Waking Life

Alias meets Groundhog Day in ABC’s Day Break.

Taye Diggs stars in Day Break

Among its neat tricks—which range from reinvigorating crime-drama style to discovering fresh possibilities for the cell phone as a plot device— Day Break (ABC, Wednesdays at 9 p.m.) finds an excellent use for actor Adam Baldwin. This Baldwin doesn’t belong to the fraternity of pucker-mouthed, Long Island-bred Baldwins; he’s a character actor best known for playing a Marine nicknamed “Animal Mother” in Full Metal Jacket, a role that involved putting on a combat helmet scrawled with the words “man become death” and then living up to the billing. On Day Break, as an L.A. police detective named Chad Shelten, Baldwin combines the canine seething of that performance with quiet brains and vulnerable cool.

Shelten’s ex-partner is Brett Hopper (a hot cop played by Taye Diggs), and his ex-wife still calls herself Rita Shelten (a hot nurse played by the fabulously named Moon Bloodgood). The two exes found a way into each other’s well-toned arms and fell in love, and now Hopper wakes up in Rita’s bed every morning. He’s got his own place, but Day Break requires the reviewer to invoke the premise of Groundhog Day: Every morning is the same morning, and Hopper repeatedly revises an outsized version of a screen cop’s Very Bad Day. For starters, he gets framed for killing an assistant district attorney; watches a recording of Rita’s murder; jousts with his new partner, who herself is the subject of an internal-affairs investigation; earns the enmity of a gang leader who is hardly a model of restraint; and wrangles with a soldierly squad of thugs who appear to be above the law and behind all of the above.

Chad Shelten begins the series outside the range of our sympathies: The prospect of pinning Hopper down and watching him suffer causes his taunting jock’s smirk to harden into an inquisitor’s sneer. But Day Break’s jazzy structure not only makes the murder mystery pop, it also deepens the characterizations. The first three hours—last night’s two-hour premiere and next week’s installment—contain enough reverse plays and ambiguous twists for half a season of Alias; as the layers of the story reshuffle themselves, you see that sneering mug smoothly melt into a face you might trust.

Baldwin’s supporting work is essential, as there’s an awful lot to support in a drama this uneven—frisky and complex one moment, familiar and overcomplicated the next. Diggs has considerable magnetism, but it would take the charisma of a cult leader to disguise the fact that this show sometimes reads like a ‘70s conspiracy thriller as interpreted by the makers of Bad Boys II. You get to feeling sorry for an actor saddled with some of these lines. Last night, on top of everything else, Hopper learned that his brother-in-law, a high-school principal, had roughed up his sister, and, one of those same-mornings, he sped over to the school. Before he could pummel the guy, Hopper first had to tell a girl getting hauled into the principal’s office, “You’re dismissed.” Even Arnold Schwarzenegger would groan beneath the dead weight of a quip like that.

What rescues the character from being a mere action figure is his perfectly anxious situation. Just as theologians use Groundhog Day to explicate Buddhist thought, some pop scholar is destined to decode Day Break as a Twilight Zone take on race and law enforcement in America. Brett Hopper is black. Chad Shelten, like the paramilitary goons and most of the other cops, is white. Rita Shelten is hazily Eurasian. The gang leader leads a gang called the Latin Disciples, so I’ll guess he’s Latino, and there’s no telling what our scholar of the future will make of the fact that Hopper’s dog shares his name with Kurt Rambis, the white sixth man of Pat Riley’s L.A. Lakers. It’s too soon to say whether Day Break intends to tease a parable out of all this, but the fact of Hopper’s blackness gives an intriguing dimension of dread to his recurring nightmare, and the approach itself is one more welcome promise that this cop show will not proceed by the book.