When putting together a police procedural, there’s a couple routes you can go:
1) Stick with the tried and true, building on the foundation established Hill Street Blues, Law & Order, NYPD Blue, and countless others
2) Lay your own spin on the formula, such that each episode is more than just a case of the week
The latter is the quickest way into my heart, if not the public’s, as evidenced by ABC’s quirky (and short-lived) midseason effort The Unusuals. When ABC went back to the drawing board, they came up with Detroit 1-8-7 for the fall season. The show was firmly implanted in camp 2) as a mockumentary that tracks the adventures of a group of Detroit cops. 1-8-7 retooled over the summer, ditching the doc format, and is now stuck in the ether between 1) and 2). My review after the jump.
Detroit 1-8-7 is a window into the world of the men and women of Detroit Homicide. The department is led by the no-nonsense Lt. Maureen Mason (Aisha Hinds), but truly revolves around Det. Louis Fitch (Michael Imperioli), a troubled but accomplished veteran. He is partnered with Det. Damon Washington (Jon Michael Hall), for whom the first episode doubles as first day on the job. The detective squad is rounded out by rising star Ariana Sanchez (Natalie Martinez), charming undercover specialist John Stone (D.J. Cotrona), and engineer-turned-cop Vikram Mahajan (Shaun Majumder). The latter is partnered with grizzled veteran Jesse Longford (James McDaniel), just one year away from retirement.
I was sad to see the mockumentary aspect go, because the original 1-8-7 pilot utilized it better than most (see: fellow ABC freshman My Generation). My favorite moment: Fitch, true to his character, seizes a nearby camera to break a car window. Now, he grabs a nearby miscellaneous blunt object for the same effect. One of these draws the viewer in more than the other.
The first episode is still flush with remnants of the mocku-pilot: a wayward glance at the camera, an awkward cut to hide the reshoot, a camera operator who must film a conversation through the doorway. The greatest of these is a brief shot where a witness, decked with a mouth full of bling, growls at the camera. A neat touch in the original pilot, and a delightful moment still. True, it’s a bit out of place when the camera is no longer an active entity. But I hope the show keeps such flourishes as a nod to its roots.
I was entertained by these changes in rewatching the first episode, so the real litmus test is episode two, “Local Hero/Overboard,” which ABC was kind enough to supply. It’s good. It’s clear that 1-8-7 fully subscribes to the “new episode, new case” philosophy. But the second hour is engaging and frequently connects to the events of the pilot in a shrewd manner, particularly in the final moments. I left my viewing with the impression that I could absolutely spend an hour each week with this group of characters.
1-8-7 certainly qualifies as an ensemble drama, but Imperioli emerges as the clear alpha dog. I’ve seen enough of the actor in The Sopranos and Life on Mars to appreciate his work, though I link him to broad, mostly comic roles. The enigmatic Det. Finch is a different beast altogether, with a high degree of difficulty. And Imperioli is very, very good. There’s a scene that depends entirely on his ability to stare silently to move the plot forward, and Imperioli sells it like a pro. The rest of the cast is similarly up to the challenge: I’m particularly fond of the terrific comedic rapport between Majumder and McDaniel.
Detroit 1-8-7 is an undeniably comic series, though it taps into the melancholy of a rundown city that keeps the proceedings from a levity too far beyond bittersweet. (Mahajan and Longford joke about how difficult it is to find the precise shell casing they are looking for among the many that litter the sidewalk. That’s Detroit for ya!) Likewise, the soundtrack was a nice touch, but I’m a sucker for Motown, so your mileage may vary.
The show lost a certain spark with the format change, but I’d include it among the better efforts in a genre that generally eludes me. Like I said, I could easily spend an hour each week with these characters. A very important feat for a procedural like this one. If you’re a fan of police dramas — and maybe even if you aren’t — I’d recommend checking this one out.
Detroit 1-8-7 premieres Tuesday, September 21st at 10/9c on ABC.