Case Study 76: Unforgettable, Episode 18–“The Comeback”

Original Airdate: March 20th, 2012 on CBS

CBS is currently airing 17 dramas. That number alone is despair-inducing for a hard-working blogger trying to write about every remotely memorable television series ever made, but consider the following: a whopping eleven of them are about law enforcement and most of them could be fairly described as crime procedurals. CBS does this because these shows get great ratings. People eat this shit up. NCIS, Criminal Minds, Blue Bloods, and Hawaii Five-O regularly show up in the coveted top 25 broadcast slots for ages 18-49, and when you factor in the fact that older folks apparently can’t get enough of that sweet, sweet crime solving action, even MacGyver squeaks in. But there’s a certain amount of churn involved in keeping America’s La-Z-Boy recliners pointed at everyone’s favorite unblinking eye, and something like Unforgettable can fall through the cracks. In fact, Unforgettable fell through the cracks three times: CBS reluctantly brought the show back for two summer seasons after giving it the axe after season one. They gave up on the show for good after season three. But Unforgettable had an unlikely third life on A&E, who was tentatively trying to develop a slate of original dramas at the time! I guess they figured it’d make a good complement to endless syndicated reruns of Minds. Alas, 13 episodes later A&E decided they had better get out of the original drama business, and now all that’s left is the sleeper hit Bates Motel. And it turns out it’s kind of a shame that Unforgettable got lost in the shuffle, because I really liked this! Which may be a minor miracle unto itself, since AV Club called it the second worst new drama of 2011 on the strength of the pilot!

Strengths

  • Carrie. As soon as you get past Poppy Montgomery’s earnest yet atrocious attempt at an American accent, you realize that our protagonist is more intriguing than your typical TV investigator without being as over the top as the stars of things like Monk and Sherlock. You see, the big gimmick here is that Det. Carrie Wells has hyperthymesia, a condition that gives her extremely detailed autobiographical memory. On the face of it, this is a pretty silly concept, but between The Mentalist, Medium and Limitless, CBS isn’t exactly subscribing to the Dogme 95 manifesto. I could see how this could lead to unevenness—VanDerWerff seems pretty upset about it and the other episode I watched stretched plausibility to a certain extent. But in this episode, everything sings. The writers don’t overplay their hand. Everything Carrie remembers is something she could have actually perceived in the first place and no superpowers or great feats of contrivance are needed. Even with all the attendant foolishness, Carrie still comes across as a real person. Her skills have made her overconfident, but her natural drive pushes her boldly forward, even if the results could be risky, messy or both. It makes sense that when she’s not at work she’d be gambling too much and making unwise romantic decisions. She’s fully conceived and a hell of a lot more likable than that wang on Psych.
  • Meatier story than you usually get from a procedural. This episode plays into an overarching plot line about a mysterious precision sniper locked into a cat and mouse game with Carrie. Sure, actual serial killers are super rare—one percent of all murders at most—but fiction about them remains compelling, especially when we entertain ourselves with the “evil genius” archetype personified by Hannibal Lecter or the dude from Se7en. Here’s another way the show would rather be fun than be realistic. If you want realism, watch Homicide: Life on the Streets or The Wire. I like those shows just as much, but don’t compare them to Unforgettable, because despite superficial similarities they’re doing completely different things. Anyway, I was pleased that this show was willing to turn the sniper killer into a whole plot arc instead of just an easily syndicated case of the week affair all too common in a post-Law & Order world. And they do something interesting with it! In the first episode about the sniper, all the clues point to a crazed loner who turns out to be a patsy for the real puppetmaster. The trail goes cold until Carrie meets a high-powered attorney named Walter Morgan (James Urbaniak, The Venture Bros). Her suspicions gradually become more tangible, but on the way he helps her solve tonight’s primary mystery. Procedurals live and die in the nitty gritty details, and Unforgettable delivers in spades: an up-and-coming tennis prodigy is killed in a staged robbery/homicide. Before long we’re introduced to the corpse of her drug-enthusiast boyfriend from the amateur circuit. Then we learn about a shadowy trust fund that was giving vast sums of money to both the victim and to another tennis player, Ella Zimmer (Sophia Rokhlin, Buffering). The trail leads back to a politically powerful family and their intimidating fixer, Jonathan Hedstrom (Jay O. Sanders, Green Lantern.) It’s plausible and it’s textured enough to be satisfying, and the only thing more scary than a sociopathic killer is a ruthless politician, so the mystery plot is rewarding even though it’s only window dressing for the longer plot arc about the sniper. Pretty graceful, considering the source.
  • Strong/improving supporting performances. Can we just take a minute to acknowledge Urbaniak, though? He absolutely nails Morgan’s creepy intelligence while still making him believable as a smarmy attorney, which is impressive since he’s already demonstrated his ability to make clever if insane cartoons. Apparently Urbaniak has a thing for crime procedurals, too: he’s also shown up on Hawaii, Mentalist, Body of Proof, Medium, NCIS, CSI: Miami, Without a Trace, Numb3rs and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. I don’t know if he improves those shows as much as helps this one, but he’s a definite highlight. Also coming into her own is Jane Curtin (Saturday Night Live), who plays stock wacky medical examiner Joanne Webster. She was introduced halfway through the first season and at first it seemed like she’d be mugging the hell out of some hacky CBS “humor,” but she’s settled down a bit and made the character seem more natural.

Final Episode Judgment: 10/10. This episode really inspired me to think about what a perfect rating means. On the one hand, I’m tempted to reserve this rating for only the very best the medium has to offer–something so artful and instantly canonical that it would give Harold Bloom a wet dream. But by that metric, no episode of Unforgettable could ever possibly qualify, seeing as how it’s a crime procedural with a silly premise designed to fill the hours and entertain the old and infirm. Instead, I’m giving out this rating based on the fact that the show achieves everything it sets out to accomplish with grace and aplomb. It has no real meaningful larger social or thematic message. It doesn’t stir the depths of human emotion. But it was a consummately entertaining 42 minutes with no real flaws. It absolutely made me want to watch more of this dumb show, inconsistent though it may be. As far as I’m concerned, it’s right up there with We Bare Bears.  

