Rubicon, complete with corpses in the attic, mysterious documents, and the shifting motives of almost everyone he knows. The Elmore Leonard–esque ensemble includes Michael Raymond-James as Logue's petty-thief partner Britt, and a fabulous array of scheming, crazy, and/or vulnerable, noir-worthy broads: from Britt's savvy girlfriend (Laura Allen) to Logue's unstable tech-genius sister (Karina Logue, Donal's real-life sister) to his tragic love interest (Olivia Williams).

When I say noir, I don't mean it in the campy or darkly comedic sense of HBO's Bored to Death. Terriers takes its characters' moral lives seriously, without ever being pompous. Hank is a recognizable TV-detective figure, with his hangdog weariness, but he's got a California charm all his own. And as of episode four, I want him — and the show — to get away with murder.

Photo: FX