Rogue 

Rogue debuts tonight on DirecTV's Audience Network at 9 p.m. Eastern.

Rogue feels like a good show. It’s not really, but there’s something bewitching about its aesthetic—Thandie Newton is frail and beautiful, Marton Csokas is brash and swaggering. There are illegal drugs and feverish sexual encounters and long, awkward pauses between characters with unspoken shared histories. The story is simple enough—a woman’s son is murdered, and she is determined to discover why. Yes, she is a boozing, unhinged undercover cop, too improbably attractive to be a mother of two, equally comfortable in a cocktail dress snorting cocaine as she is sprinting down an alleyway evading gunshots, but that just adds to the fun.

It’s hard to figure out exactly what DirecTV is trying to accomplish with Rogue, which blurs the boundaries between crime drama, soap opera, and pulpy action thriller. Certainly the point seems to be primarily to showcase Newton’s physicality—either her beauty, her frailty, or her race and gender. Her appeal is as a taut, strung-out Swiss-army-knife of a character, intent on breaking into cars, hacking into databases, or kissing employers to get what she wants. 

Rogue is less a standalone television show and more a means to an end for its parent channel. It’s more important that the show exists at all—whether or not it exists well, whether or not is well-executed or well-acted, is far less important. But given this caveat, Rogue works remarkably well as an overwrought B-grade action show—not groundbreaking television, but definitely entertaining.

The right word is pulp—and Rogue has it in spades. There’s a splashy romance to every scene, even in its most cliche moments, a fantasy world that will undoubtedly catch a few viewers flipping through channels from a rerun of The Wire to a rerun of The Sopranos. Rogue is not a terribly well-written show, but it is canny—able to find what viewers might like in other shows, and graft them onto the premise of this one.

Besides what it has borrowed, the reason Rogue stands out is because of the strength of its two main characters, Grace Travis and Jimmy Laszlo, played by Newton and Csokas, respectively. Both are action-movie veterans—Newton was in Mission Impossible: II, after all! And Csokas’ first major role was in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy—and their slickness and style comes into play rather well in Rogue, which does not ask for much from its actors beyond vague gestures to a romantic subplot or a mysterious past. The plot is a half-remembered dream most of the audience will already be familiar with, complete with mobsters, gangs, corrupt cops, prostitutes, and the seedy underworld of an American city—in this case, Oakland, California. What makes it feel different is the immediate and eye-catching tension between Grace and Jimmy—a tension that veers quickly from murderous, to protective, to romantic, depending on the situation. The writers, impressively, double down on the pair’s sexual chemistry, right from the get-go. The result is that it’s always unexpected, and finding that kind of thrill in a show is rare, even if the rest of it doesn’t really hold up.

For example: The subplots with Grace’s and Jimmy’s respective families are flimsy at best. The two very different homesteads are designed to characterize our protagonists in some specific way, but each family is cast with progressively less appealing actors, and the internal dynamics of each family never quite feel important. The complaints are so banal: Grace’s family wants to see more of her! Grace is a bad mother, but she means well! It’s character motivations and complex family dynamics reduced to mere words said into thin air, and cable television is so good at family drama that anything that doesn’t measure up is almost embarrassing by comparison. Plus, the Laszlo family is just Sopranos, lite.

Which speaks to the broader point: The entire show is a mishmash of obvious references to other shows. Apparently every crime drama in the modern era has to pay homage to The Wire, but along with that, and the family drama reminiscent of The Sopranos, there’s also the fraught, intense relationship between a male and female protagonist on opposite sides of the supposed line between good and evil, which sounds an awful lot like Homeland. The opening sequence of the pilot, which leads the viewer from Grace’s undercover life to her real one, is strikingly similar to several moments in Alias; and the hard-as-nails woman-on-a-mission thing feels a great deal like Revenge or Scandal. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—after all, if it works, it could work again, and sometimes the retelling of the same story can be even more satisfying.

But—and this is ultimately the show’s biggest problem—Rogue desperately lacks originality. Most of the verve of the show comes from Newton’s performance as a kind of addicted, raging, mom-cop, but that aura will not hold up to multiple episodes, let alone multiple seasons, and on top of that, it’s a character we’ve seen before—and better. Rogue’s idea is a canny one—hitting all the familiar beats of well-liked shows, but without the strong writing and powerful vision those shows had to guide them forward. If you have to copy something, by all means, copy The Sopranos, but it would be better to strike out and do something new.

Rogue has potential to make Grace and Jimmy’s relationship into compelling television, but right now, it’s leaving off those electrifying moments the two share for extended scenes involving a stolen taco truck, Grace’s famous lasagna, and a firebombing of a Chinese restaurant that are just not very compelling. But because the plot is so derivative—and because even the characters of Grace and Jimmy rely so heavily on the notes the viewer expects them to hit, instead of what the writers are actually putting into the scene—there’s a certain emptiness to Rogue, despite all the splash and gore. It’ll work as a kind of pulp fiction, but it’s not even pulpy enough, really.

Stray observations:

  • Realism is not something the show is terribly concerned with—there’s just a veneer of it over the production to give the viewer a sense of adventure. But I did like seeing all the shots of the Bay Bridge.
  • Thandie Newton is incredibly beautiful, at all times.
  • The scene with the prostitute in the Balmoral brings down the second episode, “Fireball,” quite a bit. It’s one thing to have a cop with a thing for prostitutes—but it’s another to throw that scene into the episode just for an opportunity to show some skin. Plus, she smokes crack! She is, definitively, a crackwhore. Sigh.
  • So, the lieutenant’s the mole, right?

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