Jack Spade (Stephen Amell) and Ace Spade (Alexander Ludwig) in...

Jack Spade (Stephen Amell) and Ace Spade (Alexander Ludwig) in Starz's "Heels." Credit: STARZ/Quantrell Colbert

SERIES "Heels"

WHEN|WHERE Premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on Starz

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Jack Spade (Stephen Amell, "Arrow") is overseer and star of a failing pro wrestling operation in the small town of Duffy, Georgia called the Duffy Wrestling League. The outfit was founded by his father -- who died by suicide long before the events of the series. But Jack is determined to keep it going with the help of business partner, Willie Day (Mary McCormack) and talented valet Crystal Tyler (Kelli Berglund). He's got the support, albeit wavering, of his family too -- wife Staci (Broadway's Alison Luff) and kid brother, Ace Spade (Alexander Ludwig, "Vikings"). Ace is DWF's big star and draw, but considers leaving when pro wrestling scout (and former DWL star) Wild Bill Hancock (Chris Bauer) seeks him out for a gig in another league up north.

This eight-parter was produced by Mike O'Malley (who also has a bit role) and written by Michael Waldron ("Loki").

MY SAY "Heels" explains at the outset that "heel" and "face" are stock characters in pro wrestling, as familiar to fans as the greasepaint and spandex. The "heel" is the bad guy (Jack plays one here) whose stuffing will eventually get knocked out of him one night by the heroic "face" (brother Ace here).

Add a roaring crowd, a few thousand strobe lights, and a version of Metallica's "Blackened" that's loud enough to make ears bleed and you've got just one more edition of "Smackdown."

Not quite one of the Duffy Wrestling League shows, however. They're what you might call the down-market version of "Smackdown." Set in a shabby venue in a dusty town filled with broken dreams, the DWL is like some country song -- one of those sad ones where everyone's so lonesome they could cry. Jack is still holding onto the abated dream that may have led his father to kill himself, and has enlisted a reluctant Ace in the possibly doomed effort. Jack, who also writes all the scripts, is the self-styled "heel" but soon enough, he'll make Ace one too, hence "heels" of the title.

Meanwhile, both brothers are straight out of the Bible, and we know this because Wild Bill says so: "A tale as old as time. Jacob and Esau. [You were] foreshadowed. Read your Genesis," he tells them.

Genesis 25:26, to be exact, in which Esau is born before his fraternal twin Jacob, who grabs onto Esau's heel to pull him back inside the womb so he can be born first. Jacob -- who would eventually win that birthright by tricking his father,Isaac -- later wrestles an angel and names the spot where they wrestled "Face of God."

Heels...faces...a Biblical grudge match? Clearly this series is about a whole lot more than a one-horse town and its sad sack wrestling federation. It's a story as old as TV, too, or most recently "Better Call Saul," which is also loosely based on the tale of Jacob and Esau. What makes "Heels'' so watchable for the most part is that you are left to wonder which brother is which or why the distinction matters, as it ultimately must.

But this abiding intelligence aside, "Heels" can at times be listless and a little too brooding. It has none of the pizzaz (only sporadically the humor) of O'Malley's last show for "Starz," the also-good "Survivor's Remorse." Jack and Ace are sharply drawn and played but they're also a pair of sulking men-children -- drab and colorless, or at least next to Bauer's feral Wild Bill. The female characters are also underwritten in the early episodes (although Starz promises the later episodes will redress that).

Nevertheless, there is something here -- call it abundant promise.

BOTTOM LINE Excellent cast, smart show, but at times a bit of a slog.

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