Call it the Dorffaissaince. Stephen Dorff, the versatile journeyman actor best known for playing the bad guy in Blade, the sad dad in Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, and himself in a commercial for Blu eCigs, recently gave a revelatory performance in True Detective Season 3. As Mahershala Ali's partner Det. Roland West, Dorff embodied the cop's volcanic temper and complicated love for his partner and his community. He was terrific, and while he wasn't recognized by any awards bodies for his performance, he did get a starring role in Fox's modern Western cop drama Deputy, which deploys the cop ability he displayed in True Detective in much simpler, procedural fashion. It's not as complex a performance, but it's compelling in its own crusty way.
On Deputy, Dorff plays Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department deputy Bill Hollister, a gruff, old-school, self-professed "lawman" who gets unexpectedly promoted to Los Angeles Sheriff when the current sheriff dies of a heart attack, thanks to an arcane old rule in the county charter that promotes the sheriff's longest-serving deputy if the sheriff dies in office. Hollister is more suited to catching bad guys than doing politics, but he sees the opportunity to remake the sheriff's department in his image in the four months or so before the next election. "This department has lost its way," he tells a graduating class of cadets in the pilot. "Too many save-asses and not enough ass-kickers." He wants to return the department to serving the people and protecting the innocent by empowering his deputies to do whatever they think is right. And he'll lead by example, whether that means not complying with ICE raids or storming a bad guy's compound on horseback with guns blazing. There's literally a new sheriff in town.
Deputy is a melange of Western and cop show cliches in a novel-enough package, thanks to creators Will Beall, who writes, and David Ayer, who directs the pilot and bathes everything in golden light. Beall is a former LAPD detective who wrote the screenplay for Aquaman and developed the TV adaptation of Training Day, which was based on screenwriter and director Ayer's breakthrough script. Beall and Ayer are kindred spirits, committed to depicting L.A. cops with humanity and grit. Ayer works in genres besides L.A. cop stuff sometimes, like the superhero movie Suicide Squad, but L.A. cop stuff is his forte. He's now in the genre mash-up phase of his career. There was the execrable Bright, which was Training Day with elves, and now there's Deputy, which is End of Watch with horses. Like that 2012 movie — Ayer's best after Training Day — Deputy focuses on the forged-in-fire relationships between sheriff's deputies and celebrates the work patrol officers do. It has an ear for colorful dialogue and an obvious love for the city and the people who live in it.
Deputy has an unrealistically rosy view of what "cops being allowed to do their jobs" looks like — check out the "misconduct" section of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Wikipedia page to see what really happens when cops do what they want — and its thin blue line agenda leads to moments of cognitive dissonance. In the pilot, Hollister repeatedly disobeying orders to comply with ICE roundups of non-criminals on the grounds that "we're all immigrants" is presented as noble and heroic, but so is the fact that department brass has identified him as likely to be the subject of excessive force lawsuits. With its vision of a department whose problems aren't racism, corruption, and brutality, but that its deputies aren't allowed enough leeway in beating people up, Deputy is as much a fantasy as Bright. Which is OK. TV shows are not obligated to accurately reflect the world. But Deputy's attempts at capturing how L.A. cops look and talk as truthfully as broadcast will allow combined with its failure to meaningfully engage with the real crises in policing in America today makes the show feel incomplete, at least through the first three episodes.
Dorff is very solid as Hollister. He keeps a toothpick in the corner of his mouth to simulate the cigarette that's obviously supposed to be there. Watching Dorff run after bad guys and fight people requires some suspension of disbelief, because he has the weathered voice of a man who runs out of breath easily. But when he's delivering copspeak like "You need three things to do your job: your badge, your gun, and what's in your heart" in his two-packs-a-day rasp, he makes for a very convincing sensitive tough guy. He's a trustworthy presence at the center of the show, and that's enough to make Deputy watchable, even if it's not doing anything particularly notable.
TV Guide Rating: 2.5/5
Deputy premieres Thursday, Jan. 2 at 9/8c on Fox.