Sunday, April 12, 2009

Too Unusual For Me

Sometimes you run into a show that sort of reminds you of another show but is totally different from that show. For reasons that I can't really explain beyond the setting in the detective's part of a New York police precinct, The Unusuals reminds me of NYPD Blue sort of, kind of, in a way, but not really. I get the feeling that this is going to be hard to explain. And that, somehow, seems oddly appropriate.

Pilot episodes are inevitably about introducing characters and setting up the premise for the show, and the pilot of The Unusuals is no different. We first meet Detective Casey Schraeger when she's posing as a street hooker in a "John sting." Her career as a Vice cop comes to a sudden and surprising end when a supposed client comes up. He's Sergeant Harvey Brown, who runs the detectives unit at the 2nd Precinct. He needs a new homicide cop since one of his cops has just been murdered – as in the body was only found a few minutes ago. Casey's the replacement. As we'll discover it's not as random a choice as it seems. The first person that Casey meets at the precinct is her new partner, Jason Walsh. Walsh is in the process of "sanitizing" his old partner's locker to get rid of stuff that his wife – not to mention Internal Affairs – would find objectionable. And there's a lot that would upset both the widow and the investigators. Our initial impression of the late Detective Kowalski is that he was a corrupt cop who wasn't very good about hiding the drugs he stole, or the cash that he got as pay offs or the girls he had on the side. They go to see his wife, who knows that Kowalski had at least one mistress but loved him in spite of it all. She tells them that there had been some mysterious hang-up calls. Walsh and Casey then go to visit the mistress, who greats them at the door wearing a bra, panties and a smile – she thinks they're the pizza guy. Walsh makes it very clear that she's not to attend the funeral, and pays her off with money that he found in Kowalski's locker.

By the time that Walsh and Schraeger get back to the precinct they've missed the morning meeting where we meet the rest of the detective squad. This includes partners Eric Delahoy and Leo Banks. Banks constantly wears a bullet-proof vest. This seems to be because he's 42 and most of the men in his family die when they hit 42 – usually by accident. Banks figures that he's in a high risk occupation so he'd better not take any chances. Delahoy is the exact opposite of Banks in that he seems to court danger. We know that this is because he has a brain tumor and has no intention of treating it since he figures that if he gets treatment he'll end up only delaying the inevitable. No one else in the squad knows this of course. The other detectives are Henry Cole, a born again Christian who will pray at the drop of a hat, Eddie Alvarez, who speaks of Eddie Alvarez in the third person and hijacks any opportunity to get himself into the public eye, and Allison Beaumont who seems to be the most normal one of the lot. She fills Casey in about some of the quirks of the others, including the fact that Walsh doesn't stare at her boobs like the rest of the guys, which is different but kind of suspicious because she's got great boobs.

Naturally Eddie Alvarez makes Eddie Alvarez the lead detective in investigating Kowalski's murder, because cop killings are high profile cