Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Wahlberg's 'Boston' Still Finest; 'Marshal Law: Texas:' Not Arresting

Famous marshals in television history:

Marshal Matt Dillon, who transcended two generations as Wild West hero for 20 seasons of Gunsmoke;

E.G. Marshall, star of the ‘60s legal drama The Defenders;

Marshall Thompson, who took over the Marshall mantle in the mid-60s as valiant veterinarian Dr. Marsh Tracy in the family-friendly African adventure series Daktari; 

And Marshall McLuhan, the communications visionary who called out this crazy, outrageous medium more than 60 years ago for exactly what it has become.

All of these forerunners, sadly, are considerably more interesting than Marshal Law: Texas, the new Lone Star fugitive roundup series premiering at 10 p.m. EST Tuesday (Nov. 26, 2013) on TNT as a companion piece to Boston’s Finest, which returns for its second season preceding it at 9 p.m.

TNT is fashioning itself as something of a law-and-order reality TV hotbed these days with the recent successes of its Boston’s Finest and Cold Justice. But don’t get too cocky, you “We Know Drama” boasters: more does not automatically mean better.

Here we have a real-life Battle of the Network Stars: Marshal Law: Texas springs forth from the production company of megaproducer Jerry Bruckheimer, while entertainment multi-talent Donnie Wahlberg helms Boston’s Finest. You wouldn’t expect a New Kid on the Block to get the better of a Titan of Television, but you have every reason to expect more from the man who gave us all three CSIs, The Amazing Race and Without a Trace. That last title kind of sums up the presence of Bruckheimer magic in this series. It’s like he threw it together during a bathroom break. 

Marshal Law: Texas is set in Houston (we know this because of the same long, establishing aerial shots that begin every segment), focusing on the brave men and women of the Southern District of Texas, U.S. Marshals Service Gulf Coast Violent Offenders and Fugitive Task Force (whew!), an amalgamation of federal, city and county cops devoted to pulling the baddest of baddies out of their hiding places and into small cells.

The task force pursues several felons simultaneously, so the pace of the hour varies and it isn't exactly what you'd call boring. Yet the process seems exactly the same each time: A dozen or more officers hop into a fleet of SUVs like the Cavalry on wheels, race to a confirmed location, surround it, bust into it and drag out one guy. A dangerous, savage, sociopathic guy, perhaps, but still just one guy. Bullies. Watching this all-against-one scene repeated over and over, you almost start to feel sorry for the criminals.

That might also be because, through the descriptions of the lawbreakers and their crimes, you actually know more about them than you do about the good guys. We may learn more about the individual task force members in episodes to come, but Drama 101suggests you have to develop the characters in order to have empathy with them, and there is none of that in the debut.

In fact, the marshals are so anonymous that you may make the same foolish error I committed. The first time an identifying slate appeared onscreen, reading "DUSM PINON," I thought, "Dusm; what an odd first name." Then I realized they were letters standing for "Deputy U.S. Marshal."

The premiere doesn't generate real action until the last 10 minutes or so, when hunt for a murder suspect with diabetes prompts the task force to totally destroy a house (certainly not the suspect's) before reaching its inevitable conclusion. A warning here: it doesn't end well. 
Wahlberg's on home turf celebrating 'Boston's Finest.' (TNT/John Nowak)

Connecting with characters is no problem with Boston's Finest, and not only because the series already has been around for a season. Wahlberg and his peeps did an outstanding job of introducing us to the Boston Police officers being profiled from the show's very first hour, taking us into their homes and showing us their personal relationships, so our bond of interest and caring deepened. Maybe it's because this is a hometown labor of love for Wahlberg. As one cop says in the opening scroll, "Boston takes care of Boston." 

The second-season return is predictably poignant, centering around the city's giant Fourth of July celebration and the palpable tension throughout Boston in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing just three months before. (The bombing itself is recounted in quick flashback news reports.) Members of the Gang Unit and Fugitive Unit, usually plainclothed, are donning uniforms to bolster police presence during the holiday.

Patrol Officer Jennifer Penton, whom we grew to love and admire in Season One, is now riding alone, her longtime partner Pat Rogers having been reassigned. She talks about the heightened awareness she now must acknowledge as a female officer on her own, and when she and Rogers meet up during a street investigation, it's clear how much they miss each other's company. That's a pure interpersonal moment you'll find nowhere in Marshal Law: Texas.

We even feel a twinge of concern when Penton is sent to check out a large, suspicious black bag left on a neighborhood street, which turns out to be a false alarm. That's the big difference here: Boston's Finest takes routine police work and makes it seem interesting, while Marshal Law: Texas takes slam-bang fugitive takedowns and makes them seem mundane. Where's Tommy Lee Jones when you need him?

Betcha Bruckheimer could get him.

Marshal Law: Texas: 5 clicks (on a scale of 10); Boston's Finest: 8.