The music-video montages that open each installment of New York Undercover are often more compelling than any clip on MTV, and the intro that ignites the series' second-season premiere is no exception. As Lenny Kravitz's ''Are You Gonna Go My Way'' pounds on the soundtrack, a boldly colored sequence depicts the cold-blooded murder of a biker chick and her young daughter. Like Scorsese and Tarantino, the makers of NYU have learned the unsettlingly seductive power of setting a scene of horrifying violence to a familiar pop tune.
These minivideos are a tempting alternative to the increasingly insipid monologues that set up each episode of NBC's Seinfeld, the show against which NYU finished second in its time slot last season. Targeting lily-white sitcoms such as Seinfeld and Friends with a bracing shot of thnic action, NYU has carved out a nice little niche. If the show maintains its current level of quality and if Seinfeld doesn't snap out of its prolonged comedic depression NYU could blossom into a sophomore hit in the tradition of Fox's Beverly Hills, 90210, and The X-Files.
The show already has a breakout hunk in Malik Yoba (Cool Runnings), who brings a simmering charisma to his role as J.C. Williams, one of NYU's primary NYPD partners. With his clean-shaven dome, well-tended goatee, and trademark toothpick, he's become a sex symbol among NYU fans. And true to another Fox tradition, Yoba's rippling physique is displayed at every opportunity. In one station-house scene, J.C. just happens to be pumping iron, all the better to show off his bulging biceps.
More problematic is Michael DeLorenzo (TV's Fame) as J.C.'s compadre, Eddie Torres. His long lashes make him a bit too pretty to pull off some of NYU's grittier moments. But buddy-cop shows are all about camaraderie Starsky and Hutch is the benchmark and Yoba and DeLorenzo have chemistry to burn.
NYU executive producer Dick Wolf goosed the ratings for his Law & Order by adding strong female characters, and he's trying the same trick here. Patti D'Arbanville-Quinn returns as the no-b.s. boss, Lt. Virginia Cooper. The actress' initials perfectly fit her character: She wants things done PDQ. And joining the show this year is Lauren Velez (I Like It Like That) as Nina Moreno, a piquant policewoman who temporarily partners with Eddie. With only three full-time cast members last season, NYU seemed underpopulated, so Velez should help flesh things out.
The romantic sparks that fly between Nina and Eddie in the squad room may remind you of NYPD Blue's Lesniak (Justine Miceli) and Martinez (Nicholas Turturro), and that's not the only sign that NYU has picked up clues from other cop shows. With Homicide-style jump cuts and Hill Street Blues-coined catchphrases (''Be careful out there''), NYU occasionally feels shopworn. (Couldn't they think up a more original name for a motorcycle-gang leader than Snake?)
Still, NYU's fearless exploration of ethnicity keeps it fresh. In one episode last season, a rape case split the partners along racial lines Eddie believed the Latina victim; J.C., the African-American accused. The guys soon rebonded, but hints of tension linger, especially when J.C. teases Eddie in an exaggerated Puerto Rican accent.
If the opening montage is NYU's apex, its epilogue is often its nadir. After closing a case, the cops retire to Natalie's, a smoky nightclub where they're serenaded by the lite-FM likes of Al Jarreau and Nancy Wilson. These Miller-time codas are atypically unhip notes on TV's funkiest cop show. B+