'L.A.'s Finest': TV Review
Spectrum's 'Bad Boys' spinoff series with Gabrielle Union and Jessica Alba isn't good, but it isn't awful enough for that to explain why NBC didn't want it.
I try to leave business out of reviews, but with Spectrum's new action drama L.A.'s Finest, it's difficult to avoid approaching it with a single question: How bad would a Bad Boys spinoff starring Gabrielle Union and Jessica Alba have to be for NBC (and an untold number of other established entities) to have said "No" to its pilot, leaving the Jerry Bruckheimer Television production to a cable provider's OnDemand service that, prior to this moment, you may not have known had any original material at all, much less a Bad Boys spinoff starring Gabrielle Union and Jessica Alba?
It's odd, but I still don't feel like I know the answer to that question. Whatever L.A.'s Finest is, it isn't bad on an outlier level. It's as good as much of what counted as broadcast television dramas this past season. This is not in any way intended as a compliment, just my acknowledgement that as thoroughly mediocre as it is, L.A.'s Finest feels like the sort of show that, in a different era, easily could have attracted a healthy audience on broadcast. It's nicely shot. Its stars are photogenic and, especially in Union's case, putting in a lot of effort. There are occasional onscreen moments, mostly in the pilot, that point to a reasonably sized budget. It's also positively bursting at the seams with cliches and, by the end of the three episodes made available for critics, oddly boring, but I still think it could have made for a perfectly reasonable NBC Sunday night at 9 p.m. show, a sort of Bad Girls giving a boost to NBC's superior-in-every-way Good Girls.
Created by Brandon Margolis and Brandon Sonnier and boasting the Bad Boys font if little else, L.A.'s Finest picks up with Union's Syd Burnett long after the events that caused her to leave Miami to become an LAPD detective working cases with Jessica Alba's Nancy McKenna, a law enforcer with a complicated past now married to a handsome assistant district attorney (Ryan McPartlin).
Yes, they're Syd and Nancy, though thankfully other characters mostly call Nancy "McKenna."
The partners are strong and sassy and work together well, except for when they're keeping big secrets from each other, big secrets that intersect so perfectly you'd think they were paired by fate, or by impatient screenwriters.
When Syd and Nancy aren't solving astonishingly forgettable weekly cases, they're investigating some big cartel thingie that involves characters played by Zach McGowan and Barry Sloane, as well as Syd's legendarily shady cop father (the great Ernie Hudson). They're sometimes working alongside another pair of detectives, Zach Gilford's Ben Walker and Duane Martin's Ben Baines.
Yes, they're Ben and Ben.
Don't worry. You don't actually have to remember much of the plot of the Bad Boys franchise for L.A.'s Finest to make sense. Syd makes several references to her past in Miami and at least one to Will Smith's character, but there are just as many winking references to Union being married to Dwyane Wade, so by that standard it's as much a documentary as a continuation of the Bad Boys universe. Character continuity comes in the odd form of John Salley's Fletcher — I have seen both Bad Boys movies and couldn't have remembered that John Salley was in them to save my life.
Pilot director Anton Cropper delivers a little bit of Michael Bay flair, complete with shots circling characters repeatedly until awe transitions into nausea, GoPro-style car chase scenes in which awe quickly transitions into nausea, and an opening shot of a helicopter flying dangerously low over the Hollywood sign. No real nausea there. It's just odd. The trend in Los Angeles-based cop shows post-The Shield is to seek out the Los Angeles that hasn't necessarily been depicted onscreen before. That's not the case in a show that could be called L.A.'s Finest Postcard Locations. The pilot starts at the Hollywood sign and makes it to Grauman's Chinese and multiple recognizable beaches before a climax on the Santa Monica Pier. Subsequent episodes tone down the tourist trap locales and also the visual pyrotechnics, though I can't tell you if that's "restraint" or "budgetary constraint."
There's no question that L.A.'s Finest becomes a smaller show after the pilot. That could be a choice. The second episode, co-written by co-showrunner Pam Veasey is certainly less eager to objectify its two leading ladies, and there's a shift to more character-driven drama, one that I find admirable in concept if not in execution, since the internal conflicts and big-picture arcing are by-the-numbers and, as I mentioned earlier, the week-to-week procedural elements could not be staler.
The pleasures that L.A.'s Finest does deliver, apart from looking lovely as a high-def urban Los Angeles screensaver, come from the cast. Union is confident in the action scenes, full of swagger when required, and she's good in Syd's vulnerable beats as well. Alba isn't nearly as convincing at spitting police jargon, and the scripts overcompensate by making her a Navy veteran with ballistics expertise, but when she and Union are just bantering the energy works. Despite material that never really finds its voice, Martin, Gilford, McPartlin and Hudson are are all able contributors, offering much more depth than one might have expected from a show sold so completely on its two leads.
As for Spectrum, the entity that bought into those leads when nobody else did, their content standards appear to be in the basic cable vicinity, in that in the pilot when somebody says, "Shit just got real," they can actually say "shit." The violence is no more graphic than one CG bullet going through one person's CG head, and the sexuality no more graphic than Union being showcased in her underwear in the pilot before subsequent episodes diminish the leering.
With only the most minor of trims, this show could have aired on broadcast. That it won't be airing on broadcast finally seems to point more toward business and producer Sony's status as a studio without a clear distribution outlet than toward quality. L.A.'s Finest isn't awful, but I probably won't be watching any more of it.
Cast: Gabrielle Union, Jessica Alba, Ernie Hudson, Zach Gilford, Duane Martin, Ryan McPartlin, Zach McGowan, Sophie Reynolds
Creators: Brandon Margolis and Brandon Sonnier, based on the Bad Boys film series
Episodes available Mondays on Spectrum.