In Shades of Blue, Jennifer Lopez is Harlee Santos, an NYPD detective in a ring of morally flexible cops led by Lt. Matt Wozniak (Ray Liotta). When the FBI nabs her in an anti-corruption sting, Harlee becomes an informant and is forced to choose, minute by minute, between doing the right thing for her daughter, protecting her fellow corrupt cops and staying alive. Lopez, who executive-produces Shades along with others including Ryan Seacrest, is fantastic: fierce, vulnerable and so good at conveying anxiety you may need to take some deep breaths after each episode.
Still, this is a risky move for Lopez, here's why.
1. People think Jennifer Lopez is too good for TV. Perhaps you have heard of Jennifer Lopez before now? Even if you are too young (or too old) to recall her previous waves of superstardom (...Selena Jennifer Lopez, On the 6 Jennifer Lopez, Versace dress Jennifer Lopez, Bennifer Jennifer Lopez...) surely you have seen her on American Idol or, slaying that dance montage at the American Music Awards in November. (At 46!) With a residency in Las Vegas this year, J. Lo is now more of a cultural phenomenon than mere celebrity.That's why her playing an un-glamorous, working-class detective literally falling into deep sh-- while chasing bad guys on network TV is a surprising step. Yes, TV is where the good stories and good roles are today. But then, for every Viola Davis, who soared to an Emmy heights on How to Get Away With Murder there's a Halle Berry, whose foray into TV with Extant ended with the show cancelled after the second season. If successful, Shades of Blue vaults Lopez even higher. If it flops, it could put a snag in her sequined CV.
2. The police procedural has been done already - a lot. Not only is the fabulous J. Lo doing network TV, she's doing a police procedural, one of the most well-trod formats out there. But showrunner Jack Orman, nominated for an Emmy for his writing and co-producing on ER, says that looking at Shades as a cop drama is limiting."It's more an environment and stage for this morality play to unfold," he says. "We had an ex-cop in the writer's room who was very helpful, but the procedural plots are two, three beats. I've always been a fan of ensemble drama. In my experience on ER, I've attempted to write scenes where there's complexity, lots of elements coming together, juggling story lines." Indeed, supporting characters, including rookie cop Michael Loman (Dayo Okeniyi) and tough-as-nails Tess Nazario (Drea de Matteo) have conflicts and personal crises outside of their police work, which viewers will see - if they can suspend cop-drama preconceptions.
3. A show about corrupt cops couldn't come at a worse time. From Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. to Eric Garner in New York to Walter Scott in South Carolina, months of headlines illuminating questionable or even criminal conduct by police officers has caused nationwide concern and outrage. Given the current climate, a series about cops that take payoffs, conceal evidence and even kill to protect their own appears to be either a timely gamble -- or totally insane."This show was initially developed before this rose to national consciousness," Orman says. "But when it did, we felt that it was important to address the reality, especially with the element of corruption. We're very mindful of the climate." Orman sees all the officers as heroes, he says, and despite what Liotta's Wozniak calls "our brand of justice," they actually do have noble intentions. How they act on those intentions isn't always great though, and the risk here is that some may interpret Shades as an exposé instead of fiction.
4. Shades of Blue doesn't shy away from racial and sexual politics. In the second episode, two black cops -sensitive rookie Loman and seasoned Marcus Tufo (Hampton Fluker) - get into a heated exchange. Both sworn to protect, they also both know what it's like to be a suspect solely because of skin color. Loman stresses a need for empathy but Tufo isn't having it. "We're not social workers," Tufo says. "The politicians and crybabies standing at the sidelines wanting to criticize never had to do our damn jobs. The public doesn't give a damn about your vulnerability in the street. You think they care?" Their opposing perspectives humanize headlines, yet the show's admirable embrace of controversy is bold.
We also see the casual sexism Harlee and Tess endure in the ranks. Like other men, FBI agent Robert Stahl (Warren Kole) speaks to women - even superiors - like subordinates with few repercussions. His role as Harlee's handler gets uncomfortably controlling; he's OK with yanking her like a doll and saying, "I own you." Oh, and there's a secret gay romance too, which will blow you away and perhaps prompt new thinking about power and its relationship to with sexuality. Pick a hot button,Shades pushes it.
5. It's good, but it'll be a challenge to stay good. Shades is packed with twists, dips, turns and OMG moments as guns go off, and the white lies Harlee tells to stay alive unravel in gripping suspense. While there are some slightly predictable, ethically ambiguous cop-drama movements ("I'm not a good person. You should stay away from me," Harlee warbles a few episodes in) the tension between her and Wozniak is great - even if it does feel too reminiscent of Lopez's turn as vengeful battered wife in Enough. Ray Liotta is perfectly cast, as nobody does sinister menacing cop face like him, and he's terrifying at points. Still, there's a nagging feeling that the central, nail-biting cat-and-mouse game between Harlee, Wozniak and Stahl can't possibly go on forever. You start to wonder, can this sustain itself?
"You see in future episodes Wozniak's eye turn towards other members of the crew," Orman says. "There's some tragedy, suspense and danger. It becomes very Shakespearian. When we fist started, we realized there was a psychological thriller element to this show. Continuing down those roads and playing the suspense is one of the things we worked on diligently."
So far, so good.
Shades of Blue premieres Thursday Jan. 7 at 10/9c on NBC.