Blue Bloods - "Pilot"

Blue Bloods debuts tonight on CBS at 10 p.m. Eastern.

There's some ineffable quality to Blue Bloods that makes it highly watchable. Maybe it's the fact that it's airing on sleepy Friday night. Maybe it's the use of New York locations. Maybe it's the script by Sopranos veterans Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess. Maybe it's the inestimable powers of Tom Selleck's mustache. Whatever it is, Blue Bloods is a pretty good little show, with fewer failings than selling points. It's not going to enrapture a large audience outside of the usual CBS folks, but it should play fairly well to that audience. Like The Good Wife before it, if you call up your mom, and she's watching this, you can probably feel secure that she's in the safe hands of the Selleck 'stache and some veteran producers (assuming the rumors that Selleck was trying to wrest creative control away from the creators and EPs aren't true).

CBS has spent this fall season quietly dropping a bunch of shows on the air that are sort of like their other shows but just enough different that they seem like stretches for a notoriously cautious network. Mike and Molly was about overweight people. Hawaii Five-0 opted to skew more toward escapist fun than dour crime procedural. The Defenders took a swing at dramedy. $#*! My Dad Says ... well ... that show has William Shatner. And now comes Blue Bloods, which is yet another cop drama but is at least one that blends in almost as much family drama as it does cop stuff. It's the kind of show where a large, valuable part of the show's running time is taken up by a scene where the family sits around a dinner table and talks shop while eating delicious looking roast beef. Green and Burgess bring a sense of tragic history to this that makes it work almost in spite of itself.

Let's start with the fact that the police procedural aspects of the show are more rote than they probably need to be. The pilot has a storyline where the cops chase after a kidnapped little girl who needs her insulin, and it's all very, very by the numbers and maudlin. The initial shot where the little girl is taken - featuring her figure walking behind a white van and then not emerging from the other side - is ruined by an inserted shot of a man scooping her into the van (as if we didn't know already). The investigation is the sort of thing any of the other CBS shows could do in their sleep. In short, detective stories do not seem to be Green and Burgess' strong suit.

That is, it seems this way until roughly the midway point, when the case is suddenly and somewhat abruptly solved (not exactly the norm for CBS). It's here that the central idea of the show - an idea it would be nice to hope the show will continue to pursue - comes into focus. This is the inverse of The Sopranos. If that show was about what it means to be an evil man, Blue Bloods is about heroism, about putting your life on the line for other people and whether there's a line that can be crossed to make a hero into a bad person. In the process of retrieving the little girl, Danny Reagan (CBS' press site lists this as both "Reagan" and "Regan," but I'll go with the former for this piece), eldest son of the Selleck character, engages in a little police brutality. The show's not afraid to skew away from the harshness of what Danny does, and as played by Donnie Wahlberg, the guy is a completely terrifying presence. The series flirts uncomfortably with the idea that what Danny did was justified because it helped in the investigation, but it also puts characters in place to suggest, hey, maybe this isn't all right. That's a slight step from the usual on CBS, where whatever goes so long as the bad guys pay.

So if the police elements of the show aren't the best, why recommend this? Simply, it's because the family drama stuff is solid, though not transcendent. The central device of the show is that all of its characters are in the same family - a family of cops, or at least district attorneys - with the Reagan patriarchs (Selleck as Frank and Len Cariou as Frank's father, Henry) living out on Staten Island and influencing the family as they will. Coincidentally enough, Frank is the police commissioner, picking up where his father left off in the same job some years back. Danny, of course, is a long-time cop. Jamie, the youngest son, was on his way to a promising career in law before he ditched it all to become a police officer after his brother, Joe, died. And sole daughter Erin is a district attorney who runs headfirst into charges of police brutality against her brother.

Burgess and Green work a little too hard to evenly split the family down traditional liberal and conservative lines, particularly when their object lessons in morally questionable moments work better than lengthy debates. But there's also a sense of family history here, of a group of people that have certain obligations to each other but don't always feel the need to live up to those obligations. Erin, played well by Bridget Moynahan, is dealing with being single again. Danny tries to keep his temper under control and raise his kids. Jamie deals with the weight of his brother's legacy. It's a cop show, but it's also a small show about people with relatable problems, like a Parenthood or a thirtysomething.

The problem, then, is that Blue Bloods is probably more of a cable show than a network show. This isn't the case to the degree that it was for Lone Star, but that's largely because CBS has frantically sanded off any subtlety or rough edges as this one has journeyed to the small screen. The opening sequence - set as Frank welcomes hundreds of new police officers to the force - is set to "New York, New York" and then the chorus of "Empire State of Mind," just so you don't forget where you are. As mentioned, the kidnapping sequence shoots the tension it's building in the foot. And the need to have a case of the week keeps things from really focusing on the tensions between family members, which are the most interesting reasons to watch this show.

The success of Blue Bloods, then, is going to lie in how well it can balance the needs of telling a standalone story every week with the needs of telling a compelling family drama about a group of people in pain who don't quite know how to speak about that pain. If this show were on FX, there would be no reason to be concerned that Burgess, Green, and fellow executive producer Leonard Goldberg could turn this into an interesting look at the nature of heroism in the modern age. It would also probably be a much better pilot, rough edges intact. But on CBS, there's every chance that this very quickly veers into a debacle. (It doesn't help that the rumored clashes between Selleck and the writers have led to lots of creative upheaval.) The best case scenario is that this show becomes the next Good Wife, ending up both a compelling procedural and a compelling serialized tale, with Selleck probably landing another Emmy nomination for his troubles. The worst case scenario is that this show becomes like everything else on CBS. Blue Bloods' pilot is good, but it's not good enough to remove that small, nagging doubt that this will all end poorly.

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