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'Working Stiff TV' — Hey, Meat And Potatoes Are Pretty Tasty

Mary McDonnell stars in <em>Major Crimes</em>, a good solid show that preserves the ensemble created in TNT's more successful drama <em>The Closer</em>.
Mary McDonnell stars in Major Crimes, a good solid show that preserves the ensemble created in TNT's more successful drama The Closer.

Even the snobbiest entertainment fan has got to admit it: Television is pretty good these days.

So it's easy to get distracted by talk of big-ticket dramas like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead or Orange Is the New Black. But the fact is, there's a whole wide universe of TV shows out there that aren't trying to top critics' best-of lists, make the short list at the Emmys or get recapped on Vulture.com.

These are shows I call Working Stiff TV; they have all the best elements of great TV shows — strong characters, surprising stories, well-crafted episodes and cool plot arcs. But they aren't quite competing with the big-ticket TV shows out there, so critics like me don't spend a lot of time talking about them.

These shows are different from programs that are trying to hit that quality TV benchmark and failing. Let's put Starz's high-end drug-dealer drama Power in this camp (sorry 50 Cent, but your hip-hop version of The Godfather just isn't the next Breaking Bad yet). Shows that are simply pedestrian and populist — like, say, TNT's Rizzoli & Isles -- aren't what I'm talking about, either.

Working Stiff dramas know they won't be the hippest or most critically acclaimed shows out there. They seem more focused on nailing the traditional elements of a successful TV show: characters you love; stories that are surprising without getting too challenging; and visuals that are impressive without breaking the bank.

Exhibit A in this trend right now: TNT's Major Crimes, which comes back for its third season tonight. This is a show that mostly exists, it seems, to preserve the ensemble of characters that came together around TNT's more successful crime drama, The Closer.

When star Kyra Sedgwick bowed out, creator James Duff kept the show going by re-centering it around Mary McDonnell's character, a divorced, empty-nest mom leading a group of high-level homicide detectives trying to close cases by piling up so much evidence, the perps take plea deals rather than fight it out in court. Viewers who loved the family of characters created for The Closer could keep watching them bounce off each other in new cases, even though McDonnell's character is less compelling and the whole thing feels a little more predictable.

In tonight's episode, the crew takes on the sudden disappearance of a father and his two kids from the family home while mom was on a business trip. The evidence, as always, points to murder; but seeing the why and how, while Duff's constellation of ace supporting players bring the drama and a few laughs, is good, solid television.

Same with A&E's Longmire, a modern-day Western that features Aussie actor Robert Taylor as the laconic, crime-solving Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire. As with most such shows, way too many murders and major crimes take place in a town so small and isolated that one killing a year would likely seem like a crime wave.

Longmire started its third season last Monday, centered on an episode where his longtime rival and deputy Branch Connally was shot and nearly killed. At the same time, Longmire's best friend has been arrested and is headed to Denver, facing charges he killed the man who killed the sheriff's wife years ago.

It may all read like a nighttime soap opera in print. But Taylor, Katee Sackhoff, Lou Diamond Phillips and guest stars like Charles Dutton (as the Denver cop looking into the death of the guy who killed Longmire's wife) make compelling drama out of storylines that could feel rote and predictable in lesser hands. I can't decide if Phillips' sometimes-stiff Henry Standing Bear is a modern day stereotypical sidekick or a step forward, but the show also tries hard to show a range of Native American characters at a time when few can be found elsewhere in television.

TNT and USA Network have a history of success with these shows, and they have a raft of Working Stiff dramas coming this summer. On TNT, the sci-fi drama Falling Skies and the new pandemic adventure series The Last Ship are the best in this mold. USA's undercover cop drama Graceland, and Rush, a new series about a dysfunctional concierge doctor (think Royal Pains meets House), also stand out.

Over on WEtv, I enjoyed the two-hour premiere of The Divide, the cable channel's first original scripted drama, co-created by Tony Goldwyn — the guy who plays the president on ABC's Scandal. It doesn't drop until next month, but it's an interesting show built around a fictional version of The Innocence Project, featuring a woman whose dad is on death row, and who volunteers for an organization that tries to overturn wrongful death penalty cases.

These are all shows that are solid, well-done and not likely to top many critics' best-of lists this year, thanks to the growing glut of A-level TV shows competing for buzz and awards.

So let this serve as a shout out to some of my favorite Working Stiff shows on television. Because, sometimes, all you really want to watch is a group of characters you care about handle a problem you can't quite figure out, in about an hour.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.

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