Showtime should silence some of its critics with "Street Time," a gritty cat-and-mouse series with rough edges to spare. Skein hardly comes close to rival HBO's "The Sopranos" or even "The Wire" in terms of depth or social context, but the pay cabler, which hasn't formed an identity, has finally developed a solid drama.

Showtime should silence some of its critics with “Street Time,” a gritty cat-and-mouse series with rough edges to spare. Skein hardly comes close to rival HBO’s “The Sopranos” or even “The Wire” in terms of depth or social context, but the pay cabler, which hasn’t formed an identity in part due to its weak lineup of originals, has finally developed a solid drama.

Like FX’s “The Shield” and A&E’s recently canceled “100 Centre Street,” “Street Time” is a gutsy project that pulls few punches. Directed by Marc Levin with a verite style that’s strong and sexy, show excels when it comes to character development; while comparable hours often follow around an entire squadron or a gaggle of lawyers — spreading thin the focus and attention — here it’s only two men who really matter.

James Liberti (Scott Cohen) is a bundle of intensity, a recovering gambler who relishes his all-powerful post as a federal parole officer in an unnamed but Gothamlike city (skein is shot in Toronto). A father of three with a beautiful wife who worries nonstop, he appears to be on top of the world until it’s revealed midway through the first episode that the family has no money saved because of James’ love of the Sunday point spread.

Though dealt a hand full of crack addicts and violent types at work — he’s in the Special Offenders unit — his most complex concern from here on out will be Kevin Hunter (Rob Morrow), a relatively smart ex-con who has just been released from a five-year prison stretch for major-league drug-dealing. Committed to getting his life back together, Kevin hopes to reconcile with his girlfriend (Michelle Nolden) and son, while looking for work and trying to stay out of trouble.

That’s going to be hard. Surrounded by the same circle he was in before he went to jail — all criminals to some degree — he’s tempted to make one final transaction by smuggling in black hash with his sleazy brother (Christopher Bolton). As Kevin balances that potential payday with his desire to go straight, Liberti is there every step of the way to “check in” at the most inopportune moments.

Written by Stephen Kronish (“Wiseguy”) and Richard Stratton, himself sentenced in 1982 to 25 years for conspiracy to import hashish and marijuana, “Street Time” gets major points for narrative complexity. While Scott is the dutiful one, he becomes less and less sympathetic as the plot unfolds because of his massive ego and lack of confidence in the people he’s supposed to help. On the flip side, Kevin, though a felon, genuinely wants to rediscover normalcy. How this duo connects via mental games — they are similar in so many ways yet on completely different ends of the social spectrum — will be a real treat to follow.

Cohen, a popular supporting player (“NYPD Blue,” “Gilmore Girls”) who always deserves more notice than he usually gets, is terrific as a guy’s guy with bigger problems than he thinks. And while Morrow isn’t particularly convincing as a baddie who could survive the state penitentiary, he eventually evolves into someone mired in moral dilemmas and one-way streets. Also tops are Erika Alexander, who shines as James’ resilient colleague, and Richard Chevolleau as an informant who has found redemption as a journalist. Red Buttons guest-stars as a habitual crook with mob connections.

Tech credits are polished, notably Ian Brock’s low-key production design — the interrogation rooms are a minimalist delight meant to underscore the raw conversations that take place — and Jonathan Freeman’s tense lensing, which complements nicely the tough job it must be to hound delinquents.

Street Time

Showtime, Sun., June 23, 10 p.m.

Production

Filmed in Toronto by Columbia TriStar Domestic Television. Executive producers, Stephen Kronish, Richard Stratton; supervising producer, Nicholas J. Gray; director, Marc Levin;

Crew

Camera, Jonathan Freeman; production designer, Ian Brock; editor, Mike Lee, Don Cassidy; music, Barry Goldberg. 90 MIN.

Cast

Kevin Hunter - Rob Morrow James Liberti - Scott Cohen Dee Mulhern - Erika Alexander Karen Liberti - Kate Greenhouse Rachel Goldstein - Michelle Nolden Peter Hunter - Christopher Bolton Sam Cahan - Red Buttons
With: Allegra Fulton, Richard Chevolleau, Simon Reynolds.
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