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Television review: 'Detroit 1-8-7'

Michael Imperioli stars as an emotionally distant detective in the new ABC police series.

September 20, 2010|By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

Michael Imperioli, who was Christopher on "The Sopranos" and a police detective on the American version of "Life on Mars," is back in the station house for "Detroit 1-8-7," premiering Tuesday on ABC. The "187" refers to the section of the California Penal Code that defines homicide, but gangs across the country use it as slang for murder. Way to go, California!

There are a lot of police shows this year, with several new ones joining the many already on the air, a bounty that underscores just how much one procedural drama is like another. "Detroit 1-8-7" was originally conceived to look like a documentary, which would have, at least in one sense, set it apart from the competition, but that idea was killed after the city of Detroit banned camera crews from following its actual officers in the wake of a controversial police shooting, a nod to verisimilitude that seems oddly scrupulous, given the overall product.

Apart from some novel local color — talk of nearby Canada and of Coney dogs, the Detroit version of a chili dog — the main point of interest is Imperioli's Det. Louis Fitch, a 10-year homicide veteran and a man mysterious to all. In the manner of Dr. Gregory House, he's brilliant at a crime scene or in an interview room — he cracks one suspect just by remaining silent — but less adept at ordinary human intercourse. When he has something instructive to say to new partner Jon Michael Hill, he calls him by cellphone, even if they're in the same room. There are hints of psychic damage, but these things are often best left unexplained.

Most of the rest of the cast, though they come in assorted sizes, shapes and colors, has not yet been given the material to make much of an impression, just the superficial tics that too often pass for character nowadays. This detective (James McDaniel) is going to retire and move to Tuscany and so is practicing his Italian; this one ( Natalie Martinez) came from the same mean streets she's now trying to protect; and that one ( Shaun Majumder) declares, "Monogamy is just an untenable construct that's in direct conflict with our species' biological imperative," which is a thing that a writer is more apt to write than a person is to say. And they all get to share in such prefab dialogue as "This thing was personal, not professional" and "You really miss her, don't you?" There is also a hot coroner who skates roller derby in her off hours.

Far from resembling a documentary, except in its swaying camerawork, "Detroit 1-8-7" is, rather than a slice of life, very much a slab of TV. And yet, as currently constituted, the show's only way forward is through the unlikely Fitch; his emotional awkwardness is more interesting than the cases he works. Imperioli fortunately doesn't oversell the character, even when the script encourages him to: Scenes are written to highlight the fact that he's dark and strange. Other cops point it out; he says it himself. Put-upon colleague John Stone (D.J. Cotrona): "I'm not going to keep playing nice waiting for you to lighten up." Fitch: "This is me, lightened up."

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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