Judge Maurice Cobbs would like you to imagine The Shield as filtered through the creative vision of Lifetime Television for Women.
Our review of The Commish: The Complete First Season, published April 16th, 2010, is also available.
"The flipside of The Shield."—Detroit Free Press
So, all the while I'm watching this show, all these really scummy guys are parading by, like serial rapists and mobsters and killers and assorted other dirtbags, and Tony Scali is so nice, and what I'm really thinking is that they really deserve a good thumpin' Mackey-style. But they never get it. And that's sad. Oh, well. At least Cyd Madison has got a great pair of getaway sticks. Dresses in short skirts, too, which must be hell to chase crooks in, but sure are easy on the eyes. Man, she's hot. Redhead, you know.
Facts of the Case
Season Two of the popular offbeat cop show The Commish introduces new characters into the life of Eastbridge Police Commissioner Anthony J. Scali (Michael Chiklis, Fantastic Four)—both at work, in the form of his (smokin' hot) new Chief of Detectives Cyd Madison (Melinda McGraw, of the abysmal 1997 miniseries House of Frankenstein), and at home, as his wife Rachel (Theresa Saldana, Raging Bull) gives birth to their second child, Sarah (played by Dana and Justine Cornborough). There are also some weird new neighbors to contend with: the Wortzels, Alan (James Bell, Robin of Locksley) and Helen (Marcy Goldberg), who become even more of a headache when the Scalis' son David (Kaj-Erik Eriksen) develops a crush on the Wortzels' nubile teenaged daughter Sheila (Sabrina Byrne). There are plenty of familiar faces as well, like Officers Stan Kelly (Geoffrey Nauffts, Baby Steps), Carmela Pagan (Gina Belafonte), and Mike Rose (Pat Bermel), as well as the big-hearted but incompetent handyman Freddie (Dave "Squatch" Ward). Season Two features 22 episodes on six discs:
This is the order in which the episodes are listed; however, on the discs, "The Frame" and "Dead Cadets' Society" are reversed.
Crime seems to be on the rise in Eastbridge since Commissioner Scali came to town—no big surprise, since there appear to be only a couple of uniformed cops who bother to patrol regularly. The rest just sit around the squad room drinking coffee and typing every now and then, unless there's another murder. Then they stand around the crime scene drinking coffee. Didn't Tony and his wife move to Eastbridge to get away from all the murders, rapes, drug dealing, and general chaos? I can tell you that that sort of stuff doesn't mesh well with the lighthearted framework of the show; it just makes the show seem schizophrenic rather than giving it the offbeat feel they're aiming for. It's hard to be charmed by Tony's humorous antics at Lamaze class, for instance, when the audience is also worried about the underage local girl turned porn star who's in the clutches of a repugnant smut peddler who might kill her at any minute. I'm not saying that hard-hitting crime drama and offbeat humor cannot be mixed, but I am saying that in episodes like "Adventures in the Skin Trade" they are not mixed well. Mostly, The Commish's attempt to revive Andy Griffith–style homespun humor and inject it with big-city cop action just falls flat; I guess that you just can't go back to Mayberry (at least not by way of Flatbush). Not that it stops them from trying: In "The Anti-Commish," for instance, Tony and the rest of the department rig a lottery for unlucky Officer Gordy Tuefel (Michael Patten) in a subplot markedly similar to the Andy Griffith Show episode "The Jinx."
"Predictable" doesn't even begin to describe the first few episodes, but it's as good a place as any to start. For instance, in the episode "The Witches of Eastbridge," from the moment we discover that the weird old man who lives in the creepy house that everybody avoids is suspected of being a witch and possibly a murderer a few days before Halloween, those of us with any prime-time TV savvy at all know that he'll wind up telling ghost stories to the kiddies before the hour is up and being an all-around fun guy after all, and shame on us for jumping to conclusions because he's different and how could we have ever thought that that sweet old man was a devil-worshiping killer? Yeesh.
To be fair, the series does get its absolute worst episode out of the way right off the bat with the two-part season opener, "Adventures in the Skin Trade," a story so ludicrous, clichéd, and ham-fisted that it nearly became impossible to sit through—and this is coming from a man who gleefully spoons up Walker: Texas Ranger whenever it's on and there's time to waste. Most people would file a missing persons report if they didn't know where their daughter was; Lisa McKeller's parents wait until she starts turning up in porno flicks. It's okay, though—it's the prime-time TV kind of porno, the type where nobody gets naked or anything, but there's a lot of cheesy saxophone and heavy breathing. Saucy! Almost as bad is the mawkish episode "Sons and Guns," which is obviously meant to show us in no uncertain terms that guns are bad, even when used by school kids to puncture vicious bullies (and maybe especially then)—all through the episode, we are treated to dramatic close-up shots of guns, crouching with kinetic malice, just waiting for a chance to leap into the air, fangs bared, to claim another innocent victim. The real crime here is that this really could have been a powerful episode if it had focused more on the thread in which young David is torn between his sense of honor and loyalty to his friend (the shooter) and his sense of right and wrong. Instead, it's the kind of drippy so-called drama that's usually sandwiched between the words "a very special…" and "for more information…"; this episode actually does have a heartfelt PSA at the end. After I finished vomiting, I returned to the couch to sit through another few episodes that were not quite as bad but which still left much to be desired, reaching the height of laugh-out-loud absurdity in "The Two Faces of Ed."
