'Deputy': TV Review

Courtesy of Fox
Pretty silly, but not without some excitement.
1/2/2020

Stephen Dorff plays a throwback lawman given unexpected power in this new Fox drama from the creators of the film and TV versions of 'Training Day.'

The entire gimmick of the cinematic classic Air Bud hinges on an adorable canine in a basketball jersey and doggy sneakers checking into a basketball game and, after weathering a wave of incredulity and leafing through a convenient rulebook, being told, "Ain't no rules say the dog can't play basketball."

And so play the dog does! Does it make sense? Heck no! Sometimes you just have to accept on faith that if there's no rule saying the dog can't play basketball, the dog gets to play basketball.

A similar spirit runs through nearly every frame of Fox's midseason drama Deputy, which basically features Stephen Dorff as the Air Bud of Los Angeles law enforcement.

The series hopes that audiences will be willing to take the silly leap of its premise and go from there, asking as few questions as possible, because who does it behoove to be the sniveling bad guy with the temerity to argue that no matter what the rulebook does or doesn't say, a dog probably shouldn't be playing basketball?

Bill Hollister (Dorff) is a fifth-generation lawman in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. With his cowboy hat, boots and aviator shades, Bill is a throwback to a time when men were men, laws were laws and right and wrong weren't ideals determined by suits on a high floor of the Hall of Justice. Of course, Bill is stuck in 2020 and he's constantly in trouble because his methodology doesn't always sit well with those bureaucratic wieners, embodied by Undersheriff Jerry London (Mark Moses, always high on the speed dial for any casting director in need of a bureaucratic wiener).

It happens that Bill is right on the verge of being pushed out the door as an irredeemable dinosaur when the elected sheriff dies. According to the 170-year-old county charter, in the case of the death of the sheriff, the job goes to the longest-standing member of his mounted posse. Guess what? That's Bill Hollister! And if the county charter says that dogs can play basketball, well, darnit, this dog is going to play basketball.

What I just described about the premise of the Will Beall-created drama isn't exactly the premise, as you might guess from the show being titled Deputy and not Sheriff.

Through three episodes, it's not a story about what happens when a rule-bending deputy is forced into the regulated structure of the sheriff's office. It's more about what happens when a rule-bending deputy is granted the power of the sheriff's badge. Those are two different shows, one about the imposing of restrictions on a renegade, the other about the bestowing of additional powers on a renegade. Either way, there's very little here that can't be second-guessed with even rudimentary logic, which can also be said for the way Bill's wife (Yara Martinez's Paula) is a trauma surgeon at what appears to be Los Angeles' only hospital and the circumstances that allow one of Bill's deputies to serve as foster parent to a pair of kids whose father he killed. I'm sure these things, like the 170-year-old town charter, have precedents, but they're justifications that might withstand the first "Really?!?" and not a second. You just have to accept all of this, just like you have to accept that a golden retriever named Buddy could have a mid-range jumper.

Still, Deputy isn't exactly what you expect it to be ideologically. Fox has been selling Deputy as a near-fascistic law-and-order nightmare, with a classic Western gunslinger reclaiming Los Angeles from hippy-dippy ideas like due process and victims' rights. Instead, the opening scene finds Will being specifically sanctioned for interfering with an ICE raid, and while his objection may be more about chafing at federal interference in his jurisdiction, he also declares, "I don't give a pinch of dried turd how those folks got here. We're all immigrants. I gave my word I'd protect them." Yes, that's how he talks throughout, and it's a sentiment more likely to appeal to bleeding hearts than the meat-and-potatoes audience Fox has been targeting. Those viewers should be confident that, more often than not, Bill's gruff, take-no-shit attitude doesn't sound nearly this liberal, but there are just enough hints at nuance to keep you guessing.

Whatever he does, Bill is still the hero, mind you. This isn't The Shield. If you need villains, there's no ambiguity when the show wants you to cheer for Bill against the onslaught of primarily (but not exclusively) minority gang members and the primarily (but not exclusively) white bureaucrats.

It's a good role for Dorff, continuing a return to prominence that began a year ago when he held his own with Mahershala Ali in True Detective. I'm not sure where Bill's vaguely Texas twang comes from if his character's roots are tied only to Los Angeles, but I can buy that it's another of the character's hard-nosed affectations. He swaggers and growls and doesn't think twice about threatening suspects. He also can recognize a Hamilton reference, so don't think you can profile Bill.

That Hamilton reference is delivered by the best aspect of Deputy, co-star Bex Taylor-Klaus as Brianna Bishop, an upwardly mobile and impeccably stylish deputy who becomes Bill's driver, security detail and his liaison to rules-loving politicians Bill is now forced to interact with. Bishop is amusing, smooth and reasonably unflappable in the face of Bill's maverick identity, and the chemistry between Dorff and Taylor-Klaus is, by an impossibly wide margin, the freshest aspect of Deputy. Theirs is the buddy-cop dynamic that doesn't feel like it came from Training Day, a minor triumph in a TV series written by the creator of the short-lived TV version of Training Day and directed by the writer of the Oscar-winning Training Day feature.

David Ayer helmed the first two Deputy episodes, punctuating everything with exclamation points. The series feels like it's constantly a car chase on the verge of a foot pursuit on the verge of a house-to-house search on the verge of an abrupt shooting, mostly delivered with jittery handheld immediacy and rarely allowing anything resembling emotion to set in. That's probably why after three episodes, the third containing the first effectively quiet beats in the show, Bill and Bishop are the only two characters I'm interested in at all. Everything else is just exhausting.

All of this really glosses over the question of whether or not Deputy is any good. It's silly, occasionally action-packed, rarely makes any sense at all and it's a little bit less reactionary than I feared. I probably won't watch any more, but then again there are around a dozen Air Bud movies I haven't seen either.

Cast: Stephen Dorff, Yara Martinez, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Brian Van Holt, Shane Paul McGhie, Mark Moses
Creator: Will Beall
Premieres: Thursday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Fox)