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Unless a cable series comes out of the gate headed for greatness — Mad Men, Breaking Bad, a whole bunch of efforts on FX — then the litmus test of whether you should bother hunting it down in the netherlands of the television dial is whether it can produce results that are better than what you’d find at a network.
That’s a simplified version of the truth, and yet you can apply it to pretty much every series with some level of acccuracy. Network shows get bigger numbers. But if a cable series is better than people expect, they’ll be loyal until the end.
When it comes to procedurals — a genre most series creators don’t bother with if they truly are hunting for greatness — the networks know how to create these in their sleep. Particularly CBS, the gold standard of network procedurals. Cable channels have found some success with their blue sky offerings — Burn Notice, White Collar, etc., balanced with the faintest of feminine edge, ala The Closer, Rizzoli & Isles, etc., — but Lifetime’s latest offering, Against the Wall, has the whiff of something more. The pilot, which airs tonight, effortlessly checks off the boxes that need to be checked off if you’re going to succeed as a procedural: Cop, lawyer or doctor (in this case, cop), intriguing city (in this case Chicago) and leading character who makes you want to spend the 45 minutes (in this case relative newcomer Rachael Carpani). Oh, and a solid storyline, well told. Check to all of those.
And yet, there are a couple of other elements that could really make Against the Wall stand out. Creator and writer Annie Brunner (Saving Grace, Huff) and executive producer Nancy Miller (Saving Grace) seem to truly get the notion of a woman who doesn’t quite fit in as she’s expected to and bumps up against the constraints of what people want her to be. That’s always good because, no suprise here, that’s how men’s roles are often written. But Brunner and Miller seem to undertand that a female character clashing against the mold doesn’t have to be a radical outcast (though Saving Grace sure explore that), but just a conceit that allows a character to have some gray area in her depth.
Secondly, there’s Carpani, who looks to be a breakout star. She’s got the looks, of course, but her acting chops keep Against the Wall moving briskly — tackling drama, comedy, playing well alone or in a sex scene, dropping all traces of her Australian accent and deftly communicating a little something more with her facial mannerisms. Whatever she’s got, you pay attention to it enough to realize she’s getting the job done with impressive economy. If Carpani isn’t immediately discussed in the mix with her more famous peers on the broadcast side, she’ll be underestimated.
Lastly, with Carpani out in front, there’s a nice little fall back in Kathy Baker and Treat Williams as her parents. The veteran actors lend some gravitas to the situation and have immediate chemistry and believability.
Against the Wall pits Abby Kowalski (Carpani), an ambitious Chicago cop who just made detective, against the competing interest of her three street-cop brothers (Brandon Quinn, Steve Byers and James Thomas) and her fellow cop father, Don (Williams), all of whom look down on Abby’s decision to join Internal Affairs. “We take care of our own,” her father tells her angrily. He’s clearly had an IA issue in his past and doesn’t trust the internal watchdogs from turning on their fellow cops. As Sheila, the matriarch, Baker provides some ballast in the turmoil that is unfolding.
What works here is that Brunner has created Abby as someone who has had to prove herself all her life — the lone girls in a family with three boys and, in adulthood, the one who joins them all on the police force. She’s good, rising through the ranks and acing her detective test. But she only takes the Internal Affairs job because it’s the only detective opening available. She’s thinking about spending two years maximum in that job before moving into the homicide department, where her real interests lie. Obviously the decision doesn’t sit well with the Kowalski men, but it also rubs Lina (Marisa Ramirez) her partner in IA, the wrong way. Lina believes that IA, the outcast department, has merit and shouldn’t be a rung below a higher goal.
All of that sets up nicely and gives the series something to work with. Against the Wall does suffer from some predicatale pilot-itis, as Abby has at least two too many quirks to be belevable. But it’s only the pilot and these things can be worked out. Then again, it’s only the pilot and these things can get magnified.
But mostly Against the Wall is a pleasant surprise, with Carpani being a much bigger surprise. If Against the Wall can make its disparate parts work, it will be plenty more intriguing than a number of network procedurals. And in the cable game, that’s already a victory.
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