She’s a cop. She’s a single mom. She’s got some secrets, and she’s contoured like a queen.
She’s Jennifer Lopez on a cop show. And she’s pretty good!
Of course, the title Shades of Blue isn’t referring to Ms. Lopez’s flawless makeup job, but to the levels of corruption that her character, Detective Harlee Santos, and her Scooby-Doo crew of fellow officers justify as a means to do their jobs.
They’re not good or evil. Things aren’t black and white. There are shades in between—at least, I’ve heard, 50 of them. Hey-o!
The premise for the show is outlined in a monologue Harlee tearfully records on her computer in the show’s opening seconds. “I always wanted to be a good cop,” she whispers. “But there’s no straight line to that. I always told myself that the end would justify the means. But now that I’m at the end, I can’t justify anything. It happened so slowly I didn’t realize. And so quickly I never saw it coming.”
Then we’re transported to two weeks earlier to find out what motivated the recording.
Jenny is patrolling the block. When a sting goes awry, our heroine covers it up with masterful skill and speed. “I’ll protect you,” she tells a bumbling rookie. “But you gotta trust me.” And then the tried and true corrupt cop line: “The truth is in the paperwork.”
If it sounds like a line that’s been said before it’s because it probably has. In fact, most of what you’ll find in Shades of Blue is shades of similar (arguably better) shows about crooked cops that came before it. So why not just watch The Shield or The Wire, then, which tread much similar ground, did it without the constraints of broadcast standards, and are readily available on streaming?
They don’t star Jennifer Lopez, of course.
It seems like a millennium ago when it was announced that Lopez would be starring in an NBC cop series. It was both a confusing and obvious move for the multi-hyphenate.
Why would the glamorous movie star with a music career, American Idol judging duties, an upcoming Las Vegas residency, and professionally making us normals drool over how flawless she looks—girlfriend is 46, slash, possibly a witch!—commit to the hum-drum rigmarole of a broadcast TV shooting schedule?
But then again, of course Jennifer Lopez would star as a dirty cop with a heart of gold on a NBC procedural. It’s on-brand with her conquering of every other medium she’s taken on: create something mediocre, work four times harder than anyone else would on it, turn it into something actually worth consuming, and look fine as hell while doing it.
Because Shades of Blue is not the next great cop drama. But it’s… well, it’s fine.
It’s familiar, not just in its echoes of those previously mentioned great dramas of the past but because of the very modern way it blends procedural with soap opera. There are elements of Scandal’s twistiness and moral ambiguity to complement the Law and Order tropes that, really, you crave when you’re watching a police drama on NBC.
Ray Liotta is pitch-perfect—as in rocking that gravelly, growly, scary-as-hell pitch of his—as Lt. Matt Wozniak, the Godfather of this close-knit family of corrupt cops. He has a fatherly relationship with Harlee, for complicated reasons that eventually unfold.
He speaks in non-stop wonderful/cringe-worthy metaphor, such as in this exceptionally rich tirade directed at Harlee: “You want to save a pup from drowning, I appreciate the instinct… Never risk a hole in my boat unless you’re positive you can plug it… Don’t get wobbly. One slip at the wrong time and we all go tumbling down. And I don’t tumble well.”
You begin to accept, even adore, these wooden aspects of the show as a litany of twists begin entering at whiplash pace. Harlee gets nabbed by the FBI while orchestrating one of her dirty deals. The FBI coerces her into being a mole to take down Wozniak. Wozniak suspects there’s a mole. He suspects it’s her!
The cat-and-mouse game ensues, and, you know what, Jennifer Lopez and Ray Liotta are excellent cats and mice!
There’s strong direction here, too, keeping you riveted at least through the three episodes I’ve seen, seizing on Lopez’s controlled performance to ground things as the twists get loopier and loopier. (Closeted homosexuality, baby daddy drama, and possible hate crimes all pop up.) The first two episodes are directed by Barry Levinson, an alum of Homicide: Life on the Streets, another series with a heavy influence on Shades.
Levinson knows his way around a good gritty cop drama and it shows. His action set pieces are thrilling. The pilot alone pairs several key action scenes with songs like “No Church in the Wild,” “Beautiful People,” and “Chandelier,” and they are fun.
But let’s be honest: None of that is important.
This is The Jennifer Lopez Show and, for all the things that Shades of Blue has going for and against it, that’s the only thing that matters. Is J.Lo good in it? Yes. And will it help her career? Yes!
Few celebrities boast as magnetic a camera presence or have as much tangible charm as Jennifer Lopez. It’s why she became one of the last bankable rom-com stars in the early 2000s, on the backs of so-so fare like The Wedding Planner and Maid in Manhattan. But movie star likability and a platinum-selling music career have distracted from one of Lopez’s key talents: She’s an excellent actress.
Sure, the vehicles she’s given are often crap. But she’s always convincing.
The Boy Next Door was unfathomably silly, but Lopez leaned into the camp of it all with such gusto that I’m convinced the ridiculous thriller saved her career. Revenge tale Enough was a stinker if there ever was one, but I stand by my assertion that Lopez’s toughened performance stands among the best of that year. And have you seen Anaconda lately? Don’t. But trust that J.Lo is quite good in it.
Once in a while—and how quickly we all forget—Lopez’s talent is matched by the project. Selena, folks. Selena! God, Jennifer Lopez was so good in Selena. Even better, though, is Out of Sight. Out of Sight, filmed nearly two decades ago, is the perfect comparison point for Shades of Blue.
HitFix critic Alan Sepinwall said it best: “As Out of Sight heroine Karen Sisco, Lopez was cool, confident, and tougher than every man in that movie combined; since then, she’s kept trying to prove that she can play vulnerable, rather than embracing her inherent J. Lo awesomeness.”
Shades of Blue is not a vehicle on par with Out of Sight, one of the best films of 1998. But it’s the showcase J.Lo fans—Hi, I’m Kevin and I Am Here For J.Lo—have been waiting for. As Lopez navigates new routes in her tangled maze of a career, this is an important reminder of the strength of her abilities as an actor and a powerhouse capable of carrying a season of a network show.
She’s cool, confident, and tough. She’s in an acting battle of wits with Ray Liotta and coming out on top. That vulnerability that Sepinwall refers to seeps through more than some may like, but I appreciate the, excuse the pun, shades it allows in her performance.
She and the rest of the show’s creative team make you care about what happens to Harlee while still making you feel like she’s in real danger. In an age of soulless, sanitized, and predictable broadcast procedurals, that’s all a small miracle.
Shades of Blue isn’t perfect. Nothing’s perfect. Nothing, that is, but J.Lo.