Boston's Finest

Boston's Finest debuts tonight on TNT at 9 p.m. Eastern.

On a surface level, all you need to get out of Boston’s Finest, premiering tonight on TNT, lies in its title. This isn’t propaganda posing as reality television, but there’s the persistent sense that executive producer Donnie Wahlberg wanted to honor the city’s police force without delving into anything that might make them look bad in the process. There’s a show to be made about the less savory aspects of any city’s police force, to be sure. Boston’s Finest isn’t one of them, but that’s also not the show’s aim. Luckily, what this show attempts to achieve it more or less does, and does to interesting affect.

Above all, Boston’s Finest is reality show as serialized narrative. Yes, the cases laid out in the few first episodes made available for review wrap themselves up within the course of a single hour. But by following a wide swath of officers across a broad spectrum of departments, the show not only allows for different types of cases to be covered, but also a variety of individuals enforcing the law to be covered as well. The program follows gang units, officers tasked with locating fugitives, and beat cops, all of whom combine to cover various parts of Boston and the surrounding neighborhoods. If you’re looking for the stereotypes from Southie Rules to show up, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Yes, the officers identify one criminal on the show by the shamrock on his neck. And yes, The Dropkick Murphys perform the theme song, because of course they do. But by and large, Boston’s Finest does an admirable job of displaying a cross-section of ethnicities on both sides of the law. 

It’s best to think about Boston’s Finest as an attempt to marry the narrative structure of something like Wahlberg’s Blue Bloods to a reality show about Boston police officers. Yes, there are criminals to apprehend, and those criminals give each officer something to solve within each shift on the job. But Finest also follows these officers home, going off-duty in order to illuminate the mindsets of these cops while on-duty. These trips into the domestic lives of these officers have mixed returns in the early hours, but are worthwhile most often that not.

At center stage early on is Jennifer Penton, one of the many soldiers-turned-cops on display in this show. (There’s probably a reality show in that trend in and of itself, but that’s for another time and another show.) Her centrality stems from the ready-made storylines inherent in her life. She has a twin sister, Melissa, who in every respect reflects the road not taken for Jen. Jen has aspirations to work for the drug unit after Melissa succumbed to addiction, had to give up her child for adoption, and subsequently moved in and out of the court system. On top of that drama, Penton also has a male partner with whom she seemingly wants to share more than just a love of justice. Ostensibly, future episodes will turn the focus primarily away from her and onto the other recurring officers in the show. But it’s easy to see why Finest focused on her initially: she’s beautiful, collected, and is articulate about her personal issues as well as her experiences as a female in a predominantly male profession.

The link between Boston’s Finest and other serialized fictional narratives doesn’t stop at the attempt to engage viewers in long-term character arcs. It’s also a fairly gorgeously shot show that occasionally feels more like a scripted show than a non-scripted one due to its production values. Part of this is due simply to technology: the cameras employed by the show are top-notch, capturing deep colors in a world that give Boston as a whole a vibrancy not often captured on film. The cinematography is likewise stellar throughout, not only in terms of the vast coverage it gets of its participants but also in the way the show is edited. There’s a moment late in tonight’s premiere in which the cameras follow a unit into a house after battering down the door, and the way in which Boston’s Finest stitches the footage together conveys the chaos and horror of the moment better than most fictional stagings of similar events.

All of this brings us to the central question: how real is all this? To be sure, there are plenty of times in Boston’s Finest that feel clearly staged in order to achieve either a clean narrative line or at least line up a perfectly framed shot. The dinner date between Penton and her partner Pat Rogers in the premiere is especially egregious in this respect, and feels more at home on a show VH1 or Bravo is probably airing as you read this. Rogers looks appropriately horrified throughout, and it’s unclear if it’s because he’s desperately pretending not to read the signals Penton throws his way or because he can’t stomach the thought of the mockery this scene will engender when it eventually airs.

But if the second hour is any indication, Boston’s Finest wants to show more, not less, of the home lives of its participants. It’s not that crime doesn’t matter on this show, but that crime is often much less interesting than those enforcing it. There’s a good deal of time dealing with the specific ways in which these officers conduct their jobs. But while it’s interesting to learn how a member of the fugitive unit plans to trap someone who has recently escaped a correction facility, the actual execution is a simple step-and-repeat process than ultimately yields a successful (and non-violent) arrest. This speaks wonders about the effectiveness of the BPD, but doesn’t necessarily translate into compelling television.

This, of course, sounds like I’m calling for the people I pass by everyday on the way to work to be thrown into harm’s way for my entertainment. Far from it. I actually enjoy the benign way in which some of these crimes are solved. (Think about these cases in terms of how certain plotlines resolved themselves on The Sopranos, and you’ll get the basic idea .) There’s certainly plenty of danger to be found on this show, where even a routine pull-over can escalate towards a near-death experience at the drop of a hat. It’s a testament to those involved how infrequently things escalate to the point of no return, thanks in large part to their adherence to protocol and careful preparation. But those conditioned by film and television to see crimes solved by out-of-left-field epiphanies or ending in a hail of bullets will be sorely disappointed by the ways in which cases end on Boston’s Finest.

I would argue those people would be barking up the wrong tree here, but I would also argue that the success rate in the early episodes is so high that it’s almost easy to take the skill on display for granted. Tonight’s episode features a fugitive search that gets passed off between shifts, which sparks some friendly rivalry between the two units. But that rivalry isn’t played as anything other than frivolous, and the culprit himself is caught within 24 hours. Perhaps Boston’s Finest would be occasionally be best served not to show these officers at their worst, but at least demonstrate that their success rate isn’t 100%. Sure, it’s fantastic to see three male officers unite to babysit their offspring while their girlfriends/wives enjoy a night out. (I’m a sucker for an officer chasing down gangsters by day who also wears a feather boa at night to impress his daughter. I’m easy like that.) But to see these officers at their finest, we also need to seem them struggle. That will make the triumphs all the sweeter.

Again, that’s a complaint that can be addressed with time and future installments. Since we follow the same core officers in each hour, each can be deepened as the season rolls along. In choosing a few select officers to represent the BPD as a whole, Boston’s Finest has the chance to tell fewer stories with greater depth. Those, in turn, have a much better chance to paint a compelling and complete story of those not on camera. In choosing depth over breadth, and in combining strong elements of both script and non-script programming, Boston’s Finest is a happy surprise that will end up on my weekly watch list. It’s not perfect, but within what it’s trying to do, it has the chance to be something pretty special.

Stray observations:

  • Wahlberg himself narrates the show, but does so in hushed tones that establish the scenarios without calling attention to himself. It’s amusing to hear his Boston accent occasionally slips out (especially when Charlestown becomes the focus of the action), but by and large it’s unobtrusive.
  • The battering ram mentioned above has the message, “May We Come In?” sprain-painted on it.
  • While there are many African-American and Latino cops featured in this show, race relations really aren’t a central topic in these first few hours. But hey, it’s not like Boston has a huge history of insanely back-ass attitudes when it comes to race. Wait, what? Oh. Right. Nevermind.
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