September 21, 2013

TV: Ironside (Wed 10, NBC)

Premieres October 2; pilot currently available at Hulu.

Because Ironside is a 21st-century police procedural, we are obliged to begin with a scene in which Robert Ironside (Blair Underwood) demonstrates that using a wheelchair is no obstacle to his committing illegal interrogations and acts of police brutality. And because Ironside is a 21st-century police procedural, the principal crime in the pilot is the death of a pretty young white woman, whose corpse is seen surrounded by an ample pool of blood.

Ironside heads up his own hand-picked team of detectives as the result of a settlement following his being shot on the job two years earlier. The detectives are the obligatory Mod Squad of police sidekicks -- one pretty female (Spencer Grammer), two hunky males (Pablo Schreiber and Neal Bledsoe) -- none of whom is allowed to have any personality, because that might pull focus away from Underwood, and this, by god, is a star vehicle. There's also the obligatory grumpy "why can't you follow the rules, Ironside?" captain, played by Kenneth Choi with even less personality than the Mod Squad. The only supporting character who does have much personality is Ironside's former partner (Brent Sexton), still on extended leave and struggling with guilt in his role over the shooting; he's giving the only remotely interesting performance in the pilot.

Underwood has settled on acerbic and bitter as the entirety of his characterization. It's certainly credible that having been shot and being disabled as a result might leave one bitter, but in flashbacks to before the shooting, we see that he was just as big a jerk then, too. I'm all for actors attempting to stretch and play different types, but there's also a lot to be said for knowing what you do well. Blair Underwood at his best is a tremendously charming, warm, sexy, likable man, and it's painful to watch him closing off all of his principal assets to play this nasty, hostile person. He treats his underlings like idiots, and has so little respect for their abilities that you wonder why he picked them for his squad in the first place.

Those pre-shooting flashbacks have been used by the producers as justification for hiring Underwood rather than hiring an actor who really does use a wheelchair. If they're actually going to show us something useful about the character, that might be a reasonable defense, but in the pilot, they don't tell us anything that couldn't be equally well covered in four or five lines of dialogue; they're such useless scenes that I started to feel like they'd been added fairly late in the process, after the producers realized they might take some heat for not hiring a paraplegic actor.

The case-of-the-week is serviceable, but it's nothing particularly distinctive or interesting, and the answer falls into place pretty much as you'd expect it to after the first five minutes. And "nothing particularly distinctive or interesting," unfortunately, is also a pretty good summary of the show as a whole. The time slot's not fiercely competitive, and the show could easily run for two or three years, getting just-good-enough ratings to survive without ever impressing anyone in any way.

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