You’ve seen crime shows. You’ve seen buddy shows. But you’ve never quite seen anything like “Terriers” (premiering on FX September 8th, 10 pm). The brainchild of “Ocean’s 11” scribe Ted Griffin with “The Shield” showrunner Shawn Ryan alongside as co-executive producer, “Terriers” shows a shaggier, seedier side of private investigation with a healthy dose of humor, mythology, and a bit of the old ultraviolence thrown in.
At the heart of the show lies the partnership between Hank Dolworth (Donal Logue) and Britt Pollack (Michael Raymond-James). If the show did nothing else past casting these two as the leads, then the show would still merit a Season Pass on my DVD. So many shows strive for the type of chemistry exhibited by these two actors. More often than not, chemistry is something that shows discover rather than display from Minute One. But in Logue and Raymond-James, “Terriers” has a duo with so much complicated affection for one another that the audience can’t help but feel for these underdogs. (For more on the real-life history between these two, check out Alan Sepinwall’s interview with the stars here.)
Luckily, the show is more than just a weekly romp of frivolity between two well-matched actors and two well-written characters. If the “Ocean’s 11” credit led you to think this show would have the lighthearted, relatively stakes-free capers that marked the successful Clooney/Pitt/Damon film trilogy, think again. The cases of the week don’t simply involve colorful characters in unusual situations: rather, “Terriers” takes what would be simply a sensationalistic plotline on another would-be “edgy” procedural and veers off into surprisingly sober territory before long.
At its heart, the first four episodes show Hank and Britt dealing with the weight of their pasts, pasts that led them to working their unlicensed PI gig out of a misleadingly labeled pick-up truck. Their first caper is directly from “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” but quickly ties into Britt’s inability to settle down with his impossibly patient girlfriend, which in turn quickly evolves into Hank’s man-child behavior, which in turn hints at a darker past. Cases serve character, with each week deepening not only the hole these detectives find themselves in, but also our understanding of why these two men keep putting themselves in seemingly impossible situations.
Logue in particular is the stand-out here, a character actor that’s as interesting as the materials given to him. In his breakout role in the 2000 film “The Tao of Steve,” he played a character with such a force of personality that I figured I’d seen a man destined to be a force in Hollywood. But just like the aforementioned Brad Pitt, Donald Logue tends to only register when given material outside the box. Cast him as an overweight, overeducated, underachieving lothario? Genius. Cast him as the bland “buddy” in a run-of-the-mill rom-com? You might as well cast a cardboard cut-out of the man: that would give as much three-dimensionality to the role.
“Terriers” has this really interesting way of lighting Logue’s face: in some shots, he looks as youthful as his “Tao” days, but in others, they use an overly bright, low-hanging source light to give him a ghostly, haunted, hollow face. His overly long hairdo covers that gaunt, skeleton structure underneath, serving as the shield that booze used to serve in his life. He gave up the sauce long before the show starts its narrative, but all that he’s lost hangs around him at all times. Not only is he trying to solve cases, but he’s trying to solve how to right the wrongs that disgraced him both professionally and personally.
For his part, Britt plays second-fiddle to Hank. He has more useful physical skills (for reasons that will become clear starting in the third episode), but he’s definitely not the brighter of the two, a fact that Hank often exploits as he seeks to use their earnings towards repairing his relationship with his ex-wife. For the most part, Britt seems to go along for the ride, although it’s clear that Hank’s a ticking time bomb, one that already caused damage to his old police partner Mark Gustafson (Rockmond Dunbar, who might have the single coolest name in the history of naming). For now, Britt sticks with Hank out of both loyalty and a fear that he might slip back into old habits. Saying more about those habits would be spoiling things, but he’s itching as much for that lifestyle as Hank itches for another drink.
“Terriers” takes place in Ocean Beach, and it’s shot in a way reminiscent of one of my all-time favorite shows, “Veronica Mars.” For a place supposedly so sunny, everything is shot through a seemingly filthy lens, as if the corruption in the town gives off a visible vapor. It also shares the same capacity to make violence count: both “Mars” and “Terriers” show its protagonists in dangerous situations in which violence is possible but hardly ever carried out. As such, when fisticuffs fly, they both shock the audience and leave real marks behind on the participants.
The show adds as dash of “Chinatown” into the mix through its season-long arc that involves a mystery around a large parcel of land, some shady power brokers, and a former friend of Hank’s that finds himself over his head. While I’m not a fan of mythology for mythology’s sake, Shawn Ryan’s pedigree in this arena gives me firm faith that this will be one worth following. By the end of the show’s fourth episode, it’s already gone in a completely new direction from what I initially expected. What’s delightful about this twist is that it takes the characters as much by surprise as it does the audience, almost as if Hank and Britt themselves watched shows such as “The Wire,” thought they knew how the “Evil Developer Storyline” was supposed to play out, and now have no idea what type of story they are actually in.
It’s the type of overarching story that television can do so well, when enough care and detail are applied to the craft. Some shows claim to have a five-year plan, and stumble almost immediately after an OMG WTF pilot episode that is long on sizzle and little on steak. What’s exciting about the mythology in “Terriers” is that the deeper into the case that Hank and Britt go, the more they realize the distance between who they are and who they want to be. Their desperation to solve their cases, both big and small, stem partly from a sense of duty but almost predominantly with a need to present themselves as men to a world that sees them only as children. These are lives held together as tenuously as the pick-up truck that serves as their base of operations.
What they need to be stronger isn’t just money (although the need for cash fuels as lot of these early hours), but companionship. Hank and Britt are best friends but also codependents, limiting each other’s potential even as they prevent each other’s worst demons from arising. In a perfect world, these men probably wouldn’t be this tight: they would be friendly but not so intertwined. But for now, we the audience can sit back, enjoy the chemistry/camaraderie, and hope that these boys live long enough to grow into men.
“Terriers” premieres on FX Wednesday, September 8th, at 10 pm EST.