Trim away all the extraneous, overly melodramatic and downright silly subplots from "To Serve and Protect," and you'd have a nifty two- or three-hour telepic. In this bloated four-hour miniseries, however, such narrative missteps only detract from the core story, which could result in audience attrition before the satisfying finale, in which tension and police procedure are captured with equal effectiveness.
Trim away all the extraneous, overly melodramatic and downright silly subplots from “To Serve and Protect,” and you’d have a nifty two- or three-hour telepic. In this bloated four-hour miniseries, however, such narrative missteps only detract from the core story, which could result in audience attrition before the satisfying finale, in which tension and police procedure are captured with equal effectiveness.In texture, plotting and characterization — not to mention the opening title sequence — this miniseries would like nothing better than to remind audiences of David Fincher’s ultra-creepy 1995 feature thriller “Seven,” or at least one of its imitators. But it also hopes to be more palatable, so it leavens its grit with sundry soap-opera elements, and oh-so-convenient plotting elements. In a city of 1.5 million, it seems every character, simply by chance, runs into whoever they need to at any given moment. Liberally adapted from the life of Tom Walker, a fifth-generation New York cop whose exploits were previously the basis of the 1981 Paul Newman vehicle “Fort Apache, the Bronx,” “To Serve and Protect” concerns Dallas cop Tom Carr (Craig T. Nelson), who routinely bellows whenever he’s dissatisfied. And the screenplay gives him plenty to grumble about. Story, described by executive producer Mark Wolper as “an unbelievable roller coaster ride, with heart,” opens at a luxurious Dallas penthouse, with a routinely gratuitous murder of an attractive, bikini-clad woman (Happy Valentine’s Day, all). Carr, because he must, senses order from a series of random murders. “Thirteen different killers couldn’t form this scattered a pattern!” he declares. With the help of a numerologist, he discovers a particularly arcane pattern to the murders. Pesky side tribulations will not dissuade him from his investigation — his brother and sister-in-law’s murder in a convenience-store robbery. Not his father’s (Richard Crenna) retirement from the force and subsequent, oft-bungled extracurricular investigations. Not his rift with his daughter (Amanda Detmer), who got pregnant as a teen and became a cop without his knowledge. Not his partner’s (John Corbett) tiresomely remarked-upon womanizing. Not his partner and daughter’s affair, nor his daughter being assigned to the serial-killer task force as a cheap public relations gambit even though the wacko nearly added her to his list of victims, nor his teenage nephew’s freshly acknowledged homosexuality, and so on and so on. As often happens in stories of this nature, the killer decides to challenge Carr directly, kidnapping a family member. The only way this story could be more insular and contrived is if the killer had been a cop or a member of the family — maybe it didn’t occur to the filmmakers. Performances offer, at best, the minimum daily requirement of actorly commitment. Nelson and Crenna have their moments, but too often seem to be going through the motions. Joanna Cassidy, as the family’s strong, concerned matriarch, is utterly defeated by a cliched, under-defined role. Detmer brings pluck and poutiness, but zero credibility, to the role of an aspiring cop, while Corbett at least seems to be having fun with his role, but can’t elevate it beyond its bland writing. As for Kirk Baltz, who turns up intermittently as the psycho killer nibbling on fruit, bathing in a sunken tub, drinking milk, fussing over colored tiles or branding himself after yet another murder, he barely exudes an ounce of menace. Talented character actor CCH Pounder appears in a pointlessly tacky scene as a dominatrix. On the other hand, Dallas thesps acquit themselves admirably in a series of supporting roles. Tech credits are all managed adequately, except for the dubious makeup and hairpieces for the killer’s disguises and a sound-editing glitch at the end of Part One: Rotary noise from a helicopter shot is incorporated into a chase sequence, suggesting that a police helicopter is monitoring the action. Were that true, the killer would have been captured at that point, making Part Two unnecessary. It’s a gambit the filmmakers might have been wise to consider.