The best, most exciting moments of L.A.’s Finest, the Spectrum Original series spun off from the Bad Boys franchise, come in its pilot, a fact that also happens to be an early indication of the show’s bleak prospects. Director Anton Cropper throws the viewer right into the action, peering over the shoulders of LAPD detectives Syd Burnett (Gabrielle Union) and Nancy McKenna (Jessica Alba) as a convenience-store run turns into a shoot-out that destroys virtually every glass bottle in the place. While taking down the nameless bad guys (the first of many), Syd and Nancy quip about family book night and booty calls, their TV-friendly hair always managing to return to its artfully tousled state no matter how many swings and shots they have to take. This scenario repeats itself over the 45-minute runtime, with some ostensibly riveting secrets tacked onto the characters’ backstories. If the episode spent a little more time with Nancy’s assistant district attorney husband (Ryan McPartlin) and her teenage stepdaughter Izzy (Sophie Reynolds) or reminisced about Syd’s Miami connection—where her brother Marcus (Martin Lawrence) will likely announce he’s too old for this shit in the upcoming Bad Boys For Life—the L.A.’s Finest pilot could be stretched out to feature length, and we’d have just one middling spin-off instead of a whole series of them.
But for better or worse (mostly worse), series creators Brandon Margolis and Brandon Sonnier (both alums of The Blacklist) have reimagined Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer’s heedless, boisterous buddy-cop films as a procedural/drama for Charter’s fledgling network. When it gives itself over to big, loud sequences, L.A.’s Finest comes close to recapturing the bombastic spirit, if not the scale, of Bay’s films (such are the constraints of the small screen). But after blowing the budget on making a good first impression, L.A.’s Finest quickly sinks into mediocrity, unable to offer the same kind of big-screen thrills in a weekly format, or find much of anything new to say about odd couples and pasts that won’t stay hidden.
What’s left is banter and all the R-rated swears a cable network will allow, which Union and Alba handle with aplomb. As Syd, the DEA agent whose blown cover story on a previous assignment sets up one of the season’s through-lines, Union is often in witty, hyper-competent mode; she suffers very little from anyone around her, including two cops played by Zach Gilford and Duane Martin (her Deliver Us From Eva co-star). But as the season progresses, we also learn what a toll her undercover work has taken on her, from setting her on a path for vengeance to making it nearly impossible to form lasting bonds. We’ve seen this conflict over professionally mandated detachment before, in everything from Donnie Brasco to Narc, and it plays out in rote fashion on L.A.’s Finest. Union does what she can to elevate this morally compromised law enforcement officer above all the rest, but she’s weighed down by writing that sounds like it’s made up of lines rejected from other cop dramas for being too on the nose.
Union more than proved she could head up her own series on BET’s Being Mary Jane, but she also finds a solid partner here in Alba, who already knows what it’s like to lead an action-packed series. In contrast to Syd’s lone-wolf existence, Nancy has an enviable home life, one that’s threatened by her past, naturally. Though Syd and Nancy’s (yes, that’s exactly what it’s supposed to sound like) one-liners are never worthy of the duo’s delivery, Union and Alba do establish a unique chemistry, which helps make the bombshell-revelation-an-episode pacing feel slightly less clunky. But it remains to be seen if Union and Alba can keep it up through the rest of the season (only three episodes were screened for critics). One of the obstacles they face is the lackluster plotting everywhere but in Syd and Nancy’s personal lives—unlike those of most procedurals, the cases on L.A.’s Finest don’t provide a framework through which backstory or personality is revealed so much as present a hurdle the partners have to clear before they can return to their inexplicably spacious and well-appointed homes. (An argument can be made that Syd pocketed some money from her stint in the DEA, but how on earth can a cop and a public servant afford a sprawling ranch house near downtown Los Angeles?)
As the season progresses, mysteries are introduced to virtually every character’s storyline, from the guileless Ben (Gilford) to Izzy, the latter of whom could up until that point be best described as “rebel itching for a cause” (note to writers: feminism isn’t a personality, and neither is an appreciation for science). A steely new antagonist also enters the scene, but only after Syd and Nancy have experienced and mended a few rifts. The most procedural thing about L.A.’s Finest is the cycle of the partners’ falling-outs and reconciliations, which again, is hard to imagine tolerating, let alone enjoying, over the course of a 13-episode season. The buddy-cop dynamic has fueled many an action franchise (and TV reboots of said franchises), at times transcending the shoot-’em-up ethos, but for L.A.’s Finest to be anything more than average, it needs to start by going back to the basics.