`The Job': It's all the rage

Preview: ABC wants you to believe its new program is an edgy, daring new mix of comedy and drama. Too bad it's been done before.

March 14, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Rage as shtick.

In the end, that's what ABC's midseason police drama "The Job," starring Denis Leary as an unconventional and almost-out-of-control New York City detective, comes down to. It takes the profound, righteous, urban, cop-shop rage of an Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz of "NYPD Blue") or Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher of "Homicide: Life on the Street") and shrinks it to attitude and rant played for laughs rather than insight into our lives.

This is television as the incredible shrinking culture machine, and I hate the medium when it takes the antisocial out of our sociology and refashions it into something safe, tame and even cute.

The irony here is that ABC is promoting the series, which starts a six-week tryout tonight, as edgier, grittier, more raw and daring than any other cop show on network television. It's also promoting it as cutting-edge in the way that it combines drama and comedy to create a half-hour cop-show dramedy.

I'm sorry, it is none of the above. You might remember last year at this time, how ABC sold "Wonderland," a dark drama about psychiatrists at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, as the next generation of doctor dramas because it was allegedly edgier, grittier, blah-blah-blabbier than anything American audiences had ever seen. The public yawned, and it was gone in less than six weeks.

I started out intrigued by Leary's Detective Mike McNeil, the character around whom Leary and co-creator Peter Tolan ("The Larry Sanders Show") build "The Job." McNeil carries around a small box of assorted uppers, downers and painkillers, and pops them throughout the day. At night, he drinks - a lot. This is a guy clearly trying to self-medicate away the demons and stay functional.

When his partner, Terrence "Pip" Phillips (Bill Nunn), calls him on the substance abuse and threatens to throw away the box of pills, McNeil says, "Yeah? I'm gonna tell ya something: That box and a bottle of Bushmills is the only thing keepin' me from takin' a hostage."

That's anger as a punch line. After a few of them, you're laughing at what the character says instead of believing in or caring about him even a little.

The series' best moments come in the small-talk between McNeil and Phillips, as they are sitting in the squad car on a stakeout or dressing in the precinct-house men's room. One of those moments involves Phillips worrying that his posterior has grown too large based on something his wife said the previous night as they were getting into bed. Phillips insists on getting out of the squad car and bending over so McNeil can gauge the size of his behind.

Nunn does all right with the scene, and Leary is, well, Leary in a full-blown rant over his discomfort with the topic by the end of the scene. But we've seen this kind of loopy buddy banter done a lot better on "Homicide," to name one place.

Think what Clark Johnson as Detective Meldrick Lewis and Ned Beatty as Detective Stanley Bolanger would have done with the scene. Then ask yourself if this kind of humor, which permeates "The Job," is anything but an imitation of the sensibility that Barry Levinson brought to television in "Homicide" from such feature films as "Diner" and "Tin Men."

Beyond "Homicide," the mix of drama and humor for which "The Job" aims was explored 25 years ago in the ABC sitcom "Barney Miller." Twenty years ago in the landmark NBC drama, "Hill Street Blues," there was another angry-funny detective named Mick Belker (Bruce Weitz). He was a wonderful supporting player in a large ensemble, but he was wisely never asked to carry the show as McNeil is here. So don't tell me about cutting edge.

The one area in which "The Job" does break new ground for network television is in profanity and coarse language. During next week's episode, which features Elizabeth Hurley playing herself, it seems as if the producers are afraid of letting more than two minutes pass without a sexualized reference to some part of Hurley's body. Maybe they already sense that McNeil isn't interesting enough to carry even 22 minutes of prime time without big guest stars and the promise of more sex.

McNeil and Hurley meet when she reports a threat to New York City police, and McNeil takes over the investigation. If you don't know what I mean about television taking this character's anger and turning it into something safe and tame, you will by the time Hurley dismisses McNeil at the end of the episode with a patronizing little peck and the words, "You're sweet."

I don't expect commercial American television to let characters rage against the system the way they do on British TV. But at least the angry detective - appalled by the human suffering he or she bears witness to each day and enraged by the bureaucrats who look on with indifference - offers some opportunity for social critique. To take that character and turn his anger into a punch line is the real outrage here.

`The Job'

When: 9:30 tonight

Where: WMAR (Channel 2)

In brief: Denis Leary plays the angry detective cheap.

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