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TELEVISION REVIEW

‘Detroit’ cop show has strong character

Former “Sopranos’’ star Michael Imperioli plays grizzled cop Louis Fitch on the new ABC drama “Detroit 1-8-7.’’ Former “Sopranos’’ star Michael Imperioli plays grizzled cop Louis Fitch on the new ABC drama “Detroit 1-8-7.’’ (Guy D’Alema/ABC)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / September 21, 2010

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What makes a cop show fly? The answer is complicated, but the best of them have enough energy, atmosphere, and character to render even the most ordinary crimes dramatic. A grocery store robbery or a corner drug deal or an escaped parolee can be as riveting as a homicide, given the right treatment by the writers, the actors, and the cameramen.

Ultimately, “Detroit 1-8-7,’’ ABC’s new cop series premiering tonight at 10 on Channel 5, just may have enough forward thrust and raw emotion to take off. On the downside, the show relies on all the inner-city crime-show moves we’ve seen a million times before. There’s the rookie cop, Damon Washington (Jon Michael Hill), struggling through his first day and vomiting at the sight of a dead body. There’s his exasperated partner, grizzled veteran Louis Fitch (Michael Imperioli), who has a knack for closing cases. And there’s the tough but maternal lieutenant, Maureen Mason (Aisha Hinds), who rules the homicide unit with compassion. Got types?

And yet something engaging emerges from the procedural cliches in “Detroit 1-8-7,’’ thanks to strong casting and a tone that’s flexible and alive enough to veer easily from black comedy to romantic tension to suspense to somber hopelessness in the course of the hour. The show, filmed with a hand-held camera, is very much in the vein of “NYPD Blue,’’ but of course with a different and perhaps more depressed city nipping at the cops’ heels. The cops don’t always win the day, and there’s a complicated, Sipowicz-like male figure at the center of the action. He is Detective Fitch, and he is as emotionally unaware and crusty as he is brave.

I think Imperioli, as Fitch, is the best thing about “Detroit 1-8-7.’’ He’s truly formidable in a scene that requires Fitch to calmly stare a confession out of a perp, and then he’s funny when Fitch insists on phoning new partner Damon to complain — while Damon is sitting right next to him. “Nobody understands the guy,’’ another cop tells the mystified Damon, “but he gets results.’’ If Imperioli’s talent weren’t already so well-known from his time as Christopher on “The Sopranos,’’ his subtle work on this show would feel like a breakout performance. And he’s surrounded by a distinctive ensemble, including Natalie Martinez as the squad’s rising star and James McDaniel (from “NYPD Blue’’) as the seen-it-all cop closing in on retirement. I could imagine spending more time with this crew.

The original concept of “Detroit 1-8-7’’ was to film the cops as if they were appearing in a documentary. At times, the characters would acknowledge the cameramen, including a scene in which Fitch grabs a camera to smash a car window. But that faux documentary approach was edited out of the premiere and nixed from the series, when the city of Detroit began prohibiting media ride-alongs after a kid was killed during the filming of a reality show. And “Detroit 1-8-7’’ is better off without the gimmick. In sitcoms that tend toward the outrageous, the mockumentary style works, but in a show aiming for realism, the method feels forced and artificial. Now, the show benefits from a jagged but inviting flow, and a less obtrusive lens through which to see a city struggle.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

DETROIT 1-8-7

Starring: Michael Imperioli, Jon Michael Hill, Natalie Martinez, James McDaniel, D.J. Cotrona, Aisha Hinds, Shaun Majumder

On: ABC, Ch. 5

Time: Tonight, 10-11