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Television Review

‘Good Guys’: odd couple with badges

Bradley Whitford (left) and Colin Hanks play polar opposites in the new lighthearted cop series from Fox. Bradley Whitford (left) and Colin Hanks play polar opposites in the new lighthearted cop series from Fox. (Bill Matlock/Fox)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / May 19, 2010

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Sometimes, just by looking at a character on a screen, you can tell he has bad breath. Bradley Whitford plays that character in Fox’s new lighthearted cop series “The Good Guys.’’ Slugging bourbon from a flask, his bushy porn mustache flecked with breakfast crumbs, his belly bending his belt over, Whitford’s Dan Stark is a stinkpot. He’s a wreck of a police officer whose straight-laced partner is essentially a baby sitter.

That’s the familiar buddy-action setup for the Dallas-set series, which premieres tonight at 8 on Channel 25. Stark is the mess who’s decades past his prime, while the young Jack Bailey — played by Colin Hanks — is smart, smug, and ambitious. They’re polar opposites, bickering and stumbling their way through routine cases that inevitably escalate into explosions, gunfire, and car chases. Set in Dallas, the 1980s action spoofery includes a few heavy accents and a hillbilly soundtrack.

I wish I could say “The Good Guys’’ works. There is so much proven talent involved, notably creator Matt Nix, the guy who makes USA’s superior “Burn Notice.’’ With “Burn Notice,’’ Nix finds the exact right balance between cartoonishness and tense action, between flippant humor and character. But “The Good Guys’’ fails on both ends of the spectrum. The humor is madcap and inane where it should be wry, and the characters are stubbornly predictable. The editing of the show is swift and bouncy, as it is on “Burn Notice,’’ but still the hour drags. It’s just not much fun.

Cop shows can certainly be comedic, and if you’re watching FX’s “Justified’’ right now, you’re seeing a combination of crime and humor at its best. “Justified,’’ based on Elmore Leonard’s fiction, brilliantly tangles up backwoods Kentucky evil-doing and Southern Gothic absurdity. But “The Good Guys’’ opts for broad, which is hard to maintain for the length of a “Saturday Night Live’’ sketch, never mind across a weekly hourlong TV series. The laughs are obvious, and the two leads are irritatingly schematic. Stark is chaotic and unorthodox while Bailey is orderly and by-the-book. Stark has no pretensions while Bailey is a prig. See under: “The Odd Couple.’’

Whitford, best known as Josh Lyman on “The West Wing,’’ completely changes up here. And he succeeds, as much as he can given the show’s limited range. He establishes himself as a bleary-eyed relic about whom you want to know more, a reckless guy who sleeps with witnesses and casually vomits at a crime scene. Whitford seems to be enjoying the opportunity to dumb down after working with the brainy material from Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing’’ and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.’’

But Hanks has nowhere to go as Bailey. He’s written to be the straight man, and that’s about it. Hanks was good on “Mad Men,’’ as a priest; he conveyed plenty of yearning with very little dialogue. But he is flat here. He doesn’t provide enough presence to match Whitford, and his character’s know-it-all temperament isn’t amusing enough. There are a few good buddy teams on TV right now, on “White Collar,’’ on “Psych,’’ and, to some extent, on “House.’’ But, alas, “The Good Guys’’ don’t happen to be among the good ones.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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THE GOOD GUYS Starring: Bradley Whitford, Colin Hanks

On: Fox, Channel 25

Time: Tonight, 8-9