But there's an abrupt shift in the quality of the writing around the ninth or tenth episode; it's as if the disparate pieces of the show that seemed to be grating against one another suddenly drop into place. It's not a perfect fit, but it's much better than what came before, and I suddenly found myself with a renewed interest in what I was watching. Strong stories with real impact give Chiklis room to really act—the best episode of this season is arguably "The Sharp Pinch," in which Tony and the rest of the department must race against the clock in order to find a sick baby who has been kidnapped by a woman unaware of the child's condition. It's an edge-of-your-seat kind of nail-biter that even features a ticking clock as a plot device, and allows Chiklis and the rest of the cast to really show us what they can do. Other noteworthy episodes are "Sleep of the Just," in which Tony butts heads with the U.S. State Department over a serial rapist (James Horan) with diplomatic immunity, and "Witness," in which Rachel Scali witnesses a senseless murder and is intimidated by the perpetrator, even as Tony must wrestle with some doubts about the accuracy of her identification—you get the idea that perhaps Theresa Saldana was pulling from her own horrific personal experience as a victim for this episode. The "most wasted opportunity" award goes to a story arc featuring Telly Savalas (Kojak) as a devious New York mobster named Tommy Collette. Collette had obvious potential as a continuing character, but is neatly disposed of after only three episodes—although in a way, granted, that could allow for a comeback at some point in the future.
But let's be honest here—I think we can; we're all friends, right? The reason to watch The Commish isn't the stories, which in this collection range mostly from "oh, come on!" to "Eh…that wasn't bad." It's the acting—which elevates mediocre scripts to enjoyable television. It's remarkable that the same man could play a character as warm and friendly as Tony Scali and also a character as stone-cold as The Shield's Vic Mackey; of course, I think that Michael Chiklis would be enjoyable to watch while washing his dishes, and the wise decision was made to surround him with talented supporting actors that play well with and off him. Geoffrey Nauffts and Gina Belafonte have great chemistry and are a lot of fun to watch as Stan and Carmela. Melinda McGraw as Cyd is a great partner and sometimes foil for Tony. Teresa Saldana is of course a wonderful actress, but her character is unfortunately sometimes annoying: In "Blue Flu," for instance, Tony has to deal with a shortage of cops on the force in the face of a proposed salary cut, as criminals take advantage of the situation and the crime rate soars through the roof, and Rachel is making him jealous because she feels taken for granted. Maybe she had cause, but couldn't she have waited to play her mind games until her husband wasn't working 24-hour shifts and trying to hold the department together while his cops were being wantonly attacked? Does he really need to be worrying about who's going to the high school reunion with his wife on top of all that? It might seem like sweet revenge, but I'll bet it would lose some of its sweetness if Tony got gunned down in a back alley by some teenaged thug because he was distracted by who his wife was out on the town with.
Unfortunately, this collection hasn't got very much going for it—the transfer may be the worst I've ever seen, with a grainy, sometimes blurred picture with bleeding colors and even a little distortion in some places. It looks like VHF reception in a mild thunderstorm; great for pretending that the show is still on the air, I suppose, but I expect more from a DVD release. The sound is average to okay, certainly nothing to write home about. And the special features are limited to a pointless photo gallery and a DVD-Rom script for part one of "Adventures In The Skin Trade." I can hardly contain my excitement. And the DVD also features—now this is bizarre—"select scenes in Spanish." Yes, you read that right; not "select episodes in Spanish"…select scenes. Why? Consider my imagination officially boggled.
I can't promise that fans of Chiklis's runaway hit series The Shield will also enjoy The Commish, despite the DVD set's packaging, which strikes me as an obvious attempt to glom onto the coattails of that critically acclaimed fan favorite. It's not a bad show, at least not after the first few episodes, but neither is it terribly good—there are too many missed opportunities and parts that just don't work for the show to achieve the greatness that it really might have. But if it is not as great as it could be, neither is it as terrible, and no matter how you look at it, the show retains a large fan following; to quote Abraham Lincoln, "For those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like."
It does have a catchy theme song, though.
Guilty. But Chiklis is so cool that I'll accept a plea bargain.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Script for "Adventures in the Skin Trade (Part One)" on DVD-ROM
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