The crime genre has two main subcategories: clean and messy. Clean is the cut-and-dry procedural in which each episode introduces and solves a case. Messy is focused on what these crimes do to the people committing them and the people solving them. Messy is The Oath.
Crackle’s new drama, from ex-undercover cop Joe Halpin, focuses on the apparently rampant problem of police so corrupt that they’ve gone ahead and formed gangs of their own, and it’s as entertainingly silly as the one-two punch of me telling you that Sean Bean plays an incarcerated gang leader and the series is produced by 50 Cent. The FBI has one gang in particular’s number (the Ravens) and uses this as leverage to get a guy on the inside so they can build out a bigger RICO case against the other gangs (like the Vipers and the Silver Monkeys). OK, that last gang was a joke. There’s certainly fun to be poked at The Oath’s self-seriousness, which it seems to have learned from biker drama Sons of Anarchy, and it bleeds from its leathery aesthetic into its narrative.
The massive scope of the enterprise—well, the warring enterprises—is intimidating. It mercilessly tosses you into the deep end of the complex business and social relationships that come from running a police department and criminal organization. A lot of names get thrown around and things can move so fast you’re not sure if the camera or the plot is giving you more whiplash, but damn it, I respect The Oath’s moxie. There’s a ridiculous earnestness to the badassery that makes it all the more campy and enjoyable, like if someone decided to novelize a few hours of Grand Theft Auto gametime.
Whether we’re watching interim Ravens leader (and Bean’s character’s son) Steve Hammond (Ryan Kwanten) growl at everyone but his cancer-stricken mother, or undercover fed Damon Byrd (Arlen Escarpeta) bat a bargirl’s hand away from his law-upholding crotch, it’s a good time. That’s because, even when there’s a passionate (and forbidden) inter-gang romance, the acting is so straight-faced and hard that if it could post self-righteous content on Reddit, it would. Everyone is committed and the structural bones are there to support them.
No-nonsense plotting and intense, lean direction that’s helped by an edit bay prioritizing tension over all else makes the show feel breathless—in a good way. Every scene starts with balance and each subsequent shot disrupts that balance. That can mean a character reveals intentions or passions, or that a drug meet begins to go south as suspicions arise. Whether in service of story or personality, the technical aspects of the show are full of energetic practicality. A main transition—in fact, one of the only transitions—is a shot where a camera is attached below the driver-side door, shooting the side of the car from tire height. It’s cool, quick, and visually puts us out there on the asphalt.
One downside of this efficiency is that when a scene feels trite or overdone—like when Byrd’s boss at the FBI (Elisabeth Röhm) dresses him down for not being completely committed—it’s like getting a pure hit of the dross that the show’s been cutting its cocaine with. The air’s let out and we get too long to breathe, look around, and rethink what we’ve been watching. This often happens when a character, like Karen Beach (Katrina Law), has a one-on-one scene with a one-off guest, like a therapist. The supporting players don’t aid the gigantic main cast—which includes cops, feds, criminals, and all their associates and family members—more than by being a different face. There’s little nuance to bring out so early in the relationship-focused show’s lifespan, so they end up just being dull props. Directors Jeff T. Thomas and Luis Prieto already have so much on their plates that micromanagement at an actor level is likely just too much.
That messy plate, though, like a first helping at Golden Corral, is so tasty it’s easy to stop worrying about what’s in it. There are countless subplots and characters that I’d like to mention and Crackle’s only released a half-dozen episodes for review. It’s a garbled maze of crossed and spliced wires that makes you impressed that someone got the thing to turn on in the first place—and even then, you’re afraid to touch anything, lest you electrocute yourself and short out your enjoyment of it. The Oath has plenty of depth waiting to be explored in its layers of stacked schlock, and just because it doesn’t dig too deep now doesn’t mean it won’t later, given the chance. Its confidence—sometimes misguided, but always wearing sunglasses and ready to flash a badge—is its most convincing argument.
All 10 episodes of The Oath premiere Thursday, March 8 on Crackle.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.