“Common Law” brings buddy-cop formula to USA Network

Warren Kole (left) and Michael Ealy star in USA Network's fun new buddy cop series, "Common Law."

They say that in acting, dying is easy and comedy is hard. Michael Ealy and Warren Kole are firm believers in that now, after having spent several months on the set of USA Network’s new buddy-cop series Common Law trying to be funny while also being constantly exhausted from their 80-hour work weeks.

“This has by far been the most difficult job I’ve ever had,” said Ealy, who struggled at times to keep his trademark deep blue eyes open as he and Kole played bickering L.A. cops forced into couples counseling by their captain. “In drama, you can use whatever fatigue you have and that comes across as brooding. The level of respect I have for comedians has just skyrocketed.”

While he got his break with the Barbershop movies, and recently got the chance to again flex his comedic muscles in Think Like a Man, much of Ealy’s career has been spent playing, as he puts it, “brooding, dramatic, heavy, cunning, conniving” characters in projects like Sleeper Cell, Seven Pounds, Takers and Their Eyes Were Watching God. So the rat-a-tat-tat comedic pacing of Common Law has been a tiring treat.

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Kole, who cut his teeth in the cop genre with appearances in 24, NCIS: Los Angeles and The Chicago Code, puts a finer point on the effort involved, saying, “It’s like taking a test for 15 hours. Even if you’re in a bad mood, it has to be at a clip, it has to come out at a gallop. You can’t slow things down.”

Despite the intensity of the workload, the duo said there is plenty to love about their job, not least of which is getting to play in a genre they both grew up loving. The antagonistic but brotherly dynamic between Ealy’s Travis Marks and Kole’s Wes Mitchell recalls such buddy-cop classics as 48 Hrs. and Lethal Weapon, with Travis being the streetwise ladies man who was raised in foster care and served time in juvenile hall, while Wes is an uptight former lawyer who enjoys the finer things in life, including the ex-wife for whom he still pines.

The cases are serious, with requisite murders and long-buried secrets coming into play, but the thrust of the series is the fun, fast-talking interplay between the two detectives, as well as the comedy inherent in watching the Grumpy Gusses — sitting among a group of amused married couples — suffering through their department-mandated therapy sessions led by Dr. Ryan (Sonya Walger). Chemistry between the actors is essential in pulling it off, and both Ealy and Kole said they knew they were a great match right away.

“This might sound completely manufactured and phony, but we did not do anything to bolster chemistry,” Ealy said. “It was there. I read with a lot of guys for that character, and interestingly enough the network saw it, and they were right. The chemistry between me and Warren, it’s just there. … For the pilot, everybody was astounded that there was so much chemistry between us. Even I was when I saw it, I was like, ‘Wow. Yeah.’”

“It’s a professional and a personal bond like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” Kole said. “We were on set all day, and we were in every scene together for five months. It’s like going into war, almost, with someone. You really have to trust them. You have to know that they’re there for you and you’re there for them.”

While that explains why the actors enjoy working together, it still begs the question of why the characters don’t just asked to be reassigned. But that issue goes to the heart of why the buddy-cop genre has thrived for decades, the fun in finding that it’s the similarities between the characters that drive them as crazy as their differences.

“They’re both stubborn,” Kole said. “They’re both alphas. But they also maybe secretly know they need each other. They complete this package. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and they know it.”

The audience knows it, too, and Ealy said through doing Common Law, he has learned why the formula keeps working.

“You have to fall in love with both characters,” Ealy says. “They’ve got to complement each other and at the same time be the only two guys who can get at each other and push each other’s buttons. They have to be brothers, because only brothers can fight and turn around and then be best friends. If someone from the outside decides to mess with one of the brothers, they have to deal with both of the brothers.”

Common Law premieres May 11, and airs Fridays.

Photo: © USA Network. Credit: Robert Ascroft