Credit: Peter Kramer/NBC

If anyone other than Jennifer Lopez played Harlee Santos, the Brooklyn detective at the center of NBC’s Shades of Blue, you might suspect that she earned her badge by purchasing a sexy cop outfit at Halloween Emporium. So much about this character feels like pure fantasy. Her first name sounds like a motorcycle. Her extra-curricular activities include boxing at the gym and taking off her shirt, post-upper-cut, for a sweaty make-out session with her instructor. When she catches her rookie partner (Dayo Okeniyi) staring at a bunch of lilies, she informs him that the flowers are “bisexual,” as if to keep him guessing about her own inclinations. When the FBI catches Harlee accepting a bribe from a criminal, it’s no real surprise — and neither is the fact that Robert Stahl (Warren Kole), the special agent assigned to her case, “investigates” by riffling through her lacy underwear drawer. Harlee is obviously a very bad girl, so why not a dirty cop too?

But Lopez brings a much-needed earthiness to even the most high-glam law enforcement roles. She was tough in a quiet, confident way as Karen Sisco in Out of Sight, and there’s something natural about the way she plays Harlee, no matter how perfectly bronzer-dusted her cheekbones look. That’s important, since we’re also supposed to empathize with Harlee, even at her most corrupt. She’s a single mom who needs the money to pay for private school and cello lessons for her daughter, Cristina (Sarah Jeffrey), so when she’s caught accepting a paper bag full of money, she has to weigh the heavy decision of whether to go to jail and abandon her daughter, or inform upon her coworkers, including Lt. Matt Wozniak (Ray Liotta), a loyal friend with whom she shares intel on illegal jobs. Considering the fact that this show reserves major moral high ground for parents — Wozniak asks one criminal if he has any children before deciding his fate — it’s not hard to figure out which option she’ll choose.

Created and written by Adi Hasak (Generation Kill), with the first two episodes directed by Barry Levinson (Homicide), Shades of Blue aspires to be the rare network cop drama that navigates moral ambiguity, in the tradition of cable classics like The Shield. When Agent Stahl comes after Harlee for what she considers petty crimes, she scoffs, “Go after the cops who are tearing communities apart, not the ones who are trying to hold them together.” But it’s much too easy to root for Harlee and the good-hearted “bad guys” who come rolling in whenever she needs backup. Despite his shady dealings, even Wozniak is the kind of stand-up guy who immediately orders a tow truck to help when he hears that Cristina got into a car accident. The fact that Wozniak very quickly realizes that there’s a rat on his team, and threatens to have that rat exterminated, saves Harlee — and the viewer — from any undue hand-wringing about her decision. Either she turns on him, or he turns on her harder.

Stakes as clear as these — from the very first episode — rob Shades of Blue of a certain what-would-you-do-in-Harlee’s-position? complexity. (Only a dead woman would remain loyal to Wozniak.) But the ensemble cast outshines the material, especially with Liotta, Drea de Matteo (The Sopranos), and Vincent Laresca (Graceland) playing Lopez’s buddies in blue. And there’s just enough suspense to keep you guessing whether Harlee will ever unleash those fashionably-choreographed boxing moves on Wozniak. This show might not be the best thing since The Shield, but it’s a step above NCIS.

Episode Recaps

Shades of Blue
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