Adapting Elmore Leonard for television has been a hit-or-miss proposition; Justified was a bullseye both critically and commercially, Karen Sisco was beloved but short-lived, and Maximum Bob even shorter-lived and unmourned. Translating Leonard to the big screen is just as tricky, but one movie that mostly nailed the author’s colorful lowlifes and hangout vibe was 1995’s Get Shorty. (The less said about that film’s unfortunate 2005 follow-up Be Cool, the better.) Now producer Davey Holmes (Shameless, Damages) brings a weekly hour-long version of the story to the small screen… sort of.
The screen credit reading “based in part on the novel by Elmore Leonard” is our first tip-off that the new Epix series won’t be a direct adaptation of Leonard’s work. The show’s relationship to the source material is roughly akin to the TV Fargo’s relationship to the Coen brothers movie: The tone is similar, a number of plot elements are recognizable, but the characters and the overall story are not the same.Taking the place of Miami loan shark Chili Palmer is Miles Daly (Chris O’Dowd), muscle for crime boss Amara De Escalones (Lidia Porto), who operates out of the run-down Silver Dust Casino in Pahrump, Nevada. With his partner Louis Darnell (Sean Bridgers), Miles heads to Los Angeles to collect a debt from aspiring screenwriter Owen (Paul Sparks).
In true Elmore Leonard fashion, there’s always time for small talk before getting down to business. Miles, who is separated from his wife and sharing custody of their daughter, is looking for a way out of the crime life. He takes an interest in Owen’s script, a period romance called The Admiral’s Mistress, particularly when the broke writer offers to make Lewis and him producers on the film when he raises the financing. It doesn’t work out for Owen, but with a blood-soaked screenplay now in his possession, Miles is keen on winning his family back by establishing himself as a Hollywood producer.
Rick Moreweather (Ray Romano) is already established as a Hollywood producer, albeit one specializing in low-budget schlock that goes straight to video. When Rick’s latest alien movie goes belly-up because of the star’s commitment to a studio picture, Miles is able to lure him aboard his budding project with the promise of outside financing. What Rick doesn’t know at first is that said financing is a money-laundering scheme for Amara, who absolutely insists that the project recoup its budget.
Without using Leonard’s original story, Holmes and his creative team (including director and executive producer Allen Coulter, best known for his work on The Sopranos) have found a way to play in the same sandbox: the intersection of crime and the movie business. One minute Miles is helping Louis dispose of a body, the next he’s trying to charm studio executive April Quinn (Megan Stevenson) into taking a look at his script. Old habits die hard, however, and when the charm doesn’t work, Miles isn’t above resorting to blackmail in order to bring the studio aboard. O’Dowd doesn’t have the megawatt charisma John Travolta brought to the movie version, but his scruffy amiability sets the tone for the series as a whole. Although the Nevada desert locations may call Breaking Bad to mind on occasion, this is not going to be that kind of intense crime thriller. Miles is a more cuddly kind of bad guy; through the first three episodes at least, we don’t see him pull the trigger on anyone, even though we know that’s been his job. He’s an artist at heart. It’s not enough that The Admiral’s Mistress turn a profit, which is all Rick and Amara care about; Miles actually wants it to be good.
Several of the supporting players fit right into the Elmore Leonard world of likable lowlifes. Sean Bridgers (Deadwood, Rectify) delivers the show’s broadest comic relief in the role of Miles’ reluctant and slightly dim partner (“You talk to a writer for five minutes and suddenly you’re Marvin Scorsese”), and Ray Romano looks to be having a ball as the sleazy, dyspeptic Rick. Lidia Porto is all steely intimidation as Latina mob boss Amara. It’s not all good news, though; at least early on, Miles’ family problems feel more like an obligatory motivating factor than a fleshed-out subplot. The role of the estranged wife can be a thankless one, and there’s nothing in the early episodes to suggest that Lucy Walters will get a lot to work with as Katie Daly. Katie’s new beau is a douche-y golf pro who makes a convenient foil for Miles but feels too cartoonish even for this world.
Still, as long as you’re attuned to its loping rhythms, Get Shorty is an easy watch. Enough complications are introduced in the early hours to suggest it has some staying power. Amara’s nephew Yago (Goya Robles) wants to use his own strip club as the crime ring’s money laundering scheme of choice, and he’s willing to take out Miles to make it happen. Having slapped Louis’ name on the Admiral’s Mistress screenplay, Miles now risks discovery by the girlfriend of real writer Owen. Bringing a major studio into the mix may satisfy Miles’ desire for a bigger budget, but it can’t be a good idea from a criminal conspiracy perspective. Get Shorty isn’t in much danger of challenging Justified as the best TV adaptation of Leonard’s work, but as comfort viewing in the dog days of August, it gets the job done.