What a perverse year it’s been for television! Even before Wall Street collapsed, the network advertising model was warping like bad wallpaper, creating a risk-averse (and product-placement-friendly) environment for anyone trying to launch a new series. So it’s no surprise to find the prime-time schedule stuffed with CSI look-alikes, glib mysteries interchangeable as Lego blocks.
Still, as a human being who has watched possibly every episode of Law & Order: Original Famous Ray’s—catch three episodes, it’s a procedural, catch 200, it’s a pointillist character study—I can’t say I hate the genre. Even the slickest recent examples, like The Mentalist, Lie to Me, and the overrated The Closer, are comfort food. But it’s refreshing to encounter The Unusuals, a procedural that is a step up from the usual quip-over-a-corpse fare. Set in New York, the series is a fast-paced genre-mixer, something like M*A*S*H crossed with Barney Miller plus a touch of Wonderfalls—a gritty cop comedy with a little supernatural flavor. The gimmick is that its homicide squad is staffed with oddballs, each with his or her own secret to unfold, but the pleasures of watching are sheerly tonal. Unlike its slicker siblings, The Unusuals is down-to-earth yet confidently strange, its stylized humor embedded in a genuinely urban, dirty setting. These cops eat in greasy spoons and stomp around on Rockaway Boulevard. Everyone talks out of the corner of his mouth, screwball and hard-boiled: “You like when ya snap their necks, dontcha, Harold,” growls a detective at a cat murderer.
Everygirl Amber Tamblyn (Joan of Arcadia) is miscast as a cop with a fancy Upper East Side pedigree, but the rest of the ensemble is great, including Harold Perrineau (Lost’s Michael!) as a paranoid cop and Adam Goldberg as his self-destructive partner. Quirky feels like a curse word, tainted forever by the legacy of David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, etc.), but The Unusuals might actually turn the word back into praise.
In contrast, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency seems highly conventional at first sight, almost chick-litish, despite its exotic Botswana setting: There’s a neurotic sidekick, a sassy gay neighbor—even a platonic friend who might be a love interest. And yet the premiere, based on the popular book series by Alexander McCall Smith and gorgeously filmed by Anthony Minghella (it was his final project), feels like entering a peaceful dream. This is unusual fare for HBO, sunny and serene and easy to dismiss. But I think it will find an enthusiastic audience for its benign vision of the detective as feminine healer, grounded in the show’s lovely lead performance by singer Jill Scott as Precious, a divorced woman of “traditional build” who believes that “women see things that men do not see.” If the dialogue occasionally teeters into cutesy faux-innocence, the series picks up steam whenever consequential dangers appear: a kidnapped child, threats from a gangster (Idris Elba, working the same vein of thuggish elegance he exploited so well on The Wire)—offsetting the valentine warmth with real pain. And the silly, sexy bits are just fun, as when a shameless adulterer pursues Precious with offers of “iced tea for my fatty,” then purrs, “I am as single as Jesus Christ!”
Peacock Rogues and Brainy Brunettes
I’d long been a Bones skeptic, figuring it for just another death-fetish showcase, an excuse for close-ups of splayed female corpses. But I was wrong, wrong, wrong; now that I’ve caught up on reruns, I can see why the show generates such a cult following, especially for the chemistry between David Boreanaz’s FBI guy and Emily Deschanel’s touchingly serious forensic anthropologist, who makes worrying look like a kind of beauty. It’s hard to say if ABC’s new Castle will have the same staying power, but it’s a likable enough Bones copycat, with its own swaggering Whedon hero in the male lead (Firefly’s Nathan Fillion as a preening novelist), teamed with yet another serious brunette cop (Stana Katic). The series is primarily goofy formulaic fun, and so far, Katic is no Deschanel, but like its twin, the series uses that shockingly durable Remington Steele DNA—peacock dude, furrowed-brow femme—to build neat puzzles out of human suffering.
ABC’s other “new” procedural, Cupid, is actually a revived, recast version of the wonderful and neglected original show, which ran for one season in 1998 and starred Jeremy Piven (pre-Entourage, pre-mercury). Created, then and now, by Veronica Mars’ Rob Thomas, Cupid is not literally a cop show: Its investigative team comprises a Greek God—literally—and a shrink. The two investigate love stories, not homicides, a clever conceit that injects the procedural form with the dizzy spirit of a Drew Barrymore film festival. Like Bones and Castle, it’s fueled by the sparks of a roguish charmer paired with a female brainiac—the wonderful, hairy Bobby Cannavale (escaping his “funky spunk” history on Sex and the City, I hope) and Sarah Paulson, a skeptical blonde for a change. The pilot is studded with sweet pop songs and shot through with goofy touches like Cupid as a bartender offering Paulson drinks including an “after-hours grope on a lunatic’s futon.” I can’t say I love it yet, but it’s awfully attractive.