One more fun fact before we go that I couldn’t fit anywhere else: the working title for this show was The Rememberer. Listen, the title Unforgettable is a lazy slice of cheese, but The Rememberer sounds like Jenna Maroney’s next project after The Rural Juror. The only excuse is that the show is based on a short story by the long-suffering J. Robert Lennon, and the stupid title is his. That is just a breathtakingly dumb title for a TV show, though.

NEXT TIME: It’s been too long since we’ve discussed any science fiction, and it’s been even longer since I’ve come glancingly close to reviewing Doctor Who, so let’s talk about Torchwood!

Case Study 76: Unforgettable, Episode 18–“The Comeback”

Case Study 58: Limitless, Episode 5–“Personality Crisis”

Original Airdate: October 20th, 2015 on CBS

As you may or may not be aware, in the spring of 2011 there was a moderately well-received action blockbuster starring Bradley “No, I’m Not Ryan Gosling, Ryan Reynolds or One Of The Hemsworths” Cooper. In some quarters, it was received as a welcome breath of fresh air, since it was original IP in a mainstream movie marketplace glutted with sequels, remakes and reboots. (It wasn’t that original, though—it’s a loose adaptation of a novel.) Of course, the natural thing to do when you have a creative and fresh movie is to stretch its premise out into twenty-two episodes of TV. Despite its dubious origins, Limitless isn’t terrible. It shares the idea of a preternaturally talented and intelligent protagonist reluctantly collaborating with the FBI with Blacklist and it takes the notion of a thinly drawn high-concept sci-fi crime fighting mechanism from Person Of Interest, but it’s more fun and enjoyable than either of those shows, which are big hits in the world of crime procedurals. In light of that fact, CBS cancelled it after one season, because we can’t have nice things.

Strengths:

  • Compelling premise. Hey, if you’re going to go high-concept, you better have a good concept. For the most part, Limitless delivers, despite brazenly flying in the face of neurology. You see, the action here hinges on vagabond schlub Brian Finch (Jake McDorman) getting access to an experimental new drug called NZT, which unlocks “the hidden potential of the human brain.” They might as well have had him get zapped with a super-powered cosmic magic ray, because this is effectively a superpower. It makes him one of the smartest men on the planet, able to think 20 steps ahead, process information at light speed, recall anything perfectly and provide effective couples counseling. (I wish that last part was a joke.) This fantasy is especially compelling in an age of information overload. Even before the Internet, writers like Borges were imagining the insanity of trying to extract all the world’s knowledge from an infinite library. Who knows what good old Jorge would have said about Wikipedia? And the possibilities are especially, erm, limitless for CBS’ beloved crime procedural. Which leads me to…
  • Brian Finch. Brian’s a fun protagonist for a show like this, because he’s just a regular, goofy guy who plays guitar, cares about his family and friends and seems to have a weird thing for puppets. This is in marked contrast to protagonists like Sherlock Holmes or Law & Order: Criminal Intent’s Bobby Goren who appear to have, in D&D parlance, minmaxed: because they’re so preternaturally intelligent, they never learned how to interact normally with people and wind up being aloof, unrelatable assholes. Brian is genuinely likable partially due to the fact that every day the NZT wears off and he goes back to being “normal.” This isn’t to take some anti-intellectual posture where I valorize lowest-common denominator stupidity, because the crime procedural version of “smart” leads us to cartoon characters like Sherlock Holmes who bear no resemblance to actual, intelligent problem solving. When he’s high, Brian’s just as cartoonish, but at least we can chalk it up to the fact that he ingested a pill that looks like a contact lens.
  • Serviceable plot. This episode gives us an effective example of a high-quality plot for a crime procedural, which is to say that despite being fairly by the numbers it does what it’s there to do: it provides some fun crime-fighting texture and gives us an emotional hook. The FBI’s case du jour starts as a routine meth lab bust, but instead of drug dealers, they find a right-wing militia planning on building a dirty bomb. The emotional hook and the window into the case are provided by one Chris Garper (Derek Goh), the innocent younger brother of one of the terrorists. Brian establishes a rapport with him, but it develops that Brian will have to manipulate him into putting himself in harm’s way so the FBI can arrest his brother by implying that they’ll take it easy on the elder Garper, since Chris insists he’s not all that bad, dirty bomb notwithstanding. Of course, Chris gets killed and Brian is sad and it all ties into the larger story arc about Brian’s conflicted feelings regarding telling his partner the shocking truth about her father against the wishes of the shadowy overlords that give him a different mysterious drug that staves off the side effects of NZT. It’s convoluted but reasonably competent. But about that partner…

Weaknesses:

  • Jennifer Carpenter. Brian’s partner is Detective Rebecca Harris (Carpenter, Dexter.) As mentioned, she’s given a juicy if contrived backstory involving her father dying of NZT abuse after being part of a secret pilot program to test the drug, a fact the FBI concealed from Harris. As back stories go, it’s not exactly going to light the world on fire, but it’s better than nothing, and I’m sure other Limitless cast members like Hill Harper (CSI: NY) or Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Scarface) would make hay out of it. But Carpenter comes off like Acting Robot #12812. It turns out that she’s fine at spitting out lines about terrorists encrypting data via steganography but when it comes time for actual feelings she’s got jack squat. Her burgeoning romantic relationship with the FBI’s physical combat trainer Agent Casey Rooks (Desmond Harrington, Dexter, again) is none too promising.
  • Over-the-top graphics. Oof. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, since this is the network that gave us CSI, the show famous for up-close-and-personal computer generated images of poison slowly spreading into someone’s liver or a bullet flying through a carotid artery. This might be helpful for visual learners, but the rest of us can just take your word for it. Limitless is all about cutesy-poo graphics that tell us what’s going on inside Brian’s head. When he tells Chris about how the FBI will rehabilitate his brother post-arrest, the lies he spins are shown to us in videos embedded in cartoon speech bubbles next to Brian’s head while he narrates, presumably because the writers didn’t feel like actually scripting the conversation. When Brian breaks surveillance etiquette by guzzling down too much cranberry juice, we’re given a jovial illustration of his overtaxed bladder. When he analyzes a computer screen full of phone numbers, they fly around his head in different colors. Look, if you think your show’s script is boring, work on the writing. Don’t try and flummox the viewer with a bunch of flashy visuals. It just makes it seem like you think the audience is stupid.

