Scenes From a Marriage
USA’s Common Law puts two odd-couple cops on the therapist’s couch.
Photograph © 2012 NBCUniversal Media. All rights reserved.
In my fantasy life, I live in a small town in the Green Mountains, where I own a movie theater on Main Street and program double bills. I try to pair the films for thematic resonances—The Big Sleep precedes The Big Lebowski, David Lynch's terribly excellent Mulholland Drive twins with Brian De Palma's excellently terrible Femme Fatale, Norma Shearer and Kirsten Dunst each go pouf, that kind of thing. After watching the 90-minute series premiere of Common Law (USA, Fridays at 10 p.m. ET), I now plan to pander to dudes—and to dude-admirers—by screening it as an appetizer for Hot Fuzz, in which Simon Pegg and Nick Frost similarly explored the dynamics of bickering buddy-cop action-comedy.
To be clear, there are notable differences in tone between these two entertainments. For instance, where Hot Fuzz is clever and smart, Common Law is clever and dumb. Like most USA dramas, it is low key and high concept. The show's tagline—"It's Like Marriage. Only With Bullets"—promotes a light premise: An odd couple of California cops—superstars of the LAPD's Robbery-Homicide Division, and each a pain in his own way—are "trying to save their relationship." Seven years after meeting cute at a shooting competition, they itch each other with their contrasting takes on masculinity. Under the guidance of a hot British psychiatrist (Sonya Walger), they're working out their feelings in couples therapy while elsewhere communicating by way of verbal sparring, parodic psychobabble, transracial style competition on the Miami Vice tip, veiled homoeroticism, unveiled homoeroticism, cubicle-wrecking hand-to-hand combat, and on-the-job good-cop/bad-cop role play.
Series creators Cormac and Marianne Wibberley have something smart to say about workplace intimacy and male friendship—but only a little something. Common Law, with its storylines moving forward in broad strokes and an airiness in its exposition, does not demand too much of you or of anyone, beyond its own efficient technicians and unshowily inventive actors. There's no danger, on USA, of show runners making Dos Passos-grandiose statements about the USA. There is, however, a strong likelihood that a USA show will, a la the sports-psychological drama Necessary Roughness, dip an earnest toe into the modern mind. And there is an extraordinary high probability that any given episode of a USA show will require dozens of background artists in two-piece swimsuits. I should mention that the Wibberleys, a husband-and-wife team, earned credits on National Treasure, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, and the muse of Hot Fuzz itself, Bad Boys II.
The mood stays light even as detectives Travis Marks (Michael Ealy) and Wes Mitchell (Warren Kole) descend from Mitchell's Range Rover and frown forensically at a John Doe corpse discovered in some needle park. On broadcast television, this initial crime-scene visit would be an occasion for an average quip at the expense of a doofusy uniformed officer and then a rote foot chase after a shady kid lingering on the far side of the yellow tape. On Quality Television, this might be an occasion for metaphysical statement, probably cryptic and perhaps angst-laden. Common Law tees up an above-average quip, a crisply produced rote foot chase, and a metafictional statement delivered on the fly.
The kid and the cops go smashing over shopping carts and darting into traffic at length, to the point of silly excess, but with sincere pulp intensity. Sliding across windshields, scrambling up slumrise stairs—it’s like the "Sabotage" video redone with contemporary set dressing and costumes .... Detective Marks, weapon drawn, finally has the kid cornered at the end of a hallway—and here comes the kind of small gesture that distinguishes the show's personality. The kids transfenestrates, diving head first through window glass and onto a fire escape, and Marks, with a puppyish quality in his expressive pale eyes, cocks his head to register a look combining pity and incredulity. Like: Really? I signed up for a rote foot chase, and now this fool is extending this foolishness?
Then we get on with the chase, and the pat down, and the revelation. "Our victim is the son of a judge!" You've heard this one before, and that's kind of the point. Common Law tweaks all of your favorite crime-procedural clichés, but very gently, and not without also exploiting them ruthlessly. Back in the lab, a radiant woman in a white coat analyzes the evidence. She also analyzes the show's own symbolism, saying of the Eagle Scout knife used to kill the judge's son: "It's ironic! It's poetic!" Marks (rubbery smile, hopping avidity, sporty leather jacket) is the playboy of the duo, and he is dating the episode's autocritic. Mitchell (thin face, rugged posture, slim shiny shirt) is meanwhile smarting gravely from a divorce and still living in a hotel a year after moving out. (He retained custody of his lawn, however, and returns to water it, an activity that helps him to brood.) Mitchell even says at one point that the Rover is all he has left. Whom is he trying to kid? As justice advances, with the murder investigation leading to a story about fraternal obligation, it becomes clear that he has Marks and they're in love—with each other, yes, and also the formula that yielded them. It's poetic.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.