Common Law

Common Law debuts tonight on USA at 10 p.m. Eastern.

Say what you will about their original programming, but there aren’t many spots on the television landscape that can match the USA Network’s track record when it comes to A) developing a general tone for all of their series and B) promoting and marketing those series into multi-season success stories. In fact, if my research is accurate, I’m pretty sure the last single-season wonder to grace USA’s schedule was The Starter Wife in 2008, and even that was really more of a season and a half, since the 10-episode series came on the heels of a 5-episode mini-series. You’ve got to admit, that’s pretty damned impressive.

With that said, however, the establishment of a consistent USA “feel” within each and every program does make it rather easy for well-informed channel-surfers with a penchant for more challenging fare to bypass the network altogether. If you’re one of those folks, then you might as well move on to the next review, because Common Law in no way stands out from the pack as a radical reinvention of the USA ethos.

The nutshell synopsis of Common Law goes thusly:  Travis Marks (Michael Ealy) and Wes Mitchell (Warren Kole) are the best detectives in LAPD’s Robbery-Homicide Division, but because their conversations are so prone to devolving into physical altercations, their supervisor, Capt. Phil Sutton (Jack McGee) has sent them to couples therapy, where they talk out their troubles with southern California’s hottest group therapist, Dr. Elyse Ryan (Sonya Walger)…and when I say “hottest,” what I mean to say is that she’s drop-dead gorgeous, and with a British accent to boot.

Those fearing the worst will be pleased to know that, yes, Travis and Wes are mistaken for a gay couple within the first five minutes of the pilot, but I think we can all agree that that was always destined to happen, especially since Dr. Ryan pointedly introduces them to the rest of the group as “partners” without offering further clarification. Mind you, even when it’s underlined throughout the course of the episode that these two guys are about as heterosexual as they come – Wes is separated from his wife because she can’t handle being married to a cop, and Travis is painted as the kind of guy who jumps from bed to bed with the frequency of a cheap ham radio – Common Law never lets up on noting the parallels between their relationship as partners on the police force and most people’s romantic relationships, most notably in how the attempt to better their communication reveals just how little they really know about each other. One can only hope that they’ll find a better happy medium, because it’s way too over-the-top to counter the “it’s like they’re married” dynamic with, say, having them tussle to the point where they go flying through a plate glass window. (And, yes, I know there are some marriages that are like that, too, but you know what I mean.)

So is Common Law just a one-note joke, then? Surprisingly, no. There’s solid comedic chemistry between Ealy and Kole from the first time they’re onscreen together, and they also bounce off each other well whenever they shift into detective mode. Given that executive producer Karim Zreik has gone on record as saying that the walls of the show’s writers’ room are lined with posters for ‘80s buddy comedies, it’s no wonder that there are echoes of Bad Boys, Lethal Weapon, and Running Scared throughout the proceedings. Setting aside her stunning looks, Walger doesn’t make much of an impression – so far, she only seems to exist to help keep Travis and Wes cool, calm, and collected – but McGee is, as always, a total scene stealer. Capt. Sutton is definitely the character to watch in this show, given all the hilarious tidbits about his past that are dropped during the course of his monologues. If McGee doesn’t effectively end up as the series’ third lead, I’ll be very, very surprised.

I haven’t said much about the case that Travis and Wes investigate and solve during the course of the proceedings, but, really, does it matter? There’s not a single crime show on USA where the crimes have anything to do with why viewers are tuning in. It’s about the characters…because, y’know, they’re welcome. (It says so right in the slogan.) What is worth discussing, however, is the way the show looks to be bookending its episodes with “what have we learned this week?” scenes in the guys’ group therapy session. Given that this is only the pilot, it’s hard to know what elements will stick around for the long haul, but let’s hope this one falls by the wayside, as it feels a bit cheesy. As for other characters who may or may not prove to be recurring, it’s a lot of fun watching McGee do battle with Stephanie Childers, who plays a lawyer that’s less than thrilled with Travis and Wes’s inability to keep their cool, and if any of Travis’s exes are going to be turning up on a regular basis, here’s hoping that Alicia Coppola – who plays the coroner – proves to be one of them.

For those looking to store shows in the simplest box possible, yes, Common Law is technically just another USA Network show, but its cast and their chemistry are both solid, which means that – like the best of its brethren – it seems likely that it will be a consistently enjoyable viewing experience…y’know, if you like that sort of thing.

Stray observations:

  • Given that the proceedings start with a Dr. Phil quote appearing on the screen, I wonder how many viewers will bail out of the show before the first scene even begins.
  • Just so that we can all sleep better, let’s pretend that no one at USA ever at any point said or thought, “You know, Psych is getting pretty long in the tooth. We’d better make sure we’ve got another white-guy/black-guy show standing by for when it does.”
  • There are at least two good Random Roles candidates in supporting roles: Gary Grubbs and John Shea. (I’m not counting Jack McGee, because that one’s already waiting in the wings. Look for it sometime in the next few weeks.)
  • I understand that pilots need to paint with broad strokes to define the characters quickly, but isn’t it laying it on a bit thick to have the OCD-ish Wes ask, “Who is using my hand sanitizer?”
  • How many times has a convenience store been robbed while a plainclothes cop or detective just happens to be shopping? Talk about your TV tropes...
  • In one scene, a drug-sniffing dog manages to find some illegal pharmaceuticals that are inside an airtight container at the bottom of a water-filled aquarium. I’m not saying this is impossible, because I know there’s some precedent for, say, enough of the substance to somehow end up in the water and be detected by the dog’s nose, but if you’ll pardon me for stereotyping, I think most viewers are still probably going to call “bullshit” on that.
  • If there’s one moment that will make America cheer, it’s when Travis takes his gun and shoots the hell out of an Airdancer ® outside a car dealership. Who among us hasn’t wanted to do the same damned thing at some point or other?

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