In CBS's new drama The Handler (Friday, 10 p.m. ET), Emmy-winning actor Joe Pantoliano plays Joe Renato, a seasoned, streetwise FBI agent who seems to run an elaborate network of undercover operatives and major sting operations out of the trunk of his car. Renato's crew members immerse themselves in their roles—anything from naive waitress to long-lost cousin to jive-talking getaway driver—but you get the feeling the work is spotty and not entirely satisfying. "All I'm saying is I've got a law degree, Joe, and all you got me doing is street roles—thugs, drug dealers, and pimps," says Darnell, one of the agents. Later in the same episode, when another agent gets cast in a bit part as Darnell's old lady, she sighs with resignation. "Always the girlfriend," she says. This is all part of Renato's game: He's not drunk on power, but he enjoys pulling the strings. By keeping his operatives hungry, off balance, and a little in the dark, Renato squeezes better performances out of them and also makes sure the bit players don't start thinking they're bigger than the show. When newcomer Lily struggles between her personal ethics and the requirements of her character, Renato "handles" her before she blows her cover. "Don't confuse yourself with the role," he says, and it's at this moment that you realize that The Handler isn't about being a detective—it's about being an actor.
Undercover work has always been a useful storytelling device, coming in handy for dark, stubbly morality plays (Miami Vice) or as an excuse to put pretty girls in sexy outfits (Charlie's Angels). With three beautiful female agents at its disposal, you can bet that The Handler is going to break up a call-girl ring or two, but the show also puts its characters in genuine moral dilemmas. As the ingénue, Lily is the ripest target for compromising positions. Renato thinks she's too green for significant parts, but even her small roles have a habit of leading to big trouble, like the time she sees a federal judge have sex with an underage prostitute and has to look the other way because her assignment is to bust him for being on the take. As the Waitress Who Dreams of Being a Singer, Lily also suffers the advances of a sleazy restaurateur, and when she hopes, out loud, that all this unseemliness is for a higher cause, Renato reminds her that the play's the thing. "Your character already has a higher purpose," he says. "It's called a paycheck."
The agents in The Handler are supposed to be in the deepest of cover, but you never fear for their sanity. This is not Al Pacino in Cruising, where the Method imperils the soul, but more 21 Jump Street with an undercurrent of Fame. Renato's operatives don't simply want work—they aspire. When Darnell asks for a more white-collar assignment, the subtext is that he doesn't want to be typecast in "black" roles. But when Renato resists, Darnell caves, as actors have caved throughout time, because he desperately wants the part, and he knows Renato would just as soon give it to someone else. These moments are played for comic relief, but not self-consciously, and those expecting a Charlie Kaufman-esque exercise in actors playing cops playing actors won't find anything so overtly meta. Instead the pleasure of these scenes, and the show, comes from watching a team of detectives who don't automatically nail their parts. When Darnell has to infiltrate a gang of bank robbers who times its heists to classic rock songs, he shows up dressed like Jimi Hendrix and carrying, of all things, a harmonica. You worry for him precisely because he is so unconvincing.
When it comes to story lines, The Handler doesn't bog itself down in topicality. The plots aren't ripped from today's headlines but lovingly lifted from the breezy adventures of '70s cop shows. Darnell, Lily, and friends get to try on accents, wear silly costumes, and hang out with the likes of the Rock 'n' Roll Bandits, whose leader dresses like the Road Warrior and cackles like Ray Liotta. I am reminded, with fondness, of the time the Six Million Dollar Man tried his hand at roller derby. The show is blissfully free of procedure—you'll never see one of Renato's people hunched over a carpet fiber in a poorly lighted lab—and openly flirts with implausibility. I doubt that undercover FBI agents are allowed to smoke angel dust, steal cars, or break a snitch's foot, but it's nice to see a group of detectives ditch the suits, throw away the book, and go outside and play.