Final Judgment: 6/10. Limitless is charming enough that I’d watch more but not so charming that I’d recommend it to someone that isn’t a fan of crime procedurals to begin with. It doesn’t fully escape the aspects of the genre that have grown stale.

NEXT TIME: In a stunning development, I’m going to continue reviewing shows that are currently on the air and new for the 2015-2016 TV season (now that we’re a month away from the 2016-2017 season.) Come back next time to hear about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend!

Case Study 58: Limitless, Episode 5–“Personality Crisis”

Case Study 40: Emergency! Episode 28–“Honest”

Original Airdate: February 17th, 1973 on NBC

Jack Webb was to 1970s NBC procedurals what Paul Henning was to 1960s CBS sitcoms, except unlike Henning, Webb got his start in front of the camera. He was the perfect straight arrow for the hard-boiled realism of the 1950s version of Dragnet, which had originally been a big hit on radio. The franchise went dormant for much of the 60s, but it was brought back in a big way in 1967 in response to a growing appetite among reactionary types for a law & order approach to hippies and free love. It was the start of a successful stretch for Webb’s production company, Mark VII Limited. Dragnet begat a spinoff in the form of Adam-12 and Adam-12 apparently exhausted the potential of police procedurals for Mark VII, which resulted in a new spinoff, the medical procedural Emergency! And that’s the last time I’m using that over-enthusiastic exclamation point.

Strengths

  • Realism. One of the most exciting things that a procedural can offer viewers is a peek inside something they wouldn’t otherwise get to see–a homicide investigation, open-heart surgery, a contentious lawsuit. If the procedural is more realistic, it seems more authentic, and that authenticity is satisfying for the viewer. This was behind the success of Dragnet and it’s what made Law & Order an unstoppable franchise that’s existed for decades. As ER grew away from realism, it got less satisfying (helicopter crashes, anyone?) This doesn’t mean that realism is the only way to have success with a procedural–NCIS has remained massively popular and it’s more characteristic of an action thriller than a traditional police procedural. It’s not that it failed to be realistic–it offers different pleasures. But Emergency is banking on a realistic depiction of the lives of paramedics and firefighters, and delivers an experience with an air of authenticity. I’ve never been a firefighter or a paramedic, so I can only offer so many assurances, but I was convinced and I expect the average viewer outside those professions would be as well.

Weaknesses

  • Didactic, meaningless approach to its theme. The fact that the title of the episode clunkily announces the theme of the program bodes ill for things to come. You see, our hero John Gage (Randolph Mantooth) becomes fixated on the idea that human misery would be alleviated if only we could all be perfectly honest all the time. Get ready for a pointless dimestore interpretation of virtue ethics! Each and every situation addressed by the paramedics in this episode has an obvious, lampshaded connection to honesty, though some of those connections are pretty tenuous and there’s never a probing or meaningful exploration of any of the examples that are thrown at us. Gage makes his honesty vow in the cold open when paramedics respond to the site of a kitchen gas explosion. The wife (Beverly Sanders, Scooby Doo! Curse Of The Lake Monster) in a newlywed couple had left the gas on before having a 20-minute argument with her husband (Michael Lerner, 1998’s Godzilla) about his cigars. You see, back when they were dating she pretended to like his stinky cigars but it turns out she doesn’t really like them. The argument culminated in him spitefully lighting a cigar, blowing the damn house to kingdom come. The moral that Gage takes away from this is not that the husband is an asshole but rather that the wife should have been honest about the cigars from day one. Maybe Gage is one of those Ayn Rand enthusiasts who don’t see the downside to “brutal honesty”–where being “honest” is more important than not being a jerkass–because he’s not persuaded about the downsides when he sees Dr. Morton (Ron Pinkard) bluntly tells worried mother Patricia Epps (Anne Whitfield, White Christmas) about her son’s grim prognosis, reducing her to a heap of quivering Jell-O. But it turns out Ms. Epps was the dishonest one all along–in a twist that the writers on House would be proud of, it turns out that she doomed her son by not telling doctors about medicines she had already tried giving her son at home. Dishonesty! Or, you know, just getting flustered and confused in the wake of a medical emergency, or something. But it’s so fun to blame women for everything! Also coming in for the blame is Cheryl Olmstead (Ondine Vaughn, Carola), a tenant who didn’t tell her landlady that the landlady’s 13 year old son likes to take the car for joyrides. Sure, this is a reasonable, if somewhat obvious, example of the negative consequences of dishonesty, as Gage points out later in a conversation with his colleague Roy DeSoto (Kevin Tighe)…but DeSoto’s rebuttal about the negative consequences of honesty doesn’t make any damn sense at all. He refers back to another case they responded to where some idiot tried to do a somersault off the roof of a hotel into the pool and broke his neck. Somehow, this is because his girlfriend (Hilda Wynn, A Woman For All Men) told him the truth by telling him that he was a “phony.” My point here is that many of these supposedly revealing vignettes about the value of honesty are neither meaningful nor very interesting, and while the show is very ham-fisted about pointing out how every stupid thing in these people’s lives revolves around the honesty of others it all feels hollow.
  • Boring. You’d think a show called Emergency would be suspenseful and action-packed, but some of these sequences drag on forever. Maybe I’m spoiled by today’s world of quick cuts and short scenes, but it seems like an eternity when the paramedics spend 7 minutes fishing dumbass out of the pool, especially since there’s no payoff other than a fatuous moral about the dangers of being honest with fragile male egos. And apparently the writers have never heard of the drawbacks of “shoe leather” in a screenplay–ie, when you spend valuable screen time showing people going to and from a location. There are so many shots of emergency vehicles navigating the streets of Los Angeles that I began to think I was playing Grand Theft Auto V, except then I’d be entertained. Perhaps if the scenes were tighter we’d have more time to develop one of our 17 pointless storylines.

