As the new network season arrives this week, a couple of old familiar Baltimore faces have caught my eye: Andre Braugher and Wendell Pierce.
Happily, they are in two of the more promising series in an otherwise mostly lackluster field: "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" (Fox) and "The Michael J. Fox Show" (NBC).
Neither is the headliner. "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," a sitcom set in a police precinct, stars Andy Samberg as Jake Peralta, a brilliant but impulsive young detective. "The Michael J. Fox Show" is a family comedy starring Fox as a New York anchorman who returns to the airwaves five years after retiring in the wake of being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.
Braugher, you might remember, played one of those brilliant young detectives as Frank Pembleton on "Homicide: Life on the Street," which was filmed in Baltimore and premiered in 1993. In case nobody told you, it was one of the greatest cop dramas in the history of the medium, thanks in large part to his breakout performance.
This fall, he debuts as Ray Holt, a gay police captain who takes over the underperforming precinct out of which Peralta works. It's the gay part of Holt's identity that has gotten much of the notice for the series, which premieres at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday on WBFF (Channel 45).
Credit creators Dan Goor and Mike Schur of "Parks and Recreation" for constructing a character who is multi-dimensional and not solely defined by his sexual orientation. If that sounds like faint praise, you haven't been watching most network sitcoms lately where one-dimension is one-half dimension more than many characters exhibit.
There's a moment near the end of the pilot that features Holt sitting in a police car late at night with Peralta and Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero), Peralta's partner.
Peralta, who has been challenging Holt's authority throughout the episode, says, "With all due respect, sir, why did it take you so long to get your own command?"
"Because I'm gay," Holt says without hesitation.
"Seriously?" Peralta says looking confused and unsure of himself for the first time during the episode.
"I'm surprised you didn't know," Holt says matter of factly. "I don't try to hide it."
"When did you come out?" Santiago asks.
"About 25 years ago. The NYPD was not ready for an openly gay detective," Holt replies.
"But then, the old guard died out, and suddenly they couldn't wait to show off the fact that had a high-ranking gay officer," he continues. "I made captain. But they put me in a public affairs unit. I was a good soldier. I helped recruitment. But all I ever wanted was my own command. And now, I've finally got it, and I'm not going to screw it up."
That's a lot of autobiography to pack into about a minute of screen time in a sitcom as three cops are waiting for a suspect to show. That's also a lot of insight and nuanced understanding of the ways membership in a minority group can affect a career.
At first, being gay holds Holt back, by his account. But then, generational and societal change reach a point where institutions, especially a government institution like the NYPD, sees that it would be to its advantage to be seen as more diverse.
So, the gay police officer get promoted — but it's into a job that to him is more about image than the kind of police work he wants to do
But he's been a "good soldier" and waited it out. And now his time has come.
That's smart and sensitive writing — certainly by the standards of network sitcoms, even by those of HBO.
And Braugher? Well, few actors can deliver a line with the authority, gravitas, command and dignity of Andre Braugher when he's going deep with his voice and hard-edged with his stare. Braugher's Capt. Ray Holt is a presence that demands and gets respect — even in this precinct full of hotdogs and goofballs who will remind some older viewers of the crew in the 1970s ABC sitcom "Barney Miller."
As I watched Holt in the pilot, I couldn't help but remember how Braugher blew me away in the pilot for "Homicide" 20 years ago.
It turns out Braugher was thinking about those days, too, on occasion as he filmed "Brooklyn Nine-Nine."
"Sometimes, when I look out of my office, and I think, 'Oh yeah, I'm Yaphet Kotto [the actor who played the captain on 'Homicide'] now, right? And all of these gorgeous kids — they're me and Kyle Secor and all the other young guys who were on the 'Homicide' show a million years ago,'" Braugher says in an NBC video interview.
"But there's a switch, a switch in going from being the brilliant and impulsive and free-wheeling detective to the voice of moderation and stability — the commander, the de facto father of this team," he adds. "It's like starting from scratch."
Pierce, best known to many viewers for his memorable depiction of Baltimore Detective Bunk Moreland in HBO's "The Wire," is also making a switch in playing a TV executive this fall in "The Michael J. Fox Show," which premieres Sept. 26 on WBAL (Channel 11).
But Pierce brings some of the same sly Moreland moves and patter to his depiction of Harris Green, the news director at the NBC-owned station in New York who gets anchorman Mike Henry (Fox) to attempt a comeback.
The Meta-mix of TV and social reality is a tricky one in this family and workplace sitcom. At one level, it involves real-world NBC personalities like Matt Lauer showing up in the pilot as Mike Henry visits the real "Today" show set.
But at a higher level, it involves Fox, who has Parkinson's, playing a character with the disease. Hitting the right notes in that depiction is a complicated matter, and the pilot doesn't always feel like it's getting that right.
In the second episode, however, which NBC is airing back-to-back with the pilot, the sitcom seems to find a more comfortable voice. Much of that is thanks to Pierce's Harris Green. He's the one willing to exploit his anchorman's illness for ratings with slow-motion montages and kitschy music. His cynicism is the perfect antidote to any cheap sentimentality in the fictional workplace and discomfort for the real TV audience in seeing some of the things that Fox can no longer do as an actor because of the disease.
Great actors — and Braugher and Pierce are two of the best the medium has to offer — can't always find respectable work in network TV. Sometimes, to make a living, they have to do stuff that's beneath them. That's just the way it is.
Braugher has the role with most potential of the two. His Ray Holt really could become a character that matters. He's also in the better series.
But neither needs be ashamed of the show he is in this fall. And prime-time network television, as bad as it has been in recent years, is a little bit better this year because of their presence.
"Brooklyn Nine-Nine" debuts at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday on WBFF (Channel 45).
"The Michael J. Fox Show" has a one-hour premiere at 9 p.m. Sept. 26 on WBAL (Channel 11). It will air regularly at 9:30 p.m. Thursdays.