- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 10, 2001

The new ABC cop series "The Job" shows how magical television can be — literally.

My mind filled with images and memories of other police series as I watched the preview tape. Yet the show still felt lively, fresh and new because of the alchemy of strong acting and writing.

The half-hour series centers on New York detective Mike McNeil, played by stand-up comedian Denis Leary. It premieres this week as a midseason replacement and wears its two greatest influences — "Barney Miller" and "NYPD Blue" — lightly on its sleeve.

Those two shows are pretty impressive pedigree, but "The Job" does more than ape its predecessors. Smart writing and good acting never get old, and the alchemy here produces a wonderful concoction that is not quite like anything you have seen before — even though you can identify the ingredients.

On the one hand, we see the by-now-almost-hackneyed "NYPD Blue" realism style — a single camera with a jittery frame and breathless cutting rhythm, overlapping dialogue, on-location shooting in the New York area and messy art direction.

But in terms of content, "The Job" bears a strong resemblance to "Barney Miller." It has the ethnically diverse bomber-crew cast of detectives with desks in one area — and even a few bad coffee jokes.

Each episode focuses on one or two crimes, which are rarely terribly serious and more often are bizarre or used as an excuse for comedy. For example, the principal crime on one of the two episodes on the preview tape is that someone is stalking model Elizabeth Hurley. Five detectives show up to investigate, insisting that they're not star-struck.

A funny sequence also details how a suspect is tricked into confessing, using a grandmother's cardigan. Although the ostentatious grittiness the "NYPD Blue" style is intended to create would seem to work against comedy, it doesn't in "The Job" because the comedy is so low-key and is done without a laugh track. The dialogue, a few contemporary raunchy remarks aside, is mostly naturalistic and bemused.

The dialogue also skirts the edge of political incorrectness and, in some cases, treads all over it. One chase scene involves a man in a wheelchair, and the pursuers yell after him, "Hey, Ironsides." It also has some smart observations about racial profiling.

Mr. Leary began his career as a stand-up comedian with a loud, deliberately in-your-face persona, but he has blossomed into a fine actor in the past few years. He turned in a great supporting role last year in the overlooked film "Jesus' Son." He manages to stay within a character even though it is a turned-down version of his stand-up persona, a hard-living, devil-may-care mensch.

Bill Nunn plays McNeil's partner, Pip. I remember Mr. Nunn best as Radio Raheem in "Do the Right Thing." Here he plays a middle-aged, henpecked cop, and to listen to his voice is a pleasure. It rises one octave into childlike indignation at exactly the right (i.e., wrong) times.

The show's writing strikes the crucial balance. Pip and McNeil are sufficiently different to play off each other comically, but sufficiently alike that we believe they could stand each other's company all day.

Keith David has a good time as the tyrannical lieutenant with a twinkle in his eye, and Lenny Clark gives some flavor to the role of the time-serving veteran.

The one weakness in the cast is the character played by Diane Farr. She's a total pill who lectures McNeil on his childishness, his drinking and his adultery. I don't blame Miss Farr (she's clearly obeying orders), but a little of that goes a long way,and she had best not become the voice of sanity/reason in a show like this.

Similar to "Barney Miller" at the beginning of its run, "The Job" also has plenty of domestic scenes involving McNeil (and a few involving Pip), and even these are good and not mere filler. One marvelously shot and framed scene involves McNeil trying to get rid of an issue of the newspaper, which has a picture of him kissing Miss Hurley, before his wife finds it.

Then watch Mr. Leary's reaction when his wife doesn't act jealous, as though she couldn't believe anyone as glamorous as Miss Hurley could fall for him — and how the drama then unfolds.

The ironies continue as McNeil's girlfriend acts jealous when she sees the picture, even though he doesn't want her to. Finally, the picture results in the solution of the Hurley stalking case, which means McNeil no longer has an excuse to see Miss Hurley.

These two episodes offer some other pleasures that, although not repeatable, augur well for other episodes of "The Job" in that they show savvy decision-making.

For example, the guest appearance by Miss Hurley shows a knack for casting. She is nobody's idea of a great actress, but she can play herself well enough, and the producers use her to good advantage.{*}{*}{*}{*}WHAT: "The Job"WHERE: WJLA (Channel 7)WHEN: 9:30 p.m. Wednesday

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