‘I’ ON CULTURE
One of the glories of the summer television season is the rise of new basic cable shows that often transcend the ones shown on the major networks during the year. Common Law fits that description perfectly. Only a few episodes old, shown on USA Network Fridays at 10 p.m., it has become appointment television in my home. It is a perfect blend of cop show with a great helping of comedy.
Travis Marks (Michael Ealy) is a loosey-goosey kind of cop. Raised in dozens of homes as a foster child, with foster family members seemingly everywhere, he is part of the best team of detectives in Los Angeles. He does have a couple of problems. The first is that he has slept with just about every female in the department, and none of them will lift a finger to help him. Second and more important, he is paired with Wes Mitchell (Warren Kole), a former attorney and a stickler for rules but also an excellent cop. His major emotional problem is that his wife left him when he switched from being a lawyer to being a cop, and he can’t get past his feelings for her.
On the job, they’re the best team of detectives in town, but they can’t stand each other. They’ve had fistfights in the office, jump all over each other for just about everything, and, at one point, Wes actually pulled his gun on Travis. Rather than break them up, their long-suffering commander (Jack McGee) sends them to couples therapy. After carefully and extensively noting to other couples in the group that their partnership refers only to their job, not their sex lives (although somehow their relationships with women always seem to prefigure quite a few of their issues), they try dealing with their antagonism. The sessions in group therapy under the direction of Dr. Emma Ryan (Sonya Walger) are vastly amusing and contrast well with the gritty cop fare that is the center of the show.
Right from the opening moments, it is clear that both men are superb detectives and balance perfectly with each other. It makes the decision to keep them together despite their constant fighting a rational one, besides the obvious reason that their antagonism is funny. They pick up clues, bounce ideas off each other and actually listen. Once they are not up to their knees in alligators, they go back to fighting.
This is a really good show. The characters are allowed to behave like real humans rather than typical stereotypes. Wes is a stickler for rules; he can drive Travis nuts with them, but he also knows how to work around them if a case demands it or if it’s the decent thing to do. And Travis, for all his teasing about Wes and his forlorn love life, actually does try to help, even if in most cases it turns into a disaster.
Watching both of them respond in one episode to a very sexy FBI agent, each one going far beyond his normal workday to impress her because she convinced each she was interested in him — before having the therapy group note that she played both of them perfectly — was delicious. And in the next episode, dealing with a Bonnie and Clyde-type couple, they were able to be compassionate as they provided a good solution to the problem despite the fact that arresting the wife would have brought them to a landmark arrest record.
One of the most important elements of any episodic cop show is the creation of likable lead characters. The audience has to want them to succeed. In this series, of course, the two men will never quite get along: That would ruin the joke. But it is easy to like both of them and root for them.
This brings me to one of my key grudges. USA Network is owned by NBC, which has put up a group of the worst television shows in recent history on its own network. None of their cop shows is in the same league as this one, which is hidden away on a cable station, showing at what is traditionally an awful showing time. The question really must be stated again: Why are so many cable series so much better than the garbage often shown on the major stations?
That is one of the unanswerable questions, along with “Why are men and women so different?” and “Why can’t the cable and dish companies provide decent service?” In the meantime, see Common Law. You’ll enjoy it.