Monday, January 17, 2011

FX’s Terriers: Catch a Ride with a Trickster and a Travelin’ Man

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on January 17, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Terriers (on FX)
For the most part, the FX Network was good to me in 2010. By mid-summer, they had already premiered three of my favourite new series of the year: in comedy, the hilarious and deeply original Louis C.K. vehicle, Louie; in animation, the surprisingly funny, edgy, and intelligent spy spoof, Archer; and in drama, the hard-boiled contemporary Western, Justified, based on the work of Elmore Leonard and starring Timothy Olyphant. (All three shows have been renewed and will bring us second seasons in 2011.) But the folks at FX weren’t done yet: on September 8th, they premiered Terriers. Created by screenwriter Ted Griffin (Ocean's Eleven) and The Shield creator Shawn Ryan, Terriers stars Donal Logue (Life, Grounded for Life) as Hank Dolworth, an ex-cop and recovering alcoholic, who teams up with Britt Pollack, his best friend and mostly reformed thief (played by Michael Raymond-James, True Blood), to open an unlicensed private investigation firm. Based on the early promos for the series, I had initially positioned the series in relation to The Good Guys, the good-natured buddy-cop show created by Matt Nix (Burn Notice), which premiered on FOX over the summer (and was cancelled last month). But halfway through the opening credits of Terriers (and the original theme song written by the show’s composer Rob Duncan), I knew I was going to be delightfully mistaken. With substantial characters and two charismatic stars, some powerful writing and subtle serial nature, Terriers would soon rise to the level of FX’s spring season hit, Justified. While often hilarious, the show was also carefully plotted, and offered a perfect mix of compelling characters, dark humour, and genuine intrigue. Unfortunately, by early December, FX announced that due to low ratings it was not going to renew Terriers. But whatever its future, Terriers will remain one of the few bright spots in what was an often disappointing new fall TV season.

Donal Logue (front) and Michael Raymond-James
Set in a beachfront neighbourhood of San Diego, and shot on location all over San Diego County, Terriers harkens back to the best of old and new noir storytelling. With its DIY private detectives and a cosy California town rife with corruption, conspiracy, and complicated land deals, it has a Veronica Mars—circa Season Two—feel. (I would like to say it’s darker than Veronica Mars, but to be honest, I’m not sure that’s even possible: Veronica Mars put the noir back in neo-noir.) But unlike most of the hard-boiled genre—be it on film or television—the central figures of this story aren’t isolated moral outliers but a pair of detectives, whose deep friendship is often the only point of stability in their ever-shifting universe. Even if, as detectives, Hank and Britt find themselves perennially getting in way over their heads, as friends their world is really never in question. Logue and Raymond-James were real-life friends long before Terriers was ever conceived, and this comes through in their comfortable dialogue and brilliant timing. Most of the show’s best moments happen between Hank and Britt as they sit in their rundown truck (which is the closest thing their struggling detective business has to an office): best friends who simply enjoy one another’s company.

Karina and Donal Logue as Steph and Hank Dolworth
In the end, Terriers is a show that is built on relationships: not only Hank and Britt, but Hank and his ex-wife Gretchen (Kimberly Quinn), Britt and his girlfriend, Katie (Laura Allen), Hank and his former partner, Gustafson (Rockmond Dunbar). Over the course of its 13 episodes, each of these relationships deepens and develops before our very eyes. Watch especially for the introduction of Hank’s brilliant and schizophrenic sister for a few episodes mid-season. With the character of Steph Dolworth—played by Karina Logue, Donal Logue’s real life sister—Terriers finally matures into the series it was meant to be. Their sibling chemistry shines in every scene they share, and Steph’s presence brings out the rich humanity and dark humour of the Terriers universe.

The humanity of the characters and their relations is also reflected in the intimacy of the setting and locations—their bar, their regular diner, the front seat of their truck. Britt’s underworld contacts and Hank’s old networks of addicts, informers, and broken men are invariably nearby, somewhere along the boardwalk, rarely more than a 5-minute walk away. San Diego may be California’s second-largest city, but Terriers nestles itself tightly into the largely self-contained community of Ocean Beach, which quickly becomes a character unto itself.

A scene from Justified
Many of the best recent television shows approach their characters and stories novelistically and Terriers is no exception. Learning well the lessons from its slightly older brother Justified, Terriers deftly balances on-going storylines with compelling standalone episodes. Laying the groundwork early on, over the course of its too few episodes, Terriers almost surreptitiously builds up its scaffolding of character and tone, so that by the second half of the season, it surprises you with how much weight it can bear. The final episode brings back almost all the side characters that had been flowing in and out of the series since its beginning, and negotiated a rich, complicated plot to a satisfactory conclusion with the same simple, fluid grace that had marked every story it told. Small actions, innocuous decisions, and initially minor details all add up, all contribute to a finale that satisfies on all levels—in terms of character, emotion, and plot.

While the final episode, directed by Ted Griffin and co-written by him and his brother Nicholas, tied up most loose ends, it leaves us longing for more time with these flawed, beautiful people. “You’re remarkable in a funny way. Or funny in a remarkable way,” one character says of Hank near the closing of the last episode. This really could be said of the series as a whole. It was a remarkable journey, one that had few, if any, missteps. Always fun, often heartbreaking, Terriers is simply a great show.

Laura Allen as Katie
And so: why didn’t it survive? In the end, the show’s cancellation seems to be a failure of marketing—a great product which simply didn’t find its audience. Or more precisely, its audience didn’t find it. It had a terrible launch, even by cable standards. (With 1.6 millions viewers for the pilot, Terriers has the dubious distinction of boasting FX’s lowest rated series premiere in its history, and its ratings dropped precipitously afterwards, averaging roughly 500,000 viewers per episode by the end of the season.) For a cable show, the audience has got to come to you: they’ve got to seek you out. And for whatever reason, the audience just didn’t show up.

In light of the news of Terriers’ cancellation, consider this review as a late edition to my brilliant-but-cancelled post of a few months ago. We won’t be getting any new episodes, but we’ve got these 13 amazing hours of television, and that’s something we can all be grateful for.

POSTSCRIPT: On December 18th, I lost one of my dearest and oldest friends. Shady Kanfi passed away just 9 days short of his 40th birthday. We’d been friends for almost 25 years. My thinking and writing about TV have lo­ng been reflections and extensions of conversations with friends—and more than their share have come from conversations with Shady and his wife Inés, a person who I am grateful to continue to count among my closest friends. When I began to speak and write publicly about TV and media, the two of them were my biggest supporters. Shady and Inés both shared my love for great television and in many ways, I’ve been writing for them for a long time now. I found out recently that Terriers was one of the last shows that Shady had watched in its entirety. Appropriately, it is at its heart a story about real friendship—true, deep, and complicated. For me, the very best thing about great television is that it generates conversation. Along with the respect, love, and support I received from Shady over the years, I know that I will miss those conversations the most. My world has become significantly smaller since he’s been gone. Every time I find out about a new show or watch a particularly great episode of a show we both loved, I will feel the loss—already too deep to express—even the more. I dedicate this piece—and each one I will write from now on—to Shady.