ABC's midseason replacement drama Line of Fire (Tuesdays, 10 p.m. ET) has its flaws, but the show is worth sampling if only to watch veteran character actor David Paymer (City Slickers, Quiz Show) inhabit the role of crime boss Jonah Malloy. With his receding hairline, dark-rimmed glasses, and Men's Wearhouse separates, Malloy seems like he'd be more comfortable running spreadsheets in Excel than a whorehouse and an illegal sports book; yet his accountant's looks serve only to emphasize his ruthless behavior. While interrogating a low-level thug named Leon, for example, Malloy is forceful but also strangely reassuring—a villain who seems like he might make a decent father—and judging by Paymer's tone you'd think the two of them were having an unpleasant but necessary heart-to-heart. "I know people," says Malloy. "People I know. And I know when you're lying to me, and I love you, Leon, but I don't believe you."
What happens next is surprising to see on network television. In a flash, one of Malloy's henchmen chops off one of Leon's fingers. Blood spurts. Leon cries out. "I know; I know," says Malloy. "I know it hurts. Just tell me the truth and that will be that with that." After some sniveling and yelping on Leon's part, Malloy is satisfied the punk isn't holding out on him. "Well, that was a clean cut," he says. "If the boys get you to the hospital in time the doc should be able to sew it back on." A distraught Leon protests. He wants to know what he's supposed to do about his finger. "You just put it on ice, Leon," Malloy says gently. "Just put it on ice."
Line of Fire takes place in Richmond, Va., where it is often rainy or overcast, and the show's cinematography drains even the sunny days of color, reminding viewers that life is one cold business. Setting the story in an off-brand city like Richmond is reminiscent of HBO's brilliant but sometimes confusing drama The Wire, which takes place in Baltimore and also tells parallel tales of cops and criminals. The heroes of Line of Fire are a team of underfunded and overextended FBI agents headed by Special Agent in Charge Lisa Cohen, a pretty mean supervisor in her own right. Cohen, played by Leslie Hope (the mom from the first season of 24), chain smokes, makes ethically questionable decisions, and withholds emotional support from agents who could probably use a little boost from the boss. She doesn't hack off people's fingers, but she doesn't have to. The show makes it clear that the FBI and the Malloy crime syndicate inhabit the same shadowy world, that the line between good and evil is drawn with a shaky hand, that good guys can be bad and bad guys good. You get the idea.
Line of Fire drags a bit when it's with the FBI, but the show really perks up when it's on Malloy's side of town, largely because of Paymer. The show's writers have given us a nice twist on a familiar type: Unlike the typical mob boss who works from behind the scenes, Malloy is refreshingly hands-on; we see the head of a crime syndicate get his hands dirty rather than merely giving orders. In only three episodes Malloy has shaken down a dock foreman, beaten up a drug dealer who sold crack to his nephew, supervised the punishment of a student athlete who failed to throw a game, and blackmailed a society woman to allow his wife to join the "Daughters of Virginia." Paymer plays these scenes not as a sadist, but as an efficiency expert. You can just as easily imagine him closing plants or outsourcing customer service to India. His actuarial mind sees only costs and benefits, and even after some especially nasty business Malloy will dispose of the whole affair with a terse: "That's that with that."
My main complaint with the show is the violence. As with NBC's failed cable-as-network-show Kingpin, Line of Fire looks for credibility in brutality. On the one hand, I appreciate the effort. The bad guys in Line of Fire use violence much as bad guys do in real life, as an expression of power. But for all the cruelty there is no catharsis, and much of it feels unnecessary, especially given how thoroughly Paymer's cool performance communicates the threat of violence. I'd take one of his icy monologues over a mutilation scene any day. There's far more danger in Jonah Malloy's voice than there is in any amount of blood.