Over the last few years, basic cable networks have rescued TV fanatics from the summer doldrums by cranking out a number of top-quality original series precisely when they're needed most - at that time of year when the broadcast networks go on vacation, leaving behind mushy schedules filled with reruns and simple-minded "reality" shows.
TNT (Turner Network Television) has filled this programming gap as well as anybody. For the most part, the cable network's best original series have been built around solid, A-list stars such as Kyra Sedgwick in The Closer, Holly Hunter in Saving Grace, and Timothy Hutton in Leverage.
But its newest entry in the summer sweepstakes, Dark Blue, which premieres tomorrow at 10 p.m., deviates from this winning formula. The intense cop drama, about a super-secret undercover unit in L.A., stars Dylan McDermott, best known for playing heartthrob lawyer Bobby Donnell on ABC's The Practice.
Not exactly chopped liver, maybe, but apparently not enough for TNT to build a publicity campaign around, either. In most of its pre-premiere press material, the network has touted as the show's biggest gun not its lead actor, but its executive producer, Jerry Bruckheimer.
Understandable, since Bruckheimer has long had the magic touch in Hollywood, both on the big screen (National Treasure, Pirates of the Caribbean) and on TV (Without a Trace and the various CSI series).
Like Bruckheimer's other projects, Dark Blue is infused with a dark grittiness that extends from the murky lighting to the characters' moods. As head of the undercover unit, McDermott's character is a brooding, world-weary loner who's obsessed with bringing bad guys to justice.
And in the finest tradition of brooding TV cops, he doesn't mind bending a few rules to get the job done, though he's not exactly convincing as a rogue cop who straddles the line. (For a master class on that, watch a season's worth of The Shield on DVD and note the performance of Michael Chiklis. Nobody has ever done rogue cop better.)
It's worth noting, however, that McDermott does sport one of the best manly stubbles on his chin since Miami Vice's Don Johnson.
Other members of the team include a recently married cop who has a hard time juggling his real and undercover lives; a hothead who keeps a stash of money and drugs under the floor of his apartment, and a young female officer whose main qualification for the job is that she's a really good liar.
In the pilot episode, it doesn't take long for viewers to discern that the basic problem in undercover police work - well, other than that nagging threat of having your cover blown and subsequently having your head blown off - is getting as close to being a bad guy as possible without actually becoming one.
In fact, most of the first episode is spent trying to determine whether one team member has "flipped" and become a real criminal instead of a fake one. But the answer to that mystery is about as obvious and predictable as the rest of the show, and ultimately, that's Dark Blue's major weakness.
Though Bruckheimer's involvement ensures that Dark Blue is more stylized than most other cop shows on television - the first episode opens with a grotesque torture scene the likes of which you won't often see on TV - the fact remains that there's precious little to set the series apart from a dozen other cop shows, past and present.
Contrast that with the new series' lead-in, the Season 2 premiere of the slick caper series Leverage - a clever, well-constructed melange of Mission: Impossible, Ocean's 11, and The Sting - and Dark Blue seems even less impressive, and less likely to last an entire season.