The latest among Southern California’s inexhaustible ranks of gumshoes is Hank Dolworth, who moved into the private sector after a dishonorable discharge from the police force. It was part of the code of Philip Marlowe, the paradigmatic L.A. P.I., to be “neat, clean, shaved, and sober.” Hank has the sober part down. Within moments of meeting him on Terriers (FX, Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET), we understand that his relationship with the force suffered at the hands of his romance with the bottle. Staying dry—which involves periodically stowing away his compulsive sarcasm to shudder vulnerably in an AA meeting (“the thing at the thing,” he calls it)—is one foundation of Hank’s own code of conduct.
But the first three items on Marlowe’s list are beyond Hank’s grasp and outside of his interests. That leonine mess of hair, that incipient gray in his thick beard, the flapping tails of the plaid shirts worn over the inevitable black t-shirts—this fellow may well grow up to be a Jeff Bridges character. For now, he is a Donal Logue character, which is nothing to scoff at.
The star of Grounded for Life, the ill-fated Knights of Prosperity, and MTV’s vintage Jimmy the Cab Driver spots, Logue rates as an energetic comic actor. He can bumble in a relaxed fashion and bumble at a moseying pace. He lends his flatfoot a certain lightfootedness, making the best of self-depreciating lines that double-underscore and italicize the character’s slovenliness. Why aren’t you looking your best today, Hank? “Sad news. My Pilates instructor died.” What’s your rush to get out of here right now? “I have a back wax in half an hour.” We meet a jolly bulldog in the first episode, and a dim dachshund in the second, but the only terriers are mangy, tenacious Hank and his feisty partner, Britt, a semi-reformed and wholly agile hood played by Michael Raymond-James. With these two actors on board, the show is not half bad, which is to say that roughly 50 percent of it is not that good.
The action unfolds under the yellow glare and the bright smog gauze of Ocean Beach, a suburb of lamentable San Diego. After a frolicsome prologue involving a purloined pup, we get underway with Hank coming to the aid of an old drinking buddy. (How do you know that sad old drunk, Hank? “We trained for triathlons together.”) Picking the guy up for a standard-issue drunk-and-disorderly deal, the cops found a .38 on him. Asking what the deal was, the detective learns that the sot’s estranged 19-year-old daughter de-estranged herself on the occasion of fearing for her life and that he was trying to find her to deliver the gun. Looking shaggily into the matter, Hank and Britt discover that the young woman is wrapped up in trouble of the Chinatownsort—adultery, murder, and, worse, real-estate development. They track her down, and the show is on track, with the unfinished business of this first case motivating tangential investigations and hovering over all the shambling action, even as our terriers go nipping at other heels.
That those heels head in so many different directions at once is the show’s own Achilles’. A typical episode of Terriers jolts abruptly from cutesy escapades to head-cracking fights, from loud escapism to misty tenderness, from easygoing comedy to strained seriousness. The tonal unevenness feels less like the conscious product of an ambitious design than the unplanned consequence of an exceedingly ambitious one. Creator Ted Griffin (who wrote Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, which shares this series’ capering sensibility) tries to stuff a lot in. Hank has an ex-wife with a new fiance and a grown sister with a mental imbalance, and each of the women is a round character only in the sense that she resembles a spur gear of a plot device. Britt has a girlfriend who fades in and out of the scene as the situation demands. And even after five episodes of watching Hank’s former partner on the force chomp on his cigarette holder, I can’t sort out what degree of irony to approach him with. Nonetheless, I discerned in one of his remarks both an indication of Terriers’ interest in developing a story about male friendship and a fair warning of the show’s limitations. Speaking of Hank, the cop says to Britt, “You’ve got to know that he’s gonna let you down. Maybe not on purpose, but …”