Crime may not pay, but on USA, it's usually good for a few laughs. ?The channel's specialty is mystery larded with levity. The prototypical lead (think Adrian Monk) is an endearing eccentric who week after week turns out to be an unlikely model of efficiency when it comes to identifying the guilty party.
CBS's The Mentalist is the one that got away. It should by all rights be a USA series.
The cable channel's newest vehicle, Common Law, shifts the formula to the buddy cop genre. The result is distinctly forced, but a standout cast manages to put a breezy top spin on some leaden material.
The premise is that Travis Marks (Michael Ealy) and Wes Mitchell (Warren Kole) have a spotless clearance record as partners in the homicide division of the LAPD.
The problem — and you knew there had to be one — is that they're like oil and ice water. Ealy (Think Like a Man; The Good Wife) is casual, charming, and emotional. Kole (The Chicago Code; 24) is cold, analytical, skeptical, and uptight.
Both are equipped with rich backstories, a sliver of which supposedly explains how Kole's character, after a decade as a cop, is able to drive a brand-new Range Rover.
Now, here's the twist: the guys have been getting along so badly that it has been affecting their work. So their captain (Jack Rescue Me McGee) insists they go in together for couples counseling. Clear the air. Gain a new appreciation for each other.
Enter the no-nonsense therapist (Sonya Walger of Lost and FlashForward), who sees right through their masks. Walger is supposed to be an object of desire for both men, but sitting sternly in the group sessions, she looks like Dr. Joyce Brothers.
The joke in the pilot is that because Ealy and Kole keep referring to each other as partners for seven years, the other couples in the group assume they are gay. And really, both are so handsome and stylish, the two men would be far more believable as a gay couple than as veteran cops.
The incident that forced the captain to step in involved Kole pulling his service revolver on Ealy. Which is strange because in the course of the show, Ealy is far more trigger-delirious.
Sometimes he fires away with guns in both hands. At one point, he shoots out into a busy street to deflate a flimsy blowup figure that's annoying him on the sidewalk. I'm no ballistics expert, but I'd say there's a pretty good chance those bullets would continue on into traffic.
The levity evaporates once the actual investigating begins. (With one exception: When the guys get in a tight squeeze, light banter is permitted to indicate how cool they are under fire.)
For most of the hour, Common Law devolves into a standard (and at times, substandard) procedural.
Given all those flaws, what makes the show so curiously enticing? A uniformly excellent cast. The leads are engaging, particularly Ealy. But the cast stays strong from Walger and McGee, to Alicia Coppola as the coroner and Elizabeth Chomko as Kole's ex.
This troupe can skate gracefully even on thin ice. Even if the crime isn't compelling on Common Law, you may find yourself staying for the company.
Contact David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @daveondemand_tv. Read his blog, "Dave on Demand," at www.philly.com/dod.
Fridays at 10 p.m. on USA