‘Shades of Blue’ Review: Jennifer Lopez Drama Stands Out From Cop-Show Crowd

NBC series starts strong and gets better as it goes

Every year there’s a host of new cop shows that either fail completely or enjoy the devoted fandom of those who lack a streaming device or premium cable (old people). Rare is the show of this kind that’s engaging from the jump and gets better as it goes on, but — dare we say it — the Jennifer Lopez vehicle “Shades of Blue” is such a gem.

Lopez stars as Harlee Santos, a single mom and New York City detective who’s forced to act as an FBI informant on her tight-knit, morally-compromised crew, lead by Lieutenant Matt Wozniak (Ray Liotta). The cops take kickbacks in exchange for “keeping the peace,” working with drug dealers to arrange that they stay on certain corners, and swiping the odd designer top when a boutique is short on its security payment. Santos does it for the sake of her 16-year-old in private school, whom “Woz,” as she calls him, supports emotionally and financially.

The moral justification for corruption is admittedly a bit half-baked. Exhibit A: how Harlee explains to a fellow cop why she’s helping him cover up his accidental shooting of an innocent civilian.

“I have a daughter, okay? Which means you have a daughter because of that badge in your pocket. That makes us family. And we love that daughter. That daughter is beautiful and smart and she needs us.”

It’s rickety logic. But once the excuses are dispensed, the show moves on to richer dramatic territory. Santos and Woz are playing at a cat and mouse game. He knows there’s a mole and Santos, as his closest ally, is immediately under suspicion.

The entertainment value lies in watching Santos shimmy her way out of situations where her double cross is about to be revealed. Shirking the case-of-the-week format, the show plays the long game. Every time she outsmarts either the FBI or her team, you get the kind of glee that’s reminiscent of meth-making Walter White’s first four seasons of evading his DEA brother-in-law on “Breaking Bad.” The mounting pressure Harlee and the rest of the cops under investigation are feeling creates a high-stakes atmosphere in each episode, many of which dish out some “Oh, hell no!” shockers.

As the gruff lieutenant, Liotta is in familiar territory. He’s played roles like this so many times, you’d be forgiven for finding the casting unimaginative, but here he’s just as likeable-slash-terrifying as when he first bellowed “Karen!” in “Goodfellas.” Press was provided with 8 episodes to review before the series premiere. The deeper we get into the season, the less Liotta seems to be playing a caricature of his previous roles.

Drea de Matteo rounds out the cast, with her role in “The Sopranos” as Adriana the FBI informant girlfriend to mobster Christopher Moltisanti casting a long shadow over her role here as another detective on the corrupt crew. Always suspecting her husband of cheating, in the first few episodes she’s mostly around for the comic relief.

Jennifer Lopez isn’t going to win any Emmys for her acting, but her charisma is enough to carry it through. With plot pacing that would make Shonda Rhimes proud, the tantalizing tension between the two strong leads of Lopez and Liotta could be a pleasure to watch for the extent series, however long that might be.