Nobody Loves Me

Can The Job's hard-to-like cop win the kindness of strangers?

Denis Leary's sardonically arty cop show, The Job is the kind of program critics rave about, programmers trot out for a quick midseason PR bump (see, we do too put good shows on the air!), and audiences mostly ignore. Somebody should come up with a generic name for these kinds of programs--unpredictable, intelligent entertainment that crosses genres and crosses up expectations and thus doesn't stand much of a chance in a world ruled by survivors and sitcoms. "Must-Not-See TV"? "Honorable Failures"?

Whatever you call it, The Job shares enough resemblance to sit comfortably at the table with the freaks, geeks, and misfits that are its truest forebears. Dark, censor-provoking, adult-language-adoring, it covets cable-level buzz with its peregrinations at the outer boundaries of the acceptable. "How big is your penis?" Leary's Mike McNeil hears guest star Elizabeth Hurley innocently inquire over dinner at a fancy restaurant. "Hunnh?" he stumbles. "Do you serve subpoenas?" she repeats. Soon after, Donald Trump stops by the table to pay his respects. "Are you bangin' her?" he inquires, one connoisseur to another.

A comedy of sorts, but without a laugh track, The Job (8:30 p.m. Wednesdays; KSTP-Channel 5) is less interested in crime solving than in the sheer existential chutzpah it takes McNeil to stomp through the day. It can claim two species of ancestors, neither of them particularly long-lived. In addition to critical hits and popular flops like Fox's bilious Action and Profit, it revives the earlier failed experiment of "dramedies" like Hooperman and The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, which you also probably heard were pretty good but never got around to watching. Exalted company on the one hand, less than a full season's worth of episodes in total on the other. Considering that evidence, is there any point in expecting a show like this to last out even half the year?

Maybe so. The Job is neither as gleefully mean as Action nor as mercilessly antisocial as Profit, which means two things: First, this show is not what it could be; second, that margin of aesthetic failure might actually enable it to escape oblivion for a while longer. If the lesson of previous attempts at this genre is that audiences rebel at anything that strays too far from the well-known and amiable, this show hews near enough to convention to win a season or two of viewership. (Catch it while you can, though, since the signs are hardly promising.)

Either way, give most of the credit (and blame for the weak spots--or should that be credit, too?) to creator and star Leary. He apparently fought hard to realize his vision without sweetening its bile, and the result is the most aggressively unlikable protagonist since Andy Sipowitz first wowed the ladies by drunkenly grabbing his crotch and calling future wife Sylvia a bitch. Mike McNeil, who tools around in a Caesar cut, longish sideburns, and an assortment of horrific blazers, is Austin Powers stuck with a desk job, a cranky, self-pitying lush who unenthusiastically cheats on his mistress and his wife, and can barely chase a suspect for a block without doubling over in pain. "I pulled a hamstring," he lies to his concerned, responsible partner (Bill Nunn, playing the motherly, Danny Glover role). When he engages in a particularly maudlin bit of whining about his age, the female cop he has recently slept with snarls, "What are you, eight? You got a tough job. You can't handle it, get a job as a crossing guard."

McNeil is not too unlikable, though; even at his most angrily contrarian, Leary has never actually dared to covet your dislike, much less your hatred. Like Andrew Dice Clay, Leary is secretly neotrad--just a regular guy calling for the return of sanity and morality to a world overrun by p.c.-spouting morons and "sensitive" suckasses. Mike McNeil is the same way: We're led to understand that he's not intentionally mean or hurtful, just a lunk doing his best to navigate a course through a sea of women's tempers.

At its worst, The Job heads for barren, Raymond-style henpecked-husband territory, as when McNeil growls that his partner violated their privacy by taking his work home: "Men are supposed to tell stuff to other men without worrying that they're leaking it to the enemy." Worse, McNeil's wife shoves him out the door the morning after tabloid photographers catch him kissing Hurley, but only after saddling him with a stack of requests for autographs. A character like this is always best when nobody, including the viewers, really loves him. This cuts down on the star's tendency to mug, for one thing, and keeps the writers honest, for another. It would be the death knell for this show if McNeil suddenly became a good role model.

Pushing the character's ugliness a bit would go a long way. One of the best scenes so far (and the bit trotted out for promos) showed him using a recording of a suspect's shrieking grandmother (she'd been told her grandson had died) to extort a confession. The suspect believed that McNeil was ordering her to be beaten every time he refused to answer a question. Played for laughs--all the cops seemed to get off on the sweaty horror they inspired--the scene presented a genuinely unsettling vision of the grotesqueries that this kind of job requires. No wonder someone like this ends up slumped nightly on a barstool, doing his best to anesthetize his moral faculties before they pain him further.

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