Look at this image and assemble its components into a TV show. Did you come up with wisecracking animal catchers? Unlikely contenders for the Westminster Dog Show? Scruffy humans led around by a snarky Look Who’s Talking-esque canine?
Either no one responsible for this ad thought to ask these questions, or nobody had any better ideas. When it popped up on billboards and bus shelters back in 2010, I wrote it off as a reality show about beach bum dog-whisperers and queued up the next episode of Sherlock. On one hand, it’s hard to blame FX for flubbing promotion of Ted Griffin’s beach comedy/California noir hybrid. On the other, considering the critical acclaim Terriers garnered during and after (okay, mostly after) its 13-episode run, FX had enough substance to try just a smidge harder.
So what is this poorly marketed, critically acclaimed, broadly unwatched show all about? Two wisecracking private investigators follow a trail of murder and blackmail to a shady real estate deal that threatens to obliterate their neighborhood. Along the way they must placate clients, cops, partners and ex-partners, and their very pregnant and very exasperated lawyer. That does sound eye-rollingly trope-y, but Terriers’ execution belies its description. Like the works of Raymond Chandler (who reinvented the pulp mystery and undoubtedly influenced the show), Terriers is greater than the sum of its tropes. Like many of the shows I fall for, it had great one-liners, complex relationships, and thoughts on the tragicomedy that is the Human Condition. Its cocktail of sunshine, scruff, comedy, crusade, and messy humanity mirrors its San Diego milieu: breezily charismatic, suspiciously grimy, irresistibly fun, and for all that, oddly plausible.
Terriers’ titular protagonists are Hank Dolworth (Donal Logue) and Britt Pollack (Michael Raymond-James), freelance PIs working the standard case roster of spousal infidelity, stolen pet retrieval, and process serving. Hank is a recovering alcoholic still grieving the loss of his marriage and his badge, both casualties of his drinking. What he lacks in brute force he makes up in resourcefulness, although this resourcefulness is as likely to unearth municipal corruption as dirt on his ex-wife’s fiancé. Britt counterbalances Hank’s gravity with the pragmatism and impulsivity of an only recently-reformed petty criminal.
They meet when Hank, still a detective, eliminates Britt as a rape suspect after deducing (correctly) that his attempted burglary actually thwarted the assault with which Britt is charged. (The hunt for the suspect drives one of the series’ best episodes, illuminating Hank’s strengths and shortcomings as an investigator and the evolution of his relationships with his previous and current partners. I won’t spoil it for you.) Their unnamed and unlicensed outfit is not above breaking and entering to support their operation, with mixed results:
But our heroes, however lovable, are not perfect: Although they stop well short of their antagonists’ full-blown villainy, both Hank and Britt indulge their baser inclinations, with terrible consequences. These decisions are both disappointing and painful, partly because you know they’re capable of better, and partly because it’s awful to watch them sabotage such richly drawn relationships. It’s not hard to see why Hank’s ex-wife and ex-partner both regard him with an ambivalence that is by turns affectionate and exasperated. Hank is the “live grenade in [their] lives,” and he doesn’t always wait to land in the enemy camp before going off.
That Terriers managed to squeeze this much character development and bad decision-making in alongside a sinister plot to bulldoze our heroes’ hometown is a testament to the show’s clarity and economy. That it manages to leaven everything with comedy that never descends into farce or slapstick is even more impressive. Terriers is immensely engaging and satisfying TV: it sets up unequivocal bad guys to threaten our heroes and their Way Of Life, ostensibly satisfying the urge for an exciting but fundamentally just universe. But it refuses to sugarcoat those heroes’ less wholesome inclinations, instead staking out a middle ground between outright antiheroism and unquestionable moral crusade. This complexity rewards rewatching; knowing where the shady real estate plot goes frees you to speculate on motives and aftermath. And Terriers does hint at an aftermath, nailing the sweet spot that could be a season or series finale: our heroes’ last call is obvious, if poignant, and the sunshine and banter reach the end even if the levity does not.
HOW TO WATCH: Terriers is available on Netflix streaming and Amazon video. It remains unavailable on DVD, to the despair of fans everywhere.
MUST WATCH: If you only watch one episode, Sins of the Past (Ep. 11) is an excellent mystery that lays out Hank and Britt’s origin story and an unvarnished account of Hank’s self-destruction.
FAVORITE LINES: “We need a mascot…. Something that tells people once we’re on a case, man, we never quit.”
“On my mother’s grave, I –“
“Your mother was cremated.”
“I kinda smell an opportunity.”
“Is that what that smell is?”
“Are you saying we’re small time?”
“If we grow two sizes we might make small time.”
PAIR WITH: California diner breakfast
WATCH OUT FOR: In addition to Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James, Terriers features Christopher Cousins (Breaking Bad’s hapless Ted Beneke) and Maximiliano Hernández (of The Americans and assorted Marvel movies and shows).
AFTERWARDS: Lather, rinse, repeat. If you’re willing to go darker, there’s always Jessica Jones.