The season finale of Detroit 1-8-7 is likely to be the last episode of the series, but it's neither better nor worse than the broadcast version of the pilot (which had to be reedited after the network decided to switch the format from a straight-faced "mockumentary" to a conventional cop opera) or most of the episodes that came in between. Okay, maybe a little worse: The show's failure to generate much buzz over the course of six months on the air and the prospect of imminent cancellation don't seem to have inspired anybody to go out swinging, determined to serve up a last-minute display of excellence that'll prove the haters wrong.
The most spirited moment may have come at the very end, with an inside joke about how "everybody knows" that people in Detroit say "pop" instead of "soda." This refers back to a moment in the pilot when a character complained about predators filching his "soda," and while it's nice that the writers are good sports, it's all too in keeping with the wilted spirit of the finale that they go out with a reminder that the "controversy" set off by that line was the most excited people ever got about this show. (It's a funny thing for purists to have latched onto, considering that, in a botched attempt to show that it's down with street, the show's title combines the city that it's set in with the California Penal Code's designation for homicide.)
Perhaps the most heartfelt moment of the finale comes when a cop who'd spent the day fighting to keep his job got a phone call just as he and his partner were getting the drop on a couple of stone-cold professional killers and asked for permission to step away: "I have to take this." It was pretty disappointing that the thugs didn't even try to take advantage of the situation and blow him out of his shoes; it was a little disappointing that his partner didn't get disgusted and at least pistol-whip him. At that moment, the idea of a bunch of actors gamely pretending to be cops one last time before calling their agents to ask what they were going to be doing next dissolved and became the text, pure and simple.
And poor James McDaniel, an actor who, once upon a time, appeared in the original off-Broadway production of John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation, creating the role played by Courtney Vance on Broadway and Will Smith in the movie, has been hanging around the TV precinct house for so many years, in so many different series, saying lines that hundreds of other actors have had to say before him, that you half expect the words "I'M TOO OLD FOR THIS SHIT!" to break out on his flesh like stigmata. "It makes perfect sense," he sneers when told that the bosses would welcome his retirement because it would make room for "new blood" on the force. "Take the knowledge and experience off the streets and replace it with some new breed of green commuter cops."
There's been plenty of knowledge and experience backstage at Detroit 1-8-7, but it's mostly knowledge of the mechanics of previous cop shows and the experience of taking the cliches out for another spin. "Nothing stolen from the house, blatant over-kill of innocents," says Michael Imperioli, summing up a crime scene. "Looks like somebody was trying to send a message." The blatant overkill extends not only to the dialogue, but to characters like the supervillain, Albert Stram, played by Sons of Anarchy's Tommy Flanagan with lank hair, classic Anthony Zerbe attitude, Pacino-esque random shouts, and his Scottish accent proudly turned up all the way to borderline impenetrability. "Thet's why yew've hed so menny pertners in this town," he tells Imperioli. "Affred of attechments. Now, yew tek thet smoog luck awf yer fece an' go do whet yew do bayst. Go ketch us a keller!"
Meanwhile, back at the station house, Shaun Majumder, as McDaniels' police partner, is singing the blues with the show's customary degree of on-the-nose bluntness: "I sabotage commitment every chance I get. The closest thing I've ever had to a long-term relationship is with you, and now you're leaving me." When the writing combines the stalest chestnuts of the cop-show genre with such unadulterated Oprah-speak, it's possible to think longingly, not just to the comparatively unenlightened days of Kojak, but to the sci-fi Kojak homage Life on Mars. That show was at least half screwed up, and just about every significant alteration it made in the British original on which it was based was calculated to make it much, much worse, but it did have Michael Imperioli running around in Serpico-gone-porn-star facial hair and acting so sneaky and beady-eyed that he nailed down the role of Wile E. Coyote in any forthcoming live action version.
In most of Detroit 1-8-7, Imperioli has acted like most of the rest of the cast: thoughtful, mature, sincere, and mournful, as if he'd been on the fast track to get his MFA in Contemporary Poetry when he was forced to transfer to the police academy after doctors concluded that getting his badge and gun might cure his mother's cancer. Detroit 1-8-7 lacks all freshness, thrill, and excitement, and it has none of the toughness and dirt we have the right to expect from a a show about homicide detectives in the city that gave us Motown, Jimmy Hoffa, Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, P-Funk, the MC5, Elmore Leonard, Madonna, and Devil's Night. (There's more civic pride in the flavor of the city in that car commercial featuring Eminem than in all of Detroit 1-8-7's full run.)
Yet a number of reviewers have been fairly kind to the show, and I imagine some people—those who are so in love with the formal chassis of the traditional urban cop show that they'd watch the cliches acted out by a bunch of chimpanzees on ice skates—will miss it a little, because it did put across the tired old moves with professional competence and the kind of poker-faced solemnity that is supposed to confer dignity, if not depth, on played-out material. Detroit 1-8-7 isn't (or wasn't) incompetent junk, just a zombie version of earlier, better shows, and not one of those new-style fast zombies, either. The fact that something as utterly mediocre as this show can now be done in such a passable-looking way by people working at a fraction of their abilities might be seen as some kind of tribute to the health of the medium right now. If it's over now, and its like is never seen on a network schedule again, that'll be a tribute to the health of the medium, too.