Shades of Blue isn't a deep show, but it's a sensationally effective one. It knows what it is (a compacted, melodramatic, commercial-TV-friendly gloss on one of those ’70s and ’80s Sidney Lumet police-corruption thrillers) and it rarely steps wrong. The strong acting helps a lot — most of the show's regulars hail from the Sopranos–Scorsese–Elmore Leonard circles of East Coast casting — but its real strength is its keen moral compass. It has a message, but it's not so much a cautionary tale as a piece of common sense. Something like: Always tell the truth because it's the easiest thing to remember.
That's a pretty depressing baseline reason for living an ethical life, but the show's central squad, led by Lt. Bill Wozniak (Ray Liotta) and his strong right hand, Det. Harlee Santos (Jennifer Lopez), would never embrace it anyway; it's too late for them. When we meet the pair, they're already hypocrites that justify their bribe-taking and other criminal schemes on the grounds that (a) they're just going beyond the written law to keep their precinct safe, and (b) their official pay rate can't support a comfortable life in New York City and all of the ancillary responsibilities that come with having a family. Santos has a daughter in a private prep school, and Wozniak tantalizes her with the promise of a scheme that will net all of them "Juilliard-type money." Another squad member, played by The Sopranos's Drea de Matteo, casually drops the fact that her husband just joined a hip and presumably pricey health club. Spartans for the law these folks ain't. They're not as intriguingly nasty as the bad cops of The Shield — not that NBC would allow them to descend to those depths — but they're a bad bunch, nearly irredeemable despite all of the moral exemptions they constantly carve out for themselves. During the first half of tonight's pilot you might wonder if there's anything to latch onto in the way of empathy.
There really isn't — this is a hardboiled story set on very mean streets, with Liotta weaving another variation on characters he's played in Unlawful Entry, Copland, and Narc. But it doesn't hurt Shades of Blue because it's an unabashedly plot-driven show in which moral, philosophical, and emotional crises are mainly gears driving the motors of a clockwork story. One of the cops in this squad is going to turn and start wearing a wire for the FBI — although a lot of reviews have already given it away, I'd rather not say who — and once that happens, the show circles back around to this idea of the truth being the easiest thing to remember, and suddenly the story is on rails, moving relentlessly forward (even though it's framed as a tale told after-the-fact). Every hour of every day, these cops either do something unethical or flat-out evil that requires the creation of an intricate cover story, or else find themselves confronted by an FBI agent, internal-affairs officer, or comparatively clean colleague who wants to know about this or that event. Once that happens, a baseline tension reasserts itself because you know that at some point one of these characters is going to miss a detail, or forget a nonexistent fact, or fail to produce a bit of evidence, and then it'll be adios for all of them.
The whole cast is pretty much perfect for the story Shades of Blue is trying to tell. Lopez makes a fine lead — she's tough and unsentimental here, and even though they've made her look gorgeous, you don't necessarily think of her as a glamorous character. But it's Liotta's show. Nobody conveys steely menace more believably. The gravelly voice, the flinty stare, that broken wind-up toy strut, all feed the sense of Wozniak as a coiled cobra who will bite anybody who moves the wrong way. Series creator Adi Hasak and co-producer Barry Levinson (who directed the first two episodes) keep tightening the screws. You know how things have to end, but getting there should be an especially hellish kind of fun.