NEW YORK – New HBO show Wedger starring Robert Downey Jr. premiered last night to some of the highest ratings in the prestigious station’s history. SPOILERS for the pilot of Wedger follow.

Pilots of important shows have almost become the stuff of legend. The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Deadwood all began with robust openings that set the ambitious standard for what was to come and what would have to come ever after in TV drama. Wedger, starring Robert Downey Jr as the eponymous troubled investigator, if anything, set the bar even higher. The first scene introduces us to an almost unrecognizable Downey Jr. Bearded and the worse for wear, Wedger is a sleazy and morally bankrupt presence, caught during his estranged daughter’s PTA meeting injecting heroin into his eyeball. The tired wit of his put down to the head teacher – ‘We all need an ax to break the ice’ – perfectly surmises both the character’s louche decadence as well as the offhand amorality of the show. The teacher in recognition of the dark loneliness at the heart of the American male gleefully submits to anal sex. Credits. Now how’s that for a cold opening?
The rest of the episode charts the slow development of a case in which a series of crimes are committed involving wedges, or significantly in one particularly gruesome decapitation the absence of wedges. Jeff Daniels is superb as the police captain Balaton who is Wedger’s last remaining friend in the police department, seeking him out for unofficial consultations. Matthew Modine is garrulous and hilarious, easily matching Downey Jr’s bravura, as Simon ‘Paint Bottle’ Wedger, Wedger’s asshole gambling addict brother, and his catchphrase ‘f*ck you, ass face’ looks likely to enter the cultural lexicon soon enough as the counterpart of ‘I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse’.

My one criticism would be that Mia Sara, as Wedger’s ex-wife Toni, could have been whinier, but I suppose AMC have spoiled me. Paul Verhoeven – directing the pilot – brought a high powered Hollywood sensibility and the scenes in the Tits n’ Asses Exposition Strip Club included some sly in jokes to the Showgirls debacle that almost sunk his career. Speculation on the internet is already rife about the identity of the mysterious Wedgey – the murderer – but for the moment Verhoeven and David Mamet (who scripted the episode) are keeping their cards close to their chests.

Wedger broadcasts Sundays on HBO at 9 pm EST.   

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