Shades of Blue: Will JLo's ho-hum performance be enough to carry the show?
The viewers who watched tonight's premiere of Shades of Blue — NBC's newest crime procedural — had only one reason for doing so.
It's true — after years of appearing on the big screen and working behind the scenes on series like The Fosters, JLo is back on television. And I can't blame fans for being excited. Lopez may be best known for her musical talents and business skills, but her acting chops are solid. It's been a while since we've seen her dig into a new, meaty role, and the notion of seeing her develop a new character over the course of a television season — or multiple seasons, if all goes well — is an undeniably thrilling thought. Who wouldn't want to see her succeed at this?
Still, amid the JLo praise that filled Twitter as Shades of Blue aired, there were hints that the show — including, sadly, the leading lady's performance — wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
What happened? This is JLo's triumphant return to television? Was her performance really so mediocre, her show so derivative?
In a word, yes.
And it's not even the premise that's the problem. Lopez plays Harlee Santos, a New York police officer working for the corrupt but charismatic Lieutenant Bill Wozniak (Ray Liotta). Harlee's a good person, but she's rationalized the shady ethical boundaries (and outright illegal activities) that she'll need to engage in under Wozniak's command. After all, he is footing the bill of her daughter's private school education. But after she's entrapped by FBI agent Robert Staal (Warren Kole), Harlee is forced to reconsider her loyalties and work for both sides of justice. The themes are complex, and there's no doubt in my mind that a compelling show could have been built around such themes.
The trouble starts with the writing. The dialogue is clunky and obvious, leaving nothing to subtext. We also meet these characters just as Harlee is recruited to be an informant, so we don't really have much time with her and Wozniak to understand their relationship and why she's so devoted to him. This twist might have worked better had it come midseason, because then we would've had a few episodes to understand Harlee's life and work and the depths of Wozniak's corruption, which, in turn, would ease us into the world of the show. Instead, everything happens at once, and the results are jumbled and incomprehensible.
The acting doesn't help, but I don't want to blame that solely on the performers. They don't have a lot to work with and they are making an effort. But it takes a lot more than reading lines to make JLo believable as an NYPD detective. Just as it was impossible to buy her as a high school teacher in last year's The Boy Next Door, it's equally hard now to see her working a beat and clumsily shooting a gun. There's not enough to her character at this point to differentiate her from the A-list celebrity we know her as, and that's going to really get in the way of connecting with Harlee as a character.
One bright spot is Sarah Jeffery as Harlee's teenage daughter Cristina. As unconvincing as JLo is as a detective, she is very believable as a mom. And Cristina is pretty much the only fully redeemable character on the show at this point. She's the one we're rooting for and I'm interested in how she develops over the course of the season.
The problem with this, however, is that Harlee's sole motivation boils down to her motherhood. Every decision she makes is about protecting her daughter, even if it involves lying about whether tuition has been paid and where she'll be getting the money to pay it. I understand that it's a natural, biological impulse to be driven to protect one's offspring, but can't JLo play someone a bit more complex than this? Women aren't breeding and nurturing machines, and Harlee is a cop. She's tough. She has a professional life and a romantic life and friendships, and surely some of her motivation must come from those aspects of her life as well. That's not to say that she can't care about Cristina or that her motherhood should be irrelevant to the plot. It's just an exhausting trope and this is one show where it's not even all that necessary.
There is some hope that, as the season progresses and gets more intense and outlandish, it may improve. The most exciting scene of the pilot involves Harlee crashing her car repeatedly as Sia's "Chandelier" blasts in the background. It's the one moment of the show where we see the complexity of Harlee's emotions and the lengths that she will go to to cover her tracks and protect herself and her family. It was the one moment where the visual style of the show had any strong impact. It was also tonally inconsistent with everything else in the episode and felt as though it belonged somewhere else entirely. But if Shades of Blue emphasizes the clunky procedural elements less and focuses on the intensity of Harlee's emotional struggle, it might actually have a chance.
Shades of Blue airs at 10/9c on NBC every Thursday. Tune in next week for more.