NBC’s new drama Shades of Blue begins with a shocker. Jennifer Lopez’s Harlee Santos is recording a confession, looking rather worse for the wear. Her eyes are crazed, her cheekbone bruised, her hair lank and lifeless. The story then flashes back to two weeks earlier, allowing us to trace a sure-to-be-labyrinthine course to crookedness, capture and, presumably, the disappearance of Lopez’s personal stylist.
To call Shades of Blue a vanity project for Lopez might be underselling it. Beyond starring in and producing Shades of Blue, Lopez appears in most scenes and, after that in medias res opening, she never looks less than perfect. Whether she’s rolling out of bed, chasing suspects, facing the pressure of interrogation or working out in a boxing gym, her sweat glistens rather than drips, her ringlets are ever-springy, her tank tops are always spotless and no source of light ever casts an ill shadow upon her.
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But “vanity project” sounds negative, and who would begrudge Lopez such a thing? On the big screen, she has alternated between financially successful trash like The Boy Next Door and well-meaning smaller movies that then are blamed on her if they don’t get theatrical traction. With Shades of Blue, Lopez gets the guarantee of NBC exposure and a full season of episodes in which to develop a character — and, more crucially, she has the creative input to make sure that the show showcases her strengths. And to some degree, it works. The new series is a reminder of what a strong screen presence Lopez has really always been, dating back to her “fly girl” days, but also what a fine actress she can be, shifting between strength and vulnerability with ease. The downside is that Shades of Blue is, as a whole, not a very good show. Still, it’s at least a bad show in a way that’s compatible with a lot of Lopez’s bad movies, so it should satisfy its intended audience.
Series creator Adi Hasak appears to have gone through Lopez’s body of work, grasped that audiences like seeing her play authority figures who get victimized or victims who fight back, and consequently crafted a hybrid of Angel Eyes and Enough. Harlee Santos is part of a thoroughly dirty but somewhat morally justifiable squad of Brooklyn detectives led by secret-harboring lieutenant Matt Wozniak (Ray Liotta). Yes, they take bribes, plant evidence and condone a threshold of criminal behavior, but they keep drugs away from schools and they’re like a big family, so it’s OK. Santos, also a single mom, is busted and coerced into becoming an FBI mole by Special Agent Stahl (Warren Kole), who turns out to be a borderline stalker with no qualms about putting Santos in jeopardy once Wozniak begins to suspect his unit has a rat.
Critics received eight Shades of Blue episodes and, at least for a while, it holds up reasonably well, despite a nonstop barrage of thematically on-the-nose observations about the ethical gray spaces of police work, the slippery nature of truth and the challenges of being both a cop and a parent (all of which threaten to make it into a dark version of The Mysteries of Laura, in which Debra Messing’s character ponders the difficulty of balancing kids and corruption — yes, TV women, you can have it all).
Some credit for the not-terrible early episodes goes to director Barry Levinson, who contributes a solid sense of pace and place, while guiding the two central performances from Lopez and Liotta. Lopez is equally believable chasing down perps or lamenting the possibility of missing her daughter’s cello recital. And Liotta devours scenery with an abandon that screams, “If you’d just given me an Oscar nod for Narc, I probably wouldn’t have to do this!” Few actors go psycho with Liotta’s commitment, and he seems liberated by a slow-burn episodic format that allows him to go bug-eyed and spittle-spewing in one scene and then share a quiet, affecting scene with Lopez or co-star Lolita Davidovich.
Eventually, though, structural flimsiness catches up with the show. Too much of the drama hinges on characters telling stupid lies only for the purposes of being caught minutes later and having to spin more lies until suspending disbelief becomes impossible. And as the series progresses, too much of the drama borrows from prior properties, right up to the fifth episode, which takes so much from The Shield that Shawn Ryan may need to ask about royalties. The most egregious of the Shield thefts left me with a bad taste I never really recovered from.
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Additional episodes also underline how, in emphasizing Lopez and Liotta, the rest of the Shades of Blue cast remains underserved. Dayo Okeniyi has some introspective scenes as Santos’ new-to-the-game partner, but squad members played by Vincent Laresca and Hampton Fluker might as well not have names. Most inexplicably purposeless is Drea de Matteo, who gets to be in the Shades of Blue poster because of her Sopranos Emmy, but spends most of the first half of the season complaining about her husband’s affair and little more. Fans of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend will be amused by Santino Fontana’s role, but fans of scripted TV will see every one of his character beats coming episodes in advance.
“I always told myself that the end would justify the means. But now that I’m at the end, I can’t justify anything,” Santos says in her series-opening confession. As a vehicle to stretch her acting muscles, Lopez has no need to justify this foray onto the small screen, though all but her biggest fans may struggle to make it to the end to see how things got so disheveled.