TV: Terriers (Season One)

When I first heard about Terriers, I was lured by the popular impression that it might be a modern-day version of The Rockford Files: an old-school, breezy, Southern California mystery-of-the-week involving blue collar private investigators getting in over their heads. Sounds good to me! But Terriers is no Rockford Files: it’s far superior, and its first season (hopefully not its last) is one of the most satisfying seasons of TV I’ve watched in years, from its promising pilot to its perfect finale.

The show centers on a pair of private investigators, Hank Dolworth (Donal Logue) and Britt Pollack (Michael Raymond-James), who’ve come together from different directions. Hank is a former cop, and generally a well meaning champion of justice. But he’s also a self-centered, manipulative man who frequently puts his needs and impulses ahead of everything else; his drinking and self-destructive behavior have cost him both his job and the love of his life, Gretchen (Kimberly Quinn), now his ex-wife. Britt, on the other hand, is a former thief, trying to rein in his more wayward tendencies and do right by his new girlfriend Katie (Laura Allen). Coming from the law on one side and crime on the other, they’ve landed in a hazy middle ground, bending rules with one hand while holding up principles with the other. As the season starts, they’re strictly small potatoes, but it doesn’t take long before they’ve stumbled onto bigger, broader mysteries — and into ever hotter water.

At first, Terriers appeared to be what I was expecting: an entertaining buddy PI show relying on snappy dialogue, smartly conceived mysteries, and ensemble chemistry to propel its episodic plots. The early Rockford Files comparisons are understandable, on the surface. Every week, the blue-collar detectives scrape up gigs and investigate problems with good old-fashioned legwork. At home on the street, they’ve also got connections in the system:  Hank’s former partner Mark Gustafson (Rockmond Dunbar) serves as the duo’s police insider, while the sharp-tongued Maggie Lefferts (Jamie Denbo) provides the legal counsel. (These characters fulfill the function, if not the form, of Rockford’s harrassed police and law allies Dennis Becker and Beth Davenport.) Had the show developed into the everything-resets-at-episode’s-end mode of the old Stephen J. Cannell shows, it probably still would’ve been worth watching.

But Terriers develops into something more than just a monster-of-the-week series. The writers have a master plan, and they carry it off brilliantly, not without some red herrings and misdirection along the way. Is it satisfying to see the guys close a case in sixty minutes? Sure, but it’s even more satisfying to see the subtle and clever ways the show weaves its arcs — story, character, thematic — through these self-contained stories into a greater whole.

Stylistically, Terriers is a tricky show to pigeon-hole. It’s a crockpot of ingredients: modern noir, gritty drama, conspiracy-thriller, buddy comedy, character study. It delivers funny lines, believable relationships, shocking violence, unexpected plot twists, moments of nerve-wracking suspense, and perhaps most importantly, effective and consistent characterization. This last is key, I think; there are no throwaway characters on this show. Even the suspects and informants that cross the screen briefly in service to the plot — characters who, on other mystery-solving shows, might be fatally bland infodumps — feel like real, well defined people with motives and issues and desires, contributing to the weird, bohemian world of Hank and Britt’s Ocean Beach.

That said, it’s the two leads who bring everything together, and they make for as engaging a TV partnership as you’re going to get.   Donal Logue is spectacular as Hank, a compelling anti-hero and really the motor of the show: a mess of a man, he’s Andy Sipowicz meets “The Dude,” dishing atrocious behavior one moment and charming witticisms the next, impulsive blinders often obscuring a fierce intelligence and a gentle heart. But as Britt, Michael Raymond-James gives us perhaps an even more unique character: simple, direct, fearless, aware of his limitations, moving through life with a combination of puppy-dog enthusiasm and shifty, heads-up toughness. The chemistry between these two guys is instant, and the camaraderie just leaps off the screen. You like them, just as they like each other, and you want them to succeed, despite their weaknesses and vulnerabilities and limited resources.

Which leads us to theme, which is yet another strength of the show. Terriers pits its blue-collar, lowbrow heroes — and the misfits who ally with them — against the clockwork evil of the world’s money and power, as symbolized best perhaps by the great Michael Gaston (whose recurring lawyer character, Ben Zeitlin, makes for an unforgettable antagonist). Terriers is a show, then, that champions the underdog when confronted with vaster, more powerful forces. It examines — not unlike The Wire, perhaps, if not as ambitious — the way social systems work, and how individuals get caught in the switches. But here, Hank and Britt fight the system, in spite of everything. It’s inspiring stuff.

At this writing, Terriers hasn’t been renewed, and the ratings were pretty poor. Perhaps the title was too obscure, the theme song too incongruous, the…chins too hairy, I don’t know. What I do know is that Terriers is great TV, and if this is the only season we’re going to get, it couldn’t have been more satisfying. The finale ties everything together beautifully, and the last moment of the season couldn’t be more perfect.

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