Motivation: Gage’s pseudo-philosophical ponderings may be boring as hell, but at least he’s trying to search for knowledge.

Final Episode Judgment: 4/10. There’s something fascinating about watching professionals try to save a life, and it’s always interesting to see the events that led to medical mayhem reconstructed, but Emergency only manages to embrace its virtues in spite of its ponderous script.

NEXT TIME: Is there a children’s television franchise I’ve somehow managed to overlook? Yes. Yes there is. Tune in next time for Lego Star Wars: The Yoda Chronicles!

Case Study 40: Emergency! Episode 28–“Honest”

Case Study 12: NCIS, Episode 287–“Lockdown”

Original Airdate: October 20th, 2015 on CBS

In stark contrast to the aggressively obscure fare we usually discuss here, in the 2014-2015 TV season NCIS was the top rated network drama. It’s the lynchpin of an expanding TV empire—in addition to two successful spin-offs set in different cities in the grand tradition of CSI, NCIS itself was a spinoff of the hit show JAG. The show neatly illustrates a few things about ratings in today’s crowded landscape—last year NCIS pulled a top rating of 18.2 million viewers. It was only outpaced by NBC Sunday night football, which netted 20.8 million viewers, and the loathsome Big Bang Theory, which drew 19 million. In contrast, for our next installment we’ll take a look at an episode of the hastily cancelled VH1 scripted series Hindsight. The episode in question aired in February of this year and was viewed by 280,000 viewers. So there’s a big gap between the peaks and the valleys and the valleys can be awfully deep. But consider the following: in 1987, all 20 of the top shows on television were more highly rated than NCIS. Kate & Allie got 18.3 million. Astonishingly, Nothing In Common got 19.6 million. I’m struggling to believe that fact, but zap2it is the only source I can find on TV ratings from nearly 30 years ago for some strange reason. Nothing lasted 7 episodes. It was based on a rightfully forgotten Garry Marshall movie of the same name starring Tom Hanks and Jackie Gleason, of all people. NBC cancelled the show. Despite the fact that they had given it a plum spot in the lineup right after the superhit Cheers, it wasn’t getting enough of the audience to leave their TV on. This only makes sense when you realize that Cheers was being watched by 27.5 million people. And Cheers wasn’t even on the top of the pile! That would be The Cosby Show, which was being seen by nearly 35 million people a week.

There are valid reasons for this numbers gulf. The idea of tentpole, consensus watercooler TV has shattered into millions of fragments. Now there’s theoretically something for everyone and space for seemingly everything. Even Star Trek is getting a new series, and it’s on a heretofore unlikely source of new television—CBS’s subscription-based streaming service. (Of course, the creator is Alex Kurtzman, JJ Abrams’ accomplice in crimes against Trek in the form of the newest wave of movies, but I’m still holding out hope as long as Bad Robot’s not involved.) Much has changed in these 30 years. In 1987, The Good Wife would have seemed like pure science fiction and Bill Cosby seemed like the best father figure you could ever want. But for 2015, NCIS remains the top dog. Can 18 million NCIS fans be wrong?

