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'The Chicago Code,' 'Traffic Light' and 'Mr. Sunshine' worth watching

Think of it as a reset button for the winter TV season. • Just when you're afraid all the new shows at this end of 2011 will amount to American Idol ripoffs and The Cape, along comes a trickle of well-done series debuts worthy of a little attention. • Given how long some quality shows last, you might need to catch them pretty quickly. But here are three hearty Ti-Vos to kick off the first full week of February; now you've got no excuse beyond your own questionable taste for watching the latest Paula Abdul or J.Lo-led unreality show.

The Chicago Code, debuts at 9 p.m. Monday on Fox (WTVT-Ch. 13)

Can a guy whose last cop series featured a male officer who was sexually assaulted turn in a gritty Windy City-set police drama ready for network prime time? Certainly The Shield creator Shawn Ryan has a few aces in his pocket. Namely, ex-Brotherhood star Jason Clarke as no-nonsense veteran Chicago cop Jarek Wysocki, paired with Jennifer Beals as the in-your-face police commissioner trying to clean up a police force that seems a long way removed from her Flashdance days. The plots don't yet have the political subtlety of another great Chicago-set network drama, CBS's The Good Wife, but Delroy Lindo is magnetic as the crooked alderman Clarke and Beals work to bring down. With luck, Ryan will learn to let his characters be a bit more ruthless, a bit more explicit and a bit more complex — because the code of network TV says characters that are too predictable don't tend to last long.

Traffic Light, debuts at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday on Fox

This show had a better title originally (Mixed Signals) and is, admittedly, one of many lesser comedies ripping off Modern Family's three-couples-in-one-sitcom lightning strike. Still, this is the only ripoff that manages actual comedy, focusing on three college buddies, one married, one in a serious relationship and a third unapologetically dating (come to think of it, this also sounds like a ripoff of CBS's Rules of Engagement). As you watch these knuckleheads negotiate the perils of staying friends with a buddy's ex-girlfriend, remind yourself that NBC's Perfect Couples and ABC's Better With You are much, much worse.

Mr. Sunshine, debuts at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday on ABC (WFTS-Ch. 28)

Yes, former Friend Matthew Perry looks and sounds just like Chandler Bing with 15 extra pounds and 10 extra years. And the story lines, featuring Perry as the self-centered manager of a wacky, second-tier arena in San Diego, feel a little Scrubs-like in their absurdity and deadpan humor (one bit involves a never-seen elephant running loose backstage). But co-star Allison Janney, who worked with Perry briefly on The West Wing, shines as the erratic arena owner who gives herself an award to counter bad PR troubles and Perry's put-upon every-guy shtick reminds us how much we've missed him. Toss in a search for self-awareness inspired by Perry's own real-life rehab, and you have a comedy worth watching for a least a while.

Fleshed-out working-class dudes

This is a notion first suggested to me by a reader, who used a much less newspaper-suitable word.

But in watching Timothy Olyphant glower, smirk and attitude his way through another signature turn as Kentucky-born U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens in FX's second season of Justified, it struck me:

FX is redefining the working-class male for television.

Olyphant's Givens, a character from Elmore Leonard's crime novels, is basically a modern-day manhunter with the style and smarts of an old-school Wild West sheriff. But the bad guys he chases aren't just moonshine-sipping stereotypes, and the hero himself struggles more with getting his personal life in order than catching any criminal.

It's a strategy FX has used in a long string of series, from Denis Leary's adrenaline junkie firefighter in Rescue Me to the family of outlaw bikers in Sons of Anarchy. These are working-class guys with heart, soul and brains — my reader used a two-word term that started with "white" and ended with a rhyme for "ash" — presented in a way we often don't see on complex, well-written TV dramas.

Tune in when Justified returns at 10 p.m. Wednesday on FX and see for yourself. There may not be enough ethnic diversity and women in starring roles, but the channel still goes a long way toward dismantling a troubling TV stereotype — creating some compelling entertainment in the process.

WORTH A GANDER

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'The Chicago Code,' 'Traffic Light' and 'Mr. Sunshine' worth watching 02/04/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 4, 2011 6:22pm]
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