The opening sequence in “Shades of Blue” feels unexpectedly timely, as police shoot an African-American suspect, then cover up the details. After that, though, this NBC drama becomes extremely familiar, focusing on a cop forced to go undercover, risking detection from her corrupt colleagues. That’s not to say the show is without its strong points — including Ray Liotta, this time playing a wiseguy with a badge — but the star being used to sell it, Jennifer Lopez, while surely representing a promotional coup, feels like as much a distraction as an asset, looking absurdly glamorous regardless of the circumstances.
Lopez’s Harlee is a single mom, who has the misfortune to break into the wrong apartment with an itchy-trigger-fingered rookie (Dayo Okeniyi); he shoots a drug dealer who’s merely playing videogames. She helps obscure what happened, but the guilt gnaws at him, although that plot soon becomes secondary to a larger one.
Caught by the FBI, Harlee is pressured to inform on her crew, led by Wozniak (Liotta, in not much of a leap from the mobsters he’s played), who soon becomes aware there’s a rat in the ranks, placing everyone under suspicion.
Meanwhile, Harlee spars with her FBI handler (Warren Kole), who relentlessly pressures her, despite the dangers she faces given Wozniak’s ruthlessness. Indeed, the camaraderie and loyalty among her gang collides uncomfortably with her callous treatment by the FBI, echoing a dynamic from Sidney Lumet’s “Prince of the City.”
Created by Adi Hasak (“Generation Kill”), with the first two episodes directed by Barry Levinson, “Shades of Blue” — a title, frankly, that sounds as derivative as the show feels — is handsome, polished and occasionally twisty, from the gritty, tension-filled situations associated with undercover work to the first-rate cast, which includes Drea de Matteo as part of Wozniak’s squad.
Liotta’s crooked cop — whose paternal qualities are only rivaled by his fierceness — is easily the most interesting presence here. But because Lopez is, well, Lopez (and not incidentally, serves as an executive producer on the project), the focus on Harlee remains front and center, with the actress acquitting herself honorably enough as a character who is tough and resourceful but, as written, relatively thin and uninspired.
Practically speaking, NBC has struggled to find series to pair with “The Blacklist” on Thursday nights, and Lopez’s star power might be an asset in helping lure viewers into the program’s serialized plot. “Shades of Blue” is reasonably compelling by that measure, and clips along smartly enough (eight episodes were made available) that the show should inspire some return business if it can generate the requisite sampling. Nevertheless, it’s too bad “Blue” couldn’t bring at least a few new, more colorful hues to a crime drama that paints, ultimately, with a rather familiar palette.