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Arresting Development

An international collaboration helps HBO deliver another solid drama.

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HBO's "Epitafios" boasts all these elements, and yet it's way more than the sum of its shopworn plot points. What gives?

Slick and stylized while the network's "The Wire" is awkward and gritty, "Epitafios" nonetheless benefits from the legendary freedom HBO grants its series writers to explore all the dark corners of played-out genres, be it mob dramas such as "The Sopranos," period pieces such as "Rome" or even reality shows such as "Family Bonds."

"Epitafios," which means "epitaphs," is set in Buenos Aires and is a co-production with Argentina's Pol-Ka. The producer of often-lurid telenovelas in its native country, which originally aired on HBO Latino, is experiencing a half-life among non-Spanish speakers via the On Demand service available to digital cable subscribers.

The story seems simple enough: Five years ago, a botched police effort to derail a hostage crisis at a school led to the deaths of four innocent students. Now people with roles in that debacle are turning up dead. Each death is announced by a gravestone with a cryptic epitaph — "Here lies he who refused the right thing at the wrong time," for example — turning up somewhere the police are likely to find it.

The killer seems to be saving one policeman for last. That's Renzo Marquez (Julio Chavez), whose guilt over the failed operation has led to a grim existence as a pill-popping hack. He and his ex-girlfriend Laura Santini (Paola Krum) are drawn into the investigation by the killer's design, then forced to work the case together.

The first clue that this isn't your ordinary cop drama is that in the first episode we find out that Renzo's ex-partner Benitez, the man we're led to think will be the series' protagonist, in fact has a higher number on the killer's list.

Now it's up to Renzo to avenge his buddy, keep Laura safe (though she evinces that totally irritating cop-show-female-lead habit of insisting she's OK in her spooky apartment) and stop the killings without cheesing off the chief of police more than he already has.

"I feel like a cop pretending to be a cabdriver, and a cabdriver pretending to be a cop," Renzo says in the third episode, and it's in this tension that "Epitafios" starts to really transcend its genre — half the time Renzo has no idea what to do; he's as broken as the other cops think he is and unsure whether his motives are pure where Laura's concerned.

Buenos Aires proves to be a fabulous locale, almost European in its sophistication, and hints of menace and poignancy in every grand mansion and shadowy street. The only distraction for non-Spanish speakers such as myself is that relying on subtitles means you can't look down at your snacks for a second.

Like the killer, we in the audience are always a step or two ahead of the cops, which makes us feel a little bit complicit, maybe a little dirty, with every unforeseen plot twist or discomfortingly erotic murder. With this "Epitafios" distinguishes itself from even merely good crime dramas, where the roles of both audience and writer are so well defined, you might say they're carved in stone. S

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