The season finale for the FX detective show Terriers is titled “Hail Mary.” It’s a name that speaks to desperation: not just of the characters in this masterfully-plotted, pitch-perfect drama, but to the chorus of television critics and the show’s creators. They’ve been exhorting people to pay attention to a series that was almost doomed straight out of the gate by an obscure title and confusing marketing. Terriers is this season’s best show that no one watched, but there’s still time to correct that oversight.
While the glut of police procedurals on television today assume all unsolved crimes result from insufficiently applied forensic wizardry, Terriers recalls an earlier tradition of crime story. It’s got shades of noir and The Rockford Files, of finding some kind of justice on the fringes. Coming from Shawn Ryan (creator of The Shield) and Ted Griffin (writer of Ocean’s Eleven), this show takes the well-worn television staple of the detective story, pares it down to the lean muscle, and grinds its face in the dirt a little. The result is a character piece that’s sharp and desperate in all the right ways.
Hank (Donal Logue) is an ex-cop and recovering alcoholic who works as an unlicensed private investigator on the outskirts of San Diego. Along with his partner, a former thief named Britt (Michael Raymond-James), he finds that his routine of bottom-of-the-barrel PI work is disrupted as they get more and more entangled in a Chinatown-style conspiracy. It starts with the murder of an old friend and just gets more personal from there.
It’s all way above their pay grade (Britt says in one episode, “We grow two sizes, we might make small time,”) and most of the time, all these guys have to work with are their wits, Hank’s pickup truck and the capability to withstand serious mental and physical punishment—and they get through it all anyway. It’s a joy to watch Hank and Britt operate; the two have a natural running banter that perfectly sets the show’s ratio between sunshine and noir. The dialogue is poached rather than hard-boiled, and the writers let an undercurrent of humor leaven the intervals between all the suicides, gunshots to the face and fire extinguisher beatings.
By the third episode, “Change Partners,” in which Hank agrees to snoop on a bank manager’s wife so that he can buy back his house from his ex-wife Gretchen (Kimberly Quinn), it’s clear that Terriers is aiming higher than the standard detective show. The episode is part Vertigo-style riff on psychosexual obsession and part meditation on the economics of desperation. Here, the show pushes Hank to unexpected dark places that let us know there are layers to this world that the audience has yet to uncover. It also puts us right where the writers want us: unable to figure out what’s going to happen next.
At this point, the show is still finding its legs in some ways; the template’s still being set, and we’re not sure where we stand in regard to an overarching plot. Supporting characters such as Gretchen, Britt’s girlfriend Katie (Laura Allen), and Hank’s old partner Gustafson (Rockmond Dunbar) certainly click well with Hank and Britt, and their actors are able performers. But three hours in, there is this sense of these characters being sketched into the margins; they’re certainly not clichés, but compared to Hank and Britt they’re full of untapped potential.
By the tenth episode that potential has been more than fulfilled. Each episode of the series rewards attention to detail and deepens our connection to the characters; “Asunder,” which takes place during Gretchen’s wedding to another man and shows Hank at a low point, almost ready to crawl back into the bottle, is one of the show’s finest hours. It proves that all the little pieces matter and manages to juggle tiny character moments with the season’s larger conspiracy arc in a way that feels like it’s impossible that they could fit so much into a single episode. The way the show is able to wring out a maximum amount of suspense from a simple conversation in a hotel room and a handful of text messages is a serious loaves-and-fishes miracle of narrative economy. It creates a wonderful frisson of excitement—no matter how savvy you are, no matter how many stories like this you’ve seen, there are some writers that can still surprise you.
Of course, it’d all be for nothing if they didn’t stick the landing. There are plenty of shows in the television graveyard that had wonderful starts but got axed way too early, leaving a handful of great episodes with no ending, or worse, a cliffhanger that’s never resolved. In many of those cases, it’s often too difficult to start a story when you know there’s no payoff. However, “Hail Mary” finds that perfect balance for Terriers that eludes many television finales. It leaves doors open for the story to continue should the series get renewed; but if this is all we get, it bows out with a sense of closure that feels truly earned rather than cobbled together.
In the finale Hank announces, “I figure our life expectancy is between that of a fly and a fly with a heart condition,” and it’s difficult not to hear him talking about the series itself when he says that. But even if Terriers is dead by the time you read this, it’s still worth watching. Echoing what the show’s creators and other critics are saying: watch the show on Hulu, buy it on iTunes, and send an e-mail to email@example.com if the show moves you. If you’ve yet to start the series, you might not be able to conceive of a TV show that’s worth e-mailing about. By the end, you definitely will.
Oscar Moralde writes a column on television and the media for The Hypermodern.