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Lighter tone of TNT’s ‘Dark Blue’ suits cast, writers

It’s no secret that in this economy — so heinous that if it were a song, it would be sung by Ke$ha — people are doing whatever they can to secure their futures. Some are going back to school. Others are taking on second jobs. Me? I’m trying to win the contract to supply stubble to “Dark Blue” (9 p.m. Wednesdays, TNT). That show’s one fuzzy little gold mine.

The drama, set in the world of an off-the-books undercover unit for the LAPD, is so dependent on the barely-beards, for every second they’re shown, Don Johnson should get a nickel.

Team leader Carter Shaw (Dylan McDermott)? Stubble. Muscle-bound tough guy Ty Curtis (Omari Hardwick)? Him, too. Streetwise Dean Bendis (Logan Marshall-Green), who gives off a Vin Diesel-by-way-of-Kevin Federline vibe? But of course. I’m surprised no one tried to slap a little five o’clock shadow on new co-star Tricia Helfer.

The addition of Helfer, as FBI agent Alex Rice, gives the drama an extra splash of star power — you can almost never go wrong reaching out to “Battlestar Galactica” fans — and helps lighten the load for Nicki Aycox, who, as reformed bad girl Jamie Allen, had been “Dark Blue’s” only steady female presence.

Helfer’s also the reason I gave the show a second chance. Well, not so much her, but the shift in tone she represents.

When it debuted last summer, “Dark Blue” tried to convey the emotional hardships of going deep undercover and the dangers of losing yourself in your work. It was dark, murky and played like second-rate “Donnie Brasco.”

While still gritty, “Dark Blue” is much lighter this year. On the color wheel, it’s maybe a sky. Possibly a periwinkle. But nobody’s going to watch a cop drama called “Periwinkle.” Not even on Bravo.

Last season began with McDermott’s Carter walking into a hospital looking every bit the grizzled, frayed burnout he’d become. “This better be good,” he told the cops who’d summoned him. “I haven’t seen 7 a.m. since 1992.” And by looking at him, you got the distinct impression that instead of 7 a.m., he could just as easily have said noon.

This year, though, kicked off with a well-rested Carter in a community garden tending to his tomato plant. Granted, he was doing so on the advice of the department shrink, but it still was a welcome change.

Not only does this season feel brighter, it looks it, too. Streams of external light practically fight their way into every scene, illuminating parts of faces, casting shadows on others. Sunlight. Moonlight. Streetlights. Headlights. There’s probably even a wayward miner with one of those lighted helmets lurking around outside. But one way or another, that light’s getting in.

The change is nothing as drastic as, say, the season “Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place” ditched the pizza place. And even in “Dark Blue’s” lighter state, you could never label it “madcap.” But these new developments brought me back to TNT after I’d almost written off the channel.

I still can’t get past Kyra Sedgwick’s accent on “The Closer.” I was into “Leverage” until it became too silly, too often. The only TNT original that hadn’t yet revealed a fatal flaw was Ray Romano’s “Men of a Certain Age.” (The engrossing “Southland” was picked up by TNT after it was famously dumped by NBC.) But “Dark Blue’s” new tone seems to better suit both the cast and its writers.

Not that it doesn’t still have its heavy moments. Bodies still pile up. The villains of the week still menace. There just seems to be a better balance and, perhaps, a little more flair.

Take the drug- and gun-running sociopath named Victor (Rhys Coiro) the team went after in the season premiere. During, of all things, a debate on the literary merits of F. Scott Fitzgerald vs. Nick Hornby, Victor was corrected when he misused a word. “Penultimate means second to last,” he was told, “not really ultimate.” Victor then bashed a bottle over the grammarian’s head and stomped on him, all the while calling him a “penultimate son of a bitch.”

“Dark Blue” still has its flaws. Far too much of it looks like it takes place on a hastily configured studio back lot, which is a shame because when it does venture out into the real world, the series can paint a gorgeous sheen on even the seediest parts of Los Angeles.

And when Carter, Ty and Dean are onscreen at once, with their varying degrees of scruff, they sometimes come off like the world’s oldest, most menacing boy band.

But while having one or more of them change up their look would no doubt help the show, I’m selfishly hoping everyone keeps their whiskers.

I’ve already made a down payment on a stubble farm.

Christopher Lawrence’s Life on the Couch column appears on Sundays. E-mail him at clawrence@ reviewjournal.com.

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