Strengths

  • The bones of a solid mystery/thriller. Any given police procedural is going to live or die on the basic thing it’s bringing to the table—the plot. This episode does a reasonably good job of delivering. It presents a twisty, unpredictable mystery that goes in unexpected directions and gives our heroes a run for their money. It’s plausible but not cliche and complex but not impenetrable. Of course, it’s not perfect—the modern police procedural generally has little interest in adhering to the ten commandments attributed to Raymond Chandler and Ronald Knox on how to write a mystery. The main reason for this is that NCIS and its fellows like to toss staples from the thriller genre into the mix, which is fine. I’m about to means test Chandler’s fifth commandment: “It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.” The time has come. Our dead guy du jour is Naval Reserve Captain Jeremy Doblin, a biochemist. He’s been smuggling botulinum out of his secure lab, but just as the viewer is girding her loins for a bioterrorism plotline, we learn that Doblin’s been turning it into Botox and selling it to Latvian plastic surgery enthusiasts. It would seem that Doblin had made the unwise decision of capitalizing a potential real estate investment with money from a loan shark, one Nicky Jones (Nick Gomez, Looper.) But Jones didn’t kill him—how would he get his money back then? Here the mystery finally delves into the heart of the episode. Our beloved plucky goth forensic technician Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette) has decided to get out of her basement office rut and go on a “field trip” to the office of Celodyne Pharmaceuticals to try and figure out why Doblin’s corpse was playing host to the base molecule of a generic drug imported by Celodyne and inexplicably separated from its active ingredient. And I do mean inexplicable, because the show points out this bizarre fact and emphasizes how impossible it is and then doesn’t offer any explanation whatsoever. The logic of the mystery begins to unravel here as we get thrust into the thriller half of this story. Abby makes friends with a chemist at Celodyne named Dr. Janice Brown (Lucy Davis, 2001’s The Office.) While Abby & Janice are bonding, a janitorial sleeper cell is activated at Celodyne and an Ebola containment lockdown facilitates hostage taking and gunplay and it’s up to Abby to save the day and her own skin. When all’s said and done, it turns out that Brown, Doblin and gun-wielding psychopath Travis Cook (Robert Neary, General Hospital) were in cahoots on a plan to steal data from Celodyne indicating that the company was falsifying safety data in order to sell a generic medicine that didn’t work. Leaving aside the fact that they’d also have to falsify efficacy data and the fact that this drug is explicitly said to be imported, which means Celodyne doesn’t have any kind of control over the already existing data, the Brown/Cook/Doblin conspiracy really doesn’t make sense. Doblin supposedly had occasion to do tests on this drug—why this would fall to a Navy biochemist, I have no idea—and brought his inflammatory findings to Brown. Somehow, Doblin’s research wasn’t sufficient to expose Celodyne, and Brown needed protected data to blow the whistle. Brown hired Cook to get the data. So did he hack into Celodyne’s mainframe? Of course not! He got a job as a janitor, bided his time, created a false Ebola containment alert, whipped out the AK and took hostages, whom he then intended to murder in cold blood along with a woman he knew to be a federal agent, all so he could access the computers from the inside. This is an incredibly messy and high-exposure operation, and Brown is paying Cook by letting him “take whatever he want[s].” And why was Doblin murdered, and by whom? Cook killed Doblin because he was “getting cold feet.” Uh, of course. Still, the mystery/thriller Frankenstein manages to scratch both itches and squeak out a net positive. It’s legitimately intriguing and entertaining to piece together Doblin’s bizarre fate and to watch Abby’s derring-do in the field. Which brings me to…
  • Pauley Perrette. Perrette stands out in a relatively lifeless cast here, which is only natural, since the episode is clearly meant to be a showcase for her. The script doesn’t actually give her much to work with and it ducks and feints away from many opportunities to tell her story in a more engaging way, but she acquits herself nicely here.
  • Pushing back against conservative tendencies in crime narrative. There are long-standing arguments over the political nature of crime and detective fiction. It’s been said that the genre is inherently conservative. It’s about restoring order, frequently through state action. It’s about assigning individual moral culpability to social problems. Shows as diverse as Law & Order: SVU, The Shield and 24 tell us that excessive force is something to be shied away from—except it gets results, so god bless those violent men who sacrifice their souls in the name of keeping us safe. I’m sure over the course of a decade and dozens of writers, NCIS on the whole has taken a variety of political positions, but this episode seems to be intent on finding ways to challenge that argument. I didn’t mention this in my review of Major Crimes, but it’s another example of a procedural in 2015 pushing back against this idea. The Major episode features Captain Raydor telling a key witness agonizing over the illogic of being deported from the only home he’s ever known and only getting to stay because of his tangential involvement in a murder and exposure to organized drug crime in his home country to get his priorities straight—namely, by realizing that “murder is not a political issue. It is the ultimate betrayal of human rights.” There’s some resonance there. There’s less resonance to a similar moment in this episode of NCIS, mainly because it’s dumped in our lap in the form of a flat-footed, speechifying monologue from Abby about an experience she had watching a movie in 5th grade and getting a scolding from her teacher for cheering when the good guy shot the bad guy. “We don’t applaud killing, no matter who it is. If you take a life today, you failed yesterday,” she says. Even though this is awkwardly shoehorned in, it’s a welcome corrective to a tendency in crime fiction that led to a pulpy thriller I recently read in which the admittedly odious villain is caught by the hero detective—and then summarily executed by the “hero,” who stages the scene to make it look like justifiable self-defense. And we’re supposed to cheer for the true justice that’s been meted out, regardless of what the libs in the state senate think about capital punishment. It’s also a welcome corrective to a real-world political environment where law enforcement thinks they can murder people with impunity and is brazen enough to call for boycotts and protests against public figures who call them out on it. This episode also timidly puts forth a sympathetic character who engages in extralegal political activism. For most of the episode, we’re led to believe that Janice is Celodyne’s version of Abby—a quirky STEM genius consigned to a basement office who is passionate about the environment and I guess government transparency—but then it turns out, no, Janice is in league with the bad guys! She’s also got a record of other crimes committed in the name of activism—NCIS crimebro Tony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly) sneers about Janice’s record ramming whaling boats in the Sea of Japan and chaining herself to trees in the Amazon as if these were the stupidest things he’s ever heard. Abby defends Janice and gets her treated lightly, saying that Janice did “the right thing for the wrong reasons.” Because of Janice’s statement, Celodyne CEO Virginia Wilson (Seana Kofoed, Men In Trees) is also punished, proving that NCIS is committed to Chandler’s 9th commandment. Hell, even the texting driver (Ally Maki, Geography Club) who discovers Doblin’s body gets a ticket.

