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Terriers: "Pilot"

NBC recently passed on a revival of The Rockford Files, and according to some inside sources, one of the main reasons the network nixed the show was because they felt the pilot episode was too old-fashioned in look and tone. So they’re going to scrap it and start again, to make it more “up to date.” Which means that unless NBC does as they oughta and casts Josh Holloway as Rockford, I’ll have to keep watching the original show on Netflix Watch Instantly to get my blissfully retro Rockford fix.

Or I could just watch Terriers each week on FX. 

Don’t get me wrong: Terriers isn’t a throwback, exactly. It’s modern in tone and style, and though it’s about private detectives taking on a different case each episode, the characters have a backstory that’s being revealed piece-by-piece, and there are serialized elements carrying over from episode to episode, as is the norm for quality shows these days. But the heroes of Terriers—an ex-cop named Hank Dolworth and his mumbling buddy Britt Pollack—are scruffy, low-rent guys who get by more on their wits than their resources, just like Jim Rockford. They’re unlicensed P.I.s, willing to do a job in exchange for free dry cleaning (and then to turn that free dry cleaning into dinner at a fancy restaurant that needs its tablecloths washed). Hank’s a recovering alcoholic who talks in circles and has an ex-wife Gretchen who keeps popping up like a bad memory; Britt’s an easygoing, cut-to-the-chase cat whose girlfriend Katie is studying to be a veterinarian. Together they haunt the Ocean Beach side of San Diego, digging into their neighbor’s secrets while trying to steer clear of Hank’s ex-partner on the force, Det. Mark Gustafson.

We first meet Hank and Britt on a stakeout, where Britt’s trying to catch a quick nap and Hank’s pestering him with pointless stories about the contents of his refrigerator and demands for a thousand bucks so that he can buy some towels he just saw in an upscale gift catalog. (“You want to be a drier person?” Britt asks, half-listening. “I think maybe,” Hank replies.) Then they hop out of their truck to get started on their big case: stealing a divorcée’s dog back from her ex-husband. But before they do, Hank takes a second to plant the melody of “Close To You” into Britt’s head, just to be a dick. 

Donal Logue plays Hank and Michael Raymond-James plays Britt, and it’s their chemistry that gives the show its distinctive, funky vibe. In just about any other TV context, Raymond-James’ sloppy diction and low-key manner would be a sucking void, but placed against Logue’s motormouth and wounded, seen-it-all demeanor, Raymond-James comes off as soulful and witty. There are a dozen tiny moments between the two of them in the Terriers’ pilot that play both funny and true, from Britt spitting ice into his hands after Hank asks him if he washed them after using the bathroom, to the way Hank comes up with an elaborate plan to use their stolen dog to gain access to a rich man’s estate while Britt just jumps the fence and starts asking questions.

The rich man in question is named Robert Lindus (played by Christopher Cousins), who hires the boys after they come see him on a missing persons case. Eleanor Gazny, the daughter of one of Hank’s old drinking buddies, has disappeared after asking her pop for cash and a gun. Turns out Eleanor used to work for Lindus, an influential local property developer who gives Hank and Britt $10,000 to find not just Eleanor, but her cell phone, which contains some information that Lindus doesn’t want to get out.

The way Terriers’ story develops—with one incident leading naturally into another—is another thing that sets it apart from most case-of-the-week shows. I’ve seen the series’ second episode too, and while it features an entirely new client and new job, it picks up where the pilot ends, with the case proceeding directly from the action in the first episode. (You’ll see what I mean next week.) Even in the pilot, the plot moves ahead like a game of Mousetrap: to get information from Eleanor’s ex-roommate, they have to help her move some furniture; to get the police off their backs after they see something they shouldn’t, they have to do something else (which I won’t reveal here, though feel free to talk about it in the comments after the episode airs).

Terriers was created by Ted Griffin (screenwriter of the Ocean’s Eleven remake) in collaboration with executive producers Shawn Ryan (creator of The Shield) and Tim Minear (one of Joss Whedon’s go-to guys on Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse). Craig Brewer, director of Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan, directed the pilot, which was written by Griffin. Upcoming episodes were directed by Clark Johnson (former Homicide: Life On The Streets star and one of the best TV directors in the business) Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom, the “Fly” episode of Breaking Bad), John Dahl (Rounders, The Last Seduction, Red Rock West), and other heavyweights. The writing staff includes Ryan, Minear, Griffin, his brother Nicholas (with whom he co-wrote the very good Matchstick Men), and people who’ve worked before on Whedon shows, The Shield, Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars. The show has style, flavor, and man does it ever have wit. Judging by the first two episodes, Terriers may end up being the most quotable new show of the fall. The second episode (written by Ryan and Jed Seidel) is funnier than the first, though the pilot does feature multiple bon mots from Britt: him complaining that a drunk’s money “smells like gym class;” him saying that, “If we grow two sizes we might be small-time;” and so on. And there’s some nifty detective tricks in the pilot too, such as Hank using stolen SDPD clearance IDs to track cell phone signals.

My lone complaint about the pilot is that it has to do a lot of heavy lifting to explain who these guys are and what their situation is, and sometimes the strain shows. But Griffin’s smart enough to leave some of that work for later, choosing mostly to reveal character and backstory through action, not speeches. And Ryan’s smart enough to help shape what could’ve been The Rockford Files redux (which would’ve been just fine, don’t get me wrong) into a larger narrative that recalls Chinatown and Veronica Mars in its exploration of how the rich use the poor and vice-versa.

Mostly though, it’s going to be fun watching Terriers to see Logue and Raymond-James affectionately irritate each other. Even that first scene, with its conversation about towels, reveals so much about Hank and Britt and the kind of show Terriers is. Hank talks because he has to, and because he knows that Britt’s a good enough guy to let him babble away, even though he prefers silence. Britt sits up straight and encourages Hank to unload whatever’s on his mind, because he knows Hank’s going to do it anyway, and he hopes that maybe by paying attention to him, Hank will shut up faster. And when Hank mutters, “I think maybe” to Britt’s joke about getting dry, it’s the kind of odd sentence construction and line-delivery that wouldn’t make it on a USA show.

Similarly, there’s a moment later in the pilot where Hank reaches into his fridge for a carton of milk but gets distracted and puts it back, unopened. This calls back to a line in that opening scene, where Hank talks about waking up in the middle of the night and finding an empty carton of milk in his refrigerator, and freaking out a little because, “I don’t remember putting the milk back in empty, or finishing it.” The repeat of the fridge moment is a little nod to viewers who like to pay attention to such things, but it’s also an insight into who Hank is. He just does what he does, impulsively, and then reflects back on the garbage he’s left behind, without the self-awareness to realize how exactly he made it happen.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

-Terriers debuts tonight on FX at 10 p.m. eastern and will re-run throughout the week, as FX tends to do. Hop on the bandwagon now, as it rolls out.

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