Detroit 1-8-7 -- TV Review

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ABC's intriguing but unfocused new drama about an urban homicide squad wants it both ways, in more ways than one.

"Detroit 1-8-7" strives to be gritty but is overly stylish. It tries to be edgy while appealing to a broad audience. It wants its setting to be a character but is unsure about how to achieve that.

The jury still is out on "1-8-7" after its entertaining but flawed premiere. There's a fine show in there somewhere, and landing Michael Imperioli as an enigmatic lead certainly helps, but it smacks of trying too hard and appears desperate to be compared to the king of the subgenre, "Homicide: Life on the Street."

Those aspirations aren't a bad thing. "1-8-7" -- California Penal Code and street talk for murder -- is rife with the elements that made David Simon's "Homicide" so uniquely brilliant, including unforced random banter among the detectives and humanizing backstories behind the badges.
Then there's the setting. Instead of been-there Los Angeles or done-that New York, "1-8-7" unfolds in Detroit -- which, like "Homicide's" Baltimore, is a smaller big city that's a perennial contender for murder capital of the U.S.

"1-8-7" is keenly aware of that setting, perhaps self-consciously so. An introductory voice-over describes Detroit as "once the heart of the automobile industry." Later, when Imperioli's Louis Fitch is staring at the board -- which lists each of the detective's cases with victims' names in red for open and black for solved -- he says, "It might be the last assembly line in Detroit." But the pilot offers no insight into the city or its people.

Another example of "1-8-7's" lack of identity and desire for broad appeal: The first five minutes works in a pair of Motown soul classics, then it's all over the musical map -- rock, rap, blues, other. And said soundtrack tends to overwhelm the action rather than framing it, becoming stylish for style's sake.

Despite its faults, "1-8-7" has a chance to break out of the crime-story pack on the strength of its solid cast and characters. Imperioli faces a challenge his colleagues don't in having to separate actor from signature role. But his hard-to-know Fitch is miles away from Christofuh on "The Sopranos": less confident but more competent, more sensitive though possibly as reckless -- like when he goes unarmed into a room with a killer who has hostages. He also has a little thing for raspy-voiced young Detective Ariana Sanchez (Natalie Martinez), who's patrolling the mean streets she came up on.

The actors have a promising early chemistry that so many drama pilots lack. Also manning the squad are newbie Detective Damon Washington (Jon Michael Hill), Fitch's new partner who sweats the imminent arrival of his first child; Sgt. Jesse Longford ("NYPD" veteran James McDaniel), who's trying to buy a Tuscan villa for his looming retirement; his easygoing partner, Detective Vikram Mahajan (Shaun Majumder); and Detective John Stone (D.J. Cotrona), a new-to-homicide narc who is ribbed for posing in a charity calendar and grins lasciviously upon learning that he will be partnered with Sanchez. Lt. Maureen Mason (Aisha Hinds) is their single-mother boss.

As the bodies pile up in the pilot, so do the clues, and cases converge. It takes plenty of teamwork -- and solid police work -- to identify and track a suspect. The episode builds to a tense conclusion and ends with a shocker that intrigues despite its made-for-TV semi-plausibility.

The original "1-8-7" pilot was shot docureality-style, but the idea was ditched. A fragment of the concept survived the reshoots, though. In one jarring scene, a witness angrily tells his story to the cops then leans into the camera and loudly growls. If one character is going to break the fourth wall, then everyone should. That idea needs to be fleshed out or scrapped entirely, not dabbled with.

The "1-8-7" corpses are bloody but not gory, its language edgy but not overly so; a run of bleeps during an interrogation feels gratuitous. More instances of how the show needs to make some choices about its focus and find its footing. It's definitely worth sampling, but impatient viewers might not return to the scene of the crimes.

Airdate: 10-11 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 21 (ABC)
Production: ABC Studios
Cast: Michael Imperioli, James McDaniel, Aisha Hinds, D.J. Cotrona, Jon Michael Hill, Shaun Majumder, Natalie Martinez, Erin Cummings
Creator-writer: Jason Richman
Director: Jeffrey Nachmanoff
Executive producers: David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman, Jason Richman, David Zabel
Co-executive producer: Paul Shapiro
Produced by: Patrick McKee
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