‘L.A. Confidential’: A Great Book, A Good Movie, and… a TV Pilot, For Some Reason

Out of all the knock-around noir detective novels out there, L.A. Confidential is one that will consistently rank high on almost anyone’s list who’s a fan of the genre. The 1990 novel by author James Ellroy is the third in his L.A. Quartet series, and is densely-packed story filled with corrupt cops, prostitutes, sex, drugs, and Hollywood scandals set in the shiny veneer of the 1950s. Seven years later, director Curtis Hanson brought a thoroughly-pruned version of the story to the silver screen, racking up nine Oscar nominations and two wins.

Back in 2018, another version of Ellroy’s seminal neo-noir was brought to life. Kind of. That same year, creator and EP Jordan Harper produced an L.A. Confidential pilot for CBS, which never ended up airing. It was, however, screened as part of this year’s ATX TV Fest, which pretty much made it clear why it never went beyond that one episode.

Set against the same 1950s Hollywood backdrop, the series was aimed at bringing a (slightly) more faithful, and thoroughly more fleshed out version of Ellroy’s novel. Which would make TV the perfect medium to do so. However, that first episode failed to capture the kind of electric undercurrent that both the book and the film managed to capture.

Part of the problem is that the principle cast ends up looking like a third-rate celebrity impersonator of their feature film counterpart. Mark Webber’s Bud White is introduced at first, who was played by Russell Crowe in the film. And while it may have been interested to see his larger character arc, it wasn’t terribly interesting to watch him firmly immersed in his violent thug phase. Ed Exley, the lone cop with a true north star, was portrayed well enough by Brian J. Smith, but failed to make an impression beyond Guy Pearce’s take on the character two-plus decades prior. But none are more disappointing than Walton Goggins’ Jack Vincennes. Goggin’s lifeless portrayal is underscored by what comes across as wholehearted disinterest – a far cry from the flashy sleazeball that Kevin Spacey so perfectly embodied on-screen (funny that).

It was apparent by the pilot that Harper’s take would be rearranging some of the multiple crimes as they unfold, chronicling its three leads as they’re, eventually, forced to work together to unravel the intricate conspiracy that touches on the majority of the story’s plot points. Although what ended up being the most interesting aspect of the series is the fact it was going to air somewhere amid CBS’ wall-to-wall copaganda. Well, that and somehow, someone made a show that managed to mute what seemed like the effortless charm and charisma of Walton Goggins.

Harper did make an interesting point during the Q&A afterward, where he speculated that the 50s-era setting didn’t have quite the appeal to modern viewing audiences (including CBS, a network with an target demo of post-retirement, apparently). He also added that an 80s-set adaptation of L.A. Confidential would’ve worked, and be the last decade that would allow for the seamless adaptation of Ellroy’s story. It’s certainly possible, but it’s clear that this one didn’t.

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