“Robbery Homicide Division” has a team that makes CBS’ gritty cop drama look like nothing else on network television. Paul Hargrave, Deborah Page and Russ Fega are the location managers picking strip malls, graffiti-covered neighborhoods and rundown apartment complexes that add an element of toughness and danger to the cops in “RHD.” Jodie Tillen and Christopher Lawrence are the costume designers accurately dressing clubgoers, gang members and Latino families. Directors of photography Bill Roe and Roberto Schaefer have captured an uncompromisingly dark vision of Los Angeles — even the great Baltimore-set “Homicide” didn’t get this eerie in its darkest hours. Add to the mix a great theme from Dan the Automator and a solid tough-guy turn in a guest-starring role from Mario Van Peebles, and “RHD” could be the defining cop show of the 2000s the way “Miami Vice” was in the ’80s; Michael Mann is the rare producer capable of capturing the zeitgeist of two different eras.
What “Robbery Homicide Division” lacks, however, are compelling lead actors, scripts that don’t have huge lulls and any glimpse of hope that life is not a dead-end street — touches that will make audiences want to return each Friday rather than change channels to the pat “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”
Kudos to scribe Barry Schindel for not allowing the cops to solve their first case, a convoluted chain of events that leads from a Koreatown nightclub shooting of a prominent lawyer to Mexican drug lords to a possibly crooked cop. It signals a fallibility in the LAPD that locals realize. In the second episode, we see cops fuming over a suspected cop killer, and while one officer reasons with the hot-heads, “RHD” demonstrates an affinity with the collective thinking of cops in this scandal-packed squad. This is a war story played out on the streets of Los Angeles.
Tom Sizemore, in his first lead TV series role, is Detective Sam Cole, a hard-nosed, always intense cop who never runs out of questions that begin with who and why. He commands with a combination of rage and reason, as his partner Sgt. Alfred Simms (Barry “Shabaka” Henley) spends most of his time looking around. Ron Lu (Michael Paul Chan) is the high-strung detective from the Asian Gang Unit who shouts each of his lines with a “Eureka! I’ve got it!” euphoria. Van Peebles, playing a cool narcotics cop picking up some bucks — and possibly drugs — while moonlighting is about the only nuanced character in all of “Robbery Homicide Division.”
The crime trail goes all over L.A. and the more people director Stephen Gyllenhaal gets to move around the small screen the better: “RHD” is at its best with large-scale confrontation and downright hokey when it comes to one-on-one.
Show has the look of a winner, but as long as it lacks an inviting tone it will be backup for NBC’s Friday squadron, “Law & Order: SVU.”