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Mob meets FBI in ‘Line of Fire’

ABC’s new series stars David Paymer and ‘24’s’ Leslie Hope
/ Source: The Associated Press

Any pilot episode is a sales pitch, a prospectus, a pledge for the series it hopes to grow into. Here’s hoping for the future — uncertain as it is for any new series — of ABC’s crime drama “Line of Fire.”

Set in Richmond, Va., “Line of Fire” tracks two coexisting but opposing worlds: the enforcers of the FBI branch office and the enforcers of the local crime syndicate.

The show might be counted as the latest variation on a theme: the systematic symmetry of right and wrong. But earlier examples flared out too soon to establish any such trend. NBC’s “Kingpin” (drug agents vs. drug dealers), Showtime’s “Street Time” (a parole officer vs. his parolee) and Fox’s “Skin” (a district attorney vs. a porn magnate) all were flops.

Still, there’s nothing amiss with the formula. Maybe this time is the charm.

Strong leads
On one side of “Line of Fire” is the FBI, with Agent Lisa Cohen in charge. Played by the wonderful Leslie Hope, who excelled as Teri Bauer the first season of “24,” Cohen is a tough boss with a tough style and a nicotine habit. (“One of the perks,” she declares, “of working in Richmond: smoking in restaurants.”)

Her underworld counterpart, Jonah Malloy, controls the gambling and loan-sharking action. As played by David Paymer — a character actor in a star-is-born role — Malloy has a clerkish, business-is-business way of running things, and an antiseptic way of inflicting retribution.

In his first scene, he punishes a football player for failing to deliver the fix in that weekend’s game.

“You’re done playing ball,” explains Malloy as he orders the man’s hands crushed.

Not that he isn’t sensitive. When an FBI agent and a Malloy lieutenant kill each other in a shootout, he mourns like everyone else.

“We all know he was a credit to us,” says Malloy, eulogizing the fallen thug. “I just want to tell all you guys — I’m sorry, I get down after a loss like this — but I care about all of ya.

“Anyway,” he sighs, bringing the matter to a close, “that’s that with that.”

Depth on the bench
Meanwhile, the FBI director has come to Richmond to buck up the agents, who are suffering their own loss.

“You’ll get over it. You will,” he assures them. “But here’s the thing, guys — you have to get over it now.”

Life goes on. And now replacing the fallen agent is Paige Van Doren, a rookie straight from the academy.

Played by Leslie Bibb (“Popular”), Van Doren is slight, soft-voiced but driven. Her sense of urgency has already jammed her up, her defiant eagerness almost wrecking her career before it started.

But not quite. Van Doren wins another chance from her superiors by telling them she has a promise to keep to her late husband.

“He was in the Pentagon on Sept. 11,” she says in a near whisper, “and as they lowered his coffin into the ground, I said to him, I vowed to him, that I was gonna get those bastards and I was gonna make them pay.”

No doubt, then, what motivates Van Doren. But what keeps other agents going is harder to guess.

For instance, Roy Ravelle (played by hunky Anson Mount), who has spent the last 2½ years in prison, working undercover. Finally sprung from the pen, he has wangled a job as debt collector for Malloy. But during his incarceration, he learns with great annoyance, the FBI neglected to deposit his salary.

“I got 38 bucks in my account! It’s unbelievable!” he tells Cohen.

And what’s up with Todd Stevens (Jeffrey D. Sams), who graduated with Van Doren? Doesn’t he seem a little too approval-seeking and ready to cut corners — not to mention really gabby? What brought him to the agency, instead of merchandising or talk radio?

Many intriguing questions linger with “Line of Fire,” which just might be what the fall season failed to bring sooner: a solid, innovative new drama. Not to mention a reason better than “NYPD Blue” (on hiatus) to break from NBC rival “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

But that’s all in the future. For now, make plans to see the “Line of Fire” premiere. There’s no shortage of “Law & Order” airing other times.