(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Zack Handlen checks out the new CBS hit Blue Bloods. Next week: The Super Bowl!)
All right, confession time: I'm not the world's greatest critic. I know. I was as shocked as you are. Admitting this publicly means I may lose my job, or, worse, get sued by some disgruntled 24 fan who finally has the proof he needs that I'm everything that's wrong with the Internet… but I'll admit it anyway. I'm not entirely impartial, and there are some flaws I'm willing to overlook if a show is willing to push certain buttons. (Or send me large wads of cash in unmarked oh hey, look, another lawsuit.) Because for me, when I watch a show, I watch it partly for the story and partly for the themes, but mostly, I watch it for the characters and the world. If a show manages to sell me on its ensemble, if it can create something resembling a cohesive world, I'm already halfway to loving it. And once I start loving a show, it is very difficult to get me to hate it. When people say, "I don't think this character is likable anymore," it baffles me, because, well, that character is just being themselves, right? Who said "likable" has anything to do with it? I take changes in the fiction as though they were fact, and it takes me a long time to realize when a series has hit the skids. I want to believe.
Which all sounds like the bizarre precursor to me confessing some kind of entertainment-related mental illness (just call me Chauncey, thanks) but is more an attempt to explain why I think I can see the appeal of Blue Bloods, even if that's not an appeal that really works for me just yet. Tonight's episode, "Family Ties," is the first episode of the show I've watched, and while Bloods is still only in its first season, I got the sense that I was missing a fair chunk of backstory. Still, the foundations were obvious enough. It's a cop/lawyer drama about a family of cops and lawyers in New York. Tom Selleck is Frank Reagan, the police commissioner and patriarch; Donnie Whalberg is Danny, his detective son; and Bridget Moynahan is Erin, the daughter who works at the D.A.'s office. Plus Len Cariou is hanging in the background as Grandpa, just itching to start a fight.
"Ties" is split between two plots. In plot A, Danny and his partner, Jackie (Jennifer Esposito, who appears to be built entirely out of cheekbones now), work to solve the murder of a Russian gangster's son, killed at his engagement party while enjoying a quicky in the pantry. In plot B, Erin is roped into building a case against the deputy mayor on corruption charges. Neither of these plots have much to do with each other. Plot A fits with the title, as Grushenko, the gangster, is more than a little ticked that someone killed his boy; plus, he's got ties to Commissioner Frank, who tried and failed to get him put away for a substantial amount of prison time. There's some grumbling about the potential for violent retribution, and at least one more person dies before the end of the episode, but over all of it, there's an obvious, if somewhat shallow, sense of time lost. The Russians, despite their flash, don't seem that powerful anymore. The rules are changing, and they aren't able to keep up. It's not a huge surprise that Grushenko ends the episode in handcuffs.
Plot B has fewer exploding florist vans and suffers for it. Erin, realizing her side doesn't have a terrific case against the deputy mayor, is able to force a bigger confession out of the man's assistant, who's guilty of embezzlement and banker-screwing. It's nicely low-key but not particularly well-developed. Maybe there's something to be said for drama that doesn't push too hard, but Moynahan isn't a solid enough actress to carry her side of the story. She seems out of her depth most of the time, and while that may be an aspect of the character, it plays here as clumsy. When her boss puts the moves on her at the end of the episode, it's impossible to tell if she's going along with him because she's interested, or because she doesn't have enough of a spine to move her head out of the path of his lips. Again, that weakness might be intentional, but there's something off about it. I'm not sure why Hollywood persists in its insistence that Donnie Whalberg is good at playing a police officer, but even though he's playing a type, at least he's consistent. Monyahan just seems perpetually amazed she has lines.
Really, both of storylines here are pure TV drama hokum. Characters are able to pressure other characters into revealing their secrets with the ease of selecting dialogue options in a video game. I could see that working to the show's benefit in the long run, as a lot of police work and lawyer work really does come down to talking. Interviews were always the bread and butter of the Law & Order format, and while the mechanical nature of that kind of plotting gets old after awhile, there are ways to give it life. There's not a lot of talk about DNA evidence or forensics here, and the sense of community is interesting. Turns out that Jackie is even friends with the killer, a mother trying to protect her daughter from making the same mistakes she did. (I'm not sure "shooting the mistake in the chest" was the best call, but what do I know.) Combine that with Frank's personal interest in seeing Greshunko put away for good, and you get a sense of connection that's part unnecessary coincidence and part potential for a deeper look at legacies and how much of what we do in the present is a way of making up for what want wrong in the past. The episode isn't really interested in doing much with these ideas, though, and too much time is spent on tired cliches. The snappish mom; the quiet mobster; the sleazebag politico. (The Jew, the Italian, and the Red-Haired Gay were held up in traffic, one presumes.) It's like every procedural on television has the same ensemble of supporting players, and they just rotate between series as needed.
"Ties" is certainly watchable, but only a couple of scenes stood out for me. One, a car-bombing, worked because it came as a surprise; the ramifications weren't nearly enough to bring me back for more. But the other might be; or at least, it was interesting enough to get the attention of that part of my brain I was talking about before, the part that watches television for a sense of shared community. The hook for Blue Bloods is that all these people are a family, and on Sunday (I'm assuming it was Sunday), they all get together for a big meal and talk over their case loads. It only took up about five minutes of screen time. First, we get Danny and Frank discussing the Greshunko killing, then, with everyone around the table, Len Cariou flips out at his granddaughter for taking on the case against the deputy mayor. There's not enough of this to grab me yet, but the family dinner does give a sense of how this show could distinguish itself and just what all these relationships could mean if they were given more time to develop. This feels different than what you expect on other shows of this sort, and that should be encouraged.
I can't recommend Bloods right now, though. The dialogue overall runs the gamut from serviceable to atrocious ("Do you want to live in a city where the wealthy and powerful can buy their own brand of justice?" Unless you have a ticket to Mars, I'm not sure a "No" does me much good), and there really isn't much in the way of interesting detail to set the crime and legal procedural elements apart. But the family drama and the sense of history that comes with it, could go somewhere. Tom Selleck has his gravitas down cold by now, and this is the kind of series that could do a conflict between the young and old generations and still make both sides sympathetic and honorable. A conflict between equal goods doesn't happen a lot on TV anymore. It'd be a shame if the opportunity was missed.