Rogue: TV Review

In DirecTV's first drama, Thandie Newton comes across more escaped supermodel than undercover cop as she chases implausible Caucasian gangs in Oakland.

In DirecTV's first drama, Thandie Newton comes across more escaped supermodel than undercover cop as she chases implausible Caucasian gangs in Oakland.

There is something disconcerting about the new DirecTV drama Rogue, the satellite TV provider's first, that at first is hard to identify beyond some obvious misses.

As I watched, I kept thinking it felt like a cable drama that really wanted to be taken seriously and would be precisely -- and maybe only -- because it was on cable. It struck me that the last time a show had pretensions this big without the wherewithal to pull it off, that show was AMC’s Hell on Wheels.

Ah, then after a couple of episodes of Rogue, I checked the credits. Two of the executive producers were deeply involved with Hell on Wheels, so maybe it’s just a stylistic thing that doesn’t resonate personally.

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Rogue was created and written by Matthew Parkhill (The Caller, Dot the I) and is set primarily in Oakland -- the perfect place for a gritty series about an undercover detective (Thandie Newton) trying to infiltrate the city’s biggest gang. Anyone who has lived in or around Oakland knows all too well the city’s major crime problem, startling homicide rate and understaffed police force.

Those people also would know that the gangs in Oakland are primarily African-American and Latino, not the white gang at the center of Rogue, nor the Chinese gang depicted as a secondary concern.

It’s not that Oakland somehow needs to hammer home its reputation, but it might have been nice for black actors to get some work in a potentially huge cable series, the way The Wire did in Baltimore. A little verisimilitude for an unappreciated city in the shadows of San Francisco would have gone a long way, as well.

However, as far as content, we’re nowhere near the solar system that housed The Wire.

There’s something plodding and portentous about Rogue, as if it were trying especially hard to be taken seriously, to have the ballast needed to compete with other serious cable dramas. But even with slow-paced series that achieve greatness -- Boardwalk Empire, for example -- the hook is immediate. In Rogue, the pacing seems to be three or four clicks off the beat it needs to keep a viewer interested.

The series revolves around detective Grace Travis (Newton, Good Deeds, 2012), who actually is working for the San Jose Police Department and is on loan to Oakland while working undercover at the docks trying to nail crime boss Jimmy (Marton Csokas) and his sons Alec (Joshua Sasse) and Max (Matthew Beard). Grace’s husband Tom (Kavan Smith) is taking care of things at home without her, though Grace’s daughter and son have gotten used to her absence. What Rogue tries to set up -- far too slowly -- is that Grace’s son is killed when he’s caught in the crossfire of a gang shooting, and that forces the Oakland cops to pull her out (right when a potential bust might have happened).

The series detours a bit here into a storyline about her son’s killing taking too long to be solved (no proof of that is shown), and her family still is annoyed that she has to work (or wants to work) and remains out of their life. We don’t really see the grieving over her son. And when Grace gets word that homemade bullets used in the killing of her son also pop up in a murder attempt on Jimmy, plus some other crimes, she decides to go back undercover because maybe it’s all connected and maybe Jimmy is involved.

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None of this, in fact, is very compelling. Nor are the dynamics between elements in the Oakland Police Department versus those in the San Jose PD and various characters sprinkled throughout.

Without that, what absolutely has to be compelling is Grace’s undercover work with Jimmy, even though she’s not really investigating him anymore. She just wants to find out who killed her son. The fact that the person who took a pop at Jimmy could be connected makes them work together, for not entirely believable reasons.

Ultimately what happens, as Rogue can’t find traction in its story, is that you realize nobody has the necessary magnetism to force a rooting interest. It’s not like Newton is a badass detective. She’s more runway model than "Oaklandish," as they say in Oaktown. Less provincially, she’s just not like Raylan in Justified or any of the supporting players in Game of Thrones, nor even the central character in Orphan Black. Meaning there’s not a strong enough main character to lure you in while Rogue finds its way and better develops the ancillary characters.

Viewers probably will overlook Rogue for a drama on another channel much the same way people in the Bay Area tend to overlook Oakland for San Francisco.

Twitter: @BastardMachine