Weaknesses

  • Wildly unneccessary attempts at comedy. I don’t think it’s too outlandish to suggest that the reason NCIS is so popular is because its viewers like well-constructed, twisty mysteries and thrillers that keep them on the edge of their seats, wondering what’s going to happen next. I really hope no one is coming back to NCIS week after week because of the lulzy, broad attempts at comedy from a cast and a writer’s room with no comedic chops. Those 18 million “comedy” fans are off watching Theory. You already have their attention, CBS. Relax. We’re subjected to snide one-liners and witless banter from the Latvian Botox-heads about which plastic surgeries the crimebros should undergo. We get to watch the cast struggle with physical comedy because their Flowers By Irene van is too small. Then there’s the snappy dialogue—when Timothy McGee (Sean Murray) comments on the fact that Doblin’s research into carbon-neutral alternative energy production is really interesting, DiNozzo fires back with, “Not really, McNerd.” Get it!? Because his name is McGee, and he cares about critical scientific research that could have major impacts on the future surivival of humanity?! So that makes him a nerd!?! And McNerd sounds like McGee?!?! Kind of?!?!?!?!?! Woof. Also, Doblin’s field is in fact “really interesting,” because why the fuck did a dude working on alternative energy have access to botulinum, and why was he analyzing generic anti-depressants? It’s almost like that line was shoved into the script to give everything a tangential connection to the Navy, or to bully viewers who might give the slightest shit about the scientific particulars of the nonsense to follow, or to make an extremely sad grab for a laugh, or all of those things. I could kind of understand this sub-Catskills level humor if it was intended to draw a contrast between just another wacky day at the NCIS office and the harrowing trial Abby is set to endure, but the laughs just keep on coming as Abby puzzles her way out of her situation. I suspect this is because the writer’s room is used to having Abby be comic relief—look at what happened when they tried to write a serious moment for her. For some reason, Abby has to provide running commentary when she’s alone about her efforts to thwart the gunmen. I guess this is because the viewers are presumed too stupid to be able to remember the fact that she needs to get to the phone and server equipment in the room occupied by the bad guys. But this has her risking being overheard and subsequently murdered so she can respond to Cook’s frustrated attempts to override the server with “Good luck, mortal!” Is that really worth the egregious suspension of disbelief that has to occur here? It’s also worth noting that at another point we see Abby sneaking down a hall singing a badly-written song parody to herself about the need for her to be quiet. Now, to be fair, Perrette gamely gives this material all she’s got and wrings as much humor from these clunkers as is possible—which is to say, a fleeting smile—but since this is a showcase for Perrette, why not let her do some serious acting? Why not let us see the fear and the tension and the anger? Why not save us the super-edgy Botox chuckles in favor of showing Abby and Janice doing some actual life-saving chemistry? Why why why.
  • Wooden performances from people not named Pauley Perrette. I mean, I get it. It’s been 13 long years. These people are being forced to do terrible comedy instead of the crime solving that everyone is here for. This ain’t exactly Masterpiece Theater and they’re still going to have a big pile of NCIS money regardless of how much they stink up the joint. But it doesn’t exactly make me want to come rushing back, especially with the depth of characterization going on. There’s a goth girl, because this is 1987. There’s a cranky and “lovably eccentric” Scottish medical examiner (David McCallum). There’s crimebros in Jock and McNerd varieties. There’s the slowly decaying corpse of a goose (Mark Harmon). There’s Ellie Bishop (Emily Wickersham), a blonde white lady in a turtleneck. The closest thing she gets to character work is a pointless interlude where she moans about how her boyfriend is always out of town, although “moans” might be overstating the case, since it sounds like she’s reading out of the operator’s manual of a 1992 Mazda.

Final Episode Judgment: 4/10. I vacillated a little on this. I was prepared to give it a 5 when I sat down to write the review, but when I had to actually put the plot down on paper I realized it made even less sense than I thought. But it was reasonably entertaining while it was happening. The thing is, a story should get better in retrospect—not worse.

NEXT TIME: As mentioned, VH1’s original scripted series Hindsight! *gulp*

Case Study 12: NCIS, Episode 287–“Lockdown”

Case Study 11: Alcatraz, Episode 2–“Ernest Cobb”

Original Airdate: January 16, 2012 on FOX

It would seem that director/writer/producer J.J. Abrams has become pop culture royalty, but I’ve never been particularly impressed with his work. Under review tonight is an offering from his production company. It should be noted that Abrams is not the “creator” of this show–that would be Elizabeth Sarnoff, a veteran of his writers room on Lost–but you wouldn’t know it from reading the press, where it’s often described as “J.J. Abrams’ Alcatraz,” which I suppose is understandable considering that’s what the show’s promotional art says. The thing is, if you look at Abrams’ track record in terms of what he’s produced, his win-loss ratio is terrible: 5 hits (Lost, Alias, Felicity, Fringe, Person Of Interest) to 7 losses (What About Brian, Six Degrees, Undercovers, Alcatraz, Revolution, Almost Human, Believe.) You could argue this is because Abrams isn’t directly involved with the creative process anymore–Felicity, Alias, Lost, Fringe and Undercovers were the only shows on that list where he’s actually billed as “creator.” You see, now J.J. doesn’t have time for TV–he’s off ruining beloved media franchises on the big screen. Alcatraz may be from Abrams’ farm team, but it’s clearly part of the Bad Robot brand. Its failures and successes are driven by the hallmarks of previous Abrams projects, as you’ll see below. I should note that I am far from an Abrams expert–I’ve seen substantial chunks of Lost and Fringe but not the full run of either series, as well as both Star Trek movies and Cloverfield. Most of the comparisons here are based on Lost, since that is a) Abrams’ most famous project b) the one I have seen the most recently and c) Sarnoff’s entry point into the Abrams quicksand. And that brings me to thing that’s most fucked up about the Abrams/Sarnoff elision: If Alcatraz had been a hit, Abrams would get the lion’s share of the glory and Sarnoff would maybe get another gig. As it stands, he’s gotten a chance to shit out 3 more failed TV shows and has received a raft of plum directorial jobs in Hollywood, and she appears to have vanished into a swirling abyss for the last 3 years. (This logic may not map neatly onto Person, but Jonathan Nolan started on second base thanks to his brother. Also, he’s a dude–can’t help but wonder if that’s a factor in the abrupt ending to Sarnoff’s career.) Moving on to the actual show and away from the insider baseball…

