Nowhere is it written that you cannot take a national tragedy and use it as a backdrop for a TV series. And that's a good thing -- what would television be without "MASH"? But if you do, it would be wise to pause and quietly reflect, to consider whether your characters, subject matter, perhaps even genre, are up to the task. As tempting as it might be, tearing your pathos straight from the headlines comes with a price: Your show will be judged not only on its own merits, but also on how it measures up against the significance of the event.
In other words, if you want to explore post-Katrina New Orleans in a dramatic and meaningful way, think of something more sophisticated than a mediocre cop show. Because although cultural and historical significance can make a good show great, it can also make a not-great show terrible.
Which brings us most unfortunately to Fox's "K-Ville."
As noble as his intentions may have been, creator Jonathan Lisco ("NYPD Blue," "The District") did not spend nearly enough time in the above-mentioned quiet reflection. Or even the editing room. Otherwise, he would have realized that his apparent desire to capture the grim if inspiring reality of those rebuilding the Big Easy was directly at odds with his other apparent desire: to make a shoot-'em-up, car-chase-friendly cop serial with, at least in the pilot, cases tied up as neatly as any "Columbo" episode.
So, perhaps Fox should have waited until all the moving documentaries had cycled through.
"K-ville" opens in the midst of Katrina's devastation as police Officer Marlin Boulet (Anthony Anderson) vainly tries to help the wounded and displaced while attempting to talk his partner Chuck through a mental breakdown. In this he fails and Chuck takes off, abandoning Marlin to the water and the anguish. Cut to two years later; Marlin is one determined and angry cop: determined to rebuild his city, in particular his neighborhood, the Ninth Ward, and angry at everyone, including his wife, who would rather leave.
"Look around," his wife tells him. "Half this city still reeks of mold and toxic sludge. The schools are even worse, and the crime. Baby, it's not the same place and it's never going to be."
"It will be if we fight for it," is Marlin's reply. And that's as deep as it gets.
But first, the man needs a partner, and he gets one in the form of Trevor Cobb (Cole Hauser), a former "special-ops" soldier (are there any other kind on TV?) who curiously seems to know the city pretty well for a non-native. As they establish their requisite odd-coupleness while providing security for a fundraiser for the Ninth (local boy Marlin loves his bourbon; uptight outsider Cobb doesn't drink on duty), a singer is shot and killed. Who would do such a thing?
Meanwhile, as he fights to persuade his wife to stay in their home despite their young daughter's horrific memories of the hurricane, Marlin also must deal with his former partner's attempts to prove that he is worth redemption. Or at least a half-decent job recommendation. "My friend. How far do you want me to fall?" Chuck asks. A little farther, it would seem.
With all this going on, it's no surprise that Marlin gets a little wound up, breaks a few rules, makes a few illegal arrests etc. and generally behaves like every maverick cop on every cop show ever. Meanwhile, the patent disrespect shown for anything resembling real police work wastes the talent of the supporting cast, especially the always solid John Carroll Lynch, who plays Capt. James Embry.
Lost in all the plot and character contrivance is any sense of the city -- a few gumbo and bourbon references are most certainly not enough. This seemingly determined lack of evocation not only makes the choice of setting seem manipulative -- it isn't cool to use a devastated city as a "hook" -- but it also undermines "K-Ville's" main character. To understand why Marlin is fighting so hard to save his city, we must understand his city.
There is one moment when poetry seems possible. Spotting a neighbor boy stealing shrubbery, Marlin answers the kid's "It's just a tree, man" with a paean to what has been lost. "A cypress tree. My favorite tree," he says in the swinging tones of an angry preacher. "It used to grow throughout this city until the storm threw salt and chemicals all over it. So if I see you digging up another one, I will personally bury you under it."
But then we are back to bourbon and gumbo, shootouts and car chases that could be in any city and criminals who monologue as precisely and conveniently as the villains in "Scooby-Doo." Which would have never dared set an episode in K-Ville.
When: 9 to 10 tonight
Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and violence)