Strengths

  • Intriguing (in a cheap sort of way.) As often happens with Abrams properties, the show has an instantly compelling premise with plenty of potential. According to the show, when Alcatraz Federal Prison was closed in 1963, the prisoners weren’t transferred elsewhere as society has been led to believe. Instead, they mysteriously disappeared and have inexplicably been reappearing in the present day without having aged since 1963, which makes this the third show I’ve reviewed in a row to deal with timey-wimey shenanigans. Predictably, given its provenance, the show raises all sorts of questions and sets up all kinds of mysteries which it has no intention whatsoever of resolving any time soon–and, of course, it got cancelled, so percentages on any kind of satisfaction are even further diminished. Let’s briefly review the meat of the story. I’ll note that for the purposes of this review I also watched the pilot, which I felt was probably going to do a better job of introducing me to the characters and the premise than internet research and since I’m reviewing the second episode, it’s far from onerous in terms of catch-up. Our hero is the blandly intrepid Det. Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones.) She’s recovering from the violent death of her partner at the hands of a ruthless perp when she’s assigned to investigate the death of one E.B. Tiller, who turns out to be the former deputy warden at everyone’s favorite iconic island prison. This sends her down a rabbit hole leading to a secret, high-tech Alcatraz mystery lab, helmed by shadowy FBI agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill, Jurassic Park.) By the end of the pilot, we have two huge Abrams-brand caps lock twists: Madsen had previously believed her grandfather to be a prison guard at Alcatraz, but he’s actually THE GUY WHO KILLED HER PARTNER, and when Hauser catches the bad guys, he’s not taking them to a normal prison, he’s taking them to a SECRET ALCATRAZ REPLICA HE HAS BUILT IN A WOODLAND GLADE.  Mysteries arise–not just the fundamentals like what happened to the prisoners and why they’re reappearing, but also things like what’s the backstory around Madsen’s grandfather? What’s Hauser’s true agenda and long-term plan? Madsen’s uncle and father figure Ray Archer (Robert Forster, Jackie Brown) is a former Alcatraz guard and is cagy and full of undoubtably juicy secrets–what are they? The malevolent prisoner du jour in the pilot is one Jack Sylvane (Jeffrey Pierce, The Tomorrow People) and some of the present-day crimes he commits seem to be incited by some higher power unknown to him–what’s going on there? This tactic is effective–despite the fact that the pilot was distinctly unimpressive, I wanted to see more, because a unique mystery is inherently fascinating to many viewers, including me. But it’s also cheap. If I wanted to come back for a second episode, it wasn’t because of any strong craftsmanship displayed in the pilot–if anything, it was in spite of the shoddy craftsmanship there. Alcatraz didn’t earn its intrigue. But it is intriguing nonetheless.
  • Jorge Garcia. Garcia was one of the highlights of the large and varied cast of Lost, and he’s also been brought up through the Abrams farm system for a star turn in Alcatraz. He plays Dr. Diego Soto, an expert in criminal justice and Civil War history (?) with four published books on the prison. Soto becomes Madsen’s de facto civilian partner. Garcia’s readings bring life and charisma to otherwise leaden dialogue and he gracefully delivers a character arc in the second episode centering on his squeamishness around the actual nuts and bolts of crime solving, what with the victims of violent crimes and their grieving families. He aptly demonstrates that he’s more than just Hurley. I’d be interested to see how he’s faring in his new role on Hawaii Five-O. Not interested enough to watch that show, though. Until I’m forced to, that is.
  • Multifaceted. I had to wrack my brains over this one. This is a problem I suspect I’ll encounter frequently–a situation where a show’s qualities are a double-edged sword, serving as a strength in some ways and a weakness in others. We’ll get to the deficits below. I think a big explanation for why Abrams’ work is so popular is that it can be many things to many people. It defies genre. On the surface, Alcatraz seems like a sci-fi show. It is, but the plot of any given episode is driven by deduction and detection, like any good mystery or police procedural. But these aren’t cerebral mysteries of the kind you might find on PBS–Each episode is also sure to come laden with well-trodden action tropes. The pilot has a scene where Madsen and Soto are sneaking around in secret off-limits rooms in Alcatraz, only to be the victims of a mysterious knockout gas from an unseen source dramatically rolling down the stairs. The second episode culminates in a tense standoff with a maniac wielding a sniper rifle. Theoretically, it can please some of the people all the time.

Weaknesses

  • Evidence that being multifaceted can backfire. In practice, however, Alcatraz fails to live up to the other half of that credo–that is, pleasing all of the people some of the time. Its attempt to serve multiple masters leads to an inability to properly and consistently deliver any of the thrills it sets out to provide. If you want a mystery, you’ll probably itch at the wild contrivances built in through brazenly unrealistic technology–although Bones is dustily clattering into its 11th season, so maybe I’m out of touch with what the average mystery fan wants. At one point Madsen urges Soto to take a photo of the contemporary San Francisco skyline and edit out all the buildings that didn’t exist in 1963–a feat he accomplishes with a few keystrokes. I suppose these sorts of shenanigans are de rigeur in a post-CSI landscape, but for someone who wants to see a mystery solved through research and deduction, it feels extraordinarily cheap and might as well involve wizards and cauldrons. If you want an action adventure with car chases and shootouts and whatnot, you’ll have to sit still long enough to watch Madsen poke around on Google and endure long stretches of increasingly risible Alcatraz-related exposition. If you want sci-fi thrills, you’re in the same boat as you’d be watching Lost–you’re confronted with unexplained phenomena suggestive of science fiction without being given any kind of grounding in internal logic or even basic principles until you put more coins into the bottomless Bad Robot bubblegum machine. Alcatraz will likely scratch enough of your respective genre fiction itches to keep you watching, but it’s just as likely to leave you feeling empty and as if you’ve wasted 45 minutes.
  • Sarah Jones & Sam Neill. Look, Neill is fine in Jurassic, but he’d really have to stink to ruin such a great movie. Alcatraz is no Jurassic. I wonder what the craft services situation on Alcatraz was, because Neill is determined to eat scenery. I’m sure the treatment read like high comedy, but Neill’s over-the-top shady, dramatic asshole routine doesn’t fit the relatively straight-faced approach Alcatraz takes to its ludicrous subject matter. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Jones is a cold fish. Madsen is not very interesting as a character, but with a steady hand on the wheel Jones could have made her come to life. She’s the protagonist and she’s a feisty, fierce, no-bullshit woman in a man’s world. Since she’s underdeveloped, the performance is the tipping point that pushes it one way or another. Jones pushes it decidedly into “another” territory with her wooden delivery and inability to convey basic emotions.

Final Episode Judgment: 6/10. There’s enough going on here to keep you coming back, if you can live with the inevitable disappointment of a cancellation after 13 episodes that surely leaves many threads dangling. I’m especially inclined to look kindly on “Cobb,” since it is a marked improvement over the pilot, particularly when it comes to the script. I’d only give the pilot a 4/10.

NEXT TIME: I take on the juggernaut of today’s police procedural landscape: NCIS!

Case Study 11: Alcatraz, Episode 2–“Ernest Cobb”

Case Study 8: Major Crimes, Episode 55–“Targets of Opportunity”

Original Airdate: July 20, 2015 on TNT

Crime dramas have been an evergreen staple of broadcast entertainment since the days of radio and now it seems they’re more popular than ever. I checked a few recent ratings charts and on average 8 of the 25 most highly rated shows are crime dramas, and that’s just the big primetime networks. I’m a little surprised it’s taken me this long to get to one! The reason this genre is so popular is obvious–a mystery is intrinsically interesting. There’s the obvious fact that finding out who committed a crime is a natural plot driver, but there’s also an opportunity to dig deep into rich veins of emotion and to address complex social issues and public institutions. There’s ample opportunity to work on multiple levels.

Major is a spinoff of The Closer, which was a reliable ratings hit on cable but missed me entirely. This alone speaks to the glut of crime dramas–I’ve sampled a lot of shows and enjoy the genre but never got around to this major hit series. Major is also a bit unusual for a spinoff in that it retains much of the cast and setting of the previous series, promoting a supporting character to the lead and keeping its creator, James Duff. From what I’m told, it also carries over Closer’s approach to storytelling, mixing intensely plotted procedure with emotional stories about the personal lives of the characters. It’s a descendant of NYPD Blue as opposed to Law & Order.

A quick note: This episode’s stems from events in Episode 35, “Jane Doe #38.” I watched that episode for background as well, but I won’t discuss it except as it’s relevant to the episode under review. I will say that it’s excellent and exponentially better than “Targets.” Considering that the story set up in that episode is still churning 23 episodes later, it might not be a bad place to jump into Major if you’re wanting to come in at a high point.

Strengths

  • Compelling mystery. The strength of the mystery du jour is what crime procedurals live or die on, and Major acquits itself well in this regard. It takes the Columbo approach where the viewer knows who is responsible and has the pleasure of watching the cast piece things together. Two cops have been shot and killed and the LAPD’s Major Crimes unit is pulling out all the stops to find the killers. Their best lead is a witness with ties to real-life gang MS-13, who have been major contributors to the astronomical crime rates in Central America’s blood-soaked Northern Triangle. The witness is named Rico Fornes (Carlos Pratts, McFarland, USA) and the bulk of the episode is spent tracking him down; he also carries the bulk of the hour’s emotional freight. Only Rico (and the viewer) knows that the murderers were posing as police. This was entertaining and reasonably sophisticated for 43 minutes of TV, but it could still be improved–see below.
  • Sleek. The production and direction of Major is very of the moment, which makes sense since it just aired a few months ago. Even considering that, though, everything is beautifully shot–the opening scene wrung mawkish, maudlin pathos out of its admittedly serious subject matter, but I was willing to forgive that since so much tender love and care had obviously been put into Hollywood-level staging. Mary McDonnell’s lead performance as Cap. Sharon Raydor is exquisite, complex and understated and is a fresh casting choice in the endless crowd of police procedurals. The genre lends itself to blustery scenery chewing–see Raymond Cruz’s (Breaking Bad) portrayal of Det. Julio Sanchez.

Weaknesses

  • Unsatisfying feint. While I like the way the show handles the red herring of MS-13, it’s not great that a potential MS-13 connection is way more interesting that what actually turns out to be going on. G.W. Bailey’s Det. Lt. Louis Provenza even lampshades this. “Well, you’d hope that they’d be terrorists or master criminals and that our people had died fighting the worst of the worst–but they were a couple of ex-cons playing dress-up and shaking down old people.” Yeah! You’re right! I would hope that they’d be terrorists or master criminals! Like MS-13! Especially since they don’t do a very good job of fleshing out the actual explanation. I realize it’s been done before, but it seems like an unnecessarily elaborate setup to impersonate cops to facilitate armed robbery. As Robert Gossett’s Chief Russell Taylor takes note of in the first scene, police/public relations are low right now. The show does not articulate the reason relations are low, which is of course the extensive and high-profile protests about police murdering black and brown citizens in cold blood. Part of the public response to these murders is to increase recording, documentation and scrutiny of police, especially in situations where they’re openly pointing guns at old black men at traffic stops, as is the case here. A one-off or ongoing story about MS-13 would have been fascinating, but I would have settled for actual internal police corruption as opposed to two yutzes with costumes. I just think it’s a bad idea to tease viewers with more interesting plotlines than what you actually end up delivering.
  • Paper-thin B plot. One of the key aspects of this show is that Raydor has adopted a wayward youth, Rusty Beck, as played by the extremely foxy Graham Patrick Martin. Rusty was abandoned at age 15 and in “Jane” developed an emotional connection to 15 year old victim Alice Herrera, another child who tried (and failed) to survive in a harsh world. Even after we learn who killed her and why, her background is shrouded in mystery and Rusty is determined to find out who she was. In “Targets,” Rusty has a sketchy contact and he uses police resources to clandestinely run a background check under the guise of helping the frantic double murder investigation. This is not really enough to sustain a subplot, even with the flaccid attempt at adding an emotional angle in the form of Rusty’s guilt about…not helping? Pretending to help? Which doesn’t make sense, since presumably he spent some time actually running legitimate checks as he was asked to do. And it’s not like he’s using police resources for a shitty reason–he’s trying to honor a murder victim, not find a drug hookup. As I said above, the Alice story as originally presented is gold–give this follow-up plot the chance to breathe it deserves.

Final Episode Judgment: 5/10. This episode of Major Crimes is competently executed, but unless you’re an insatiable crime drama fan, it’s not a reason to come back for more. Don’t write off Crimes entirely, though–I’d give “Jane” 8/10. The verdict is out on whether or not that episode is representative in terms of quality.
NEXT TIME: Danny Phantom.

Case Study 8: Major Crimes, Episode 55–“Targets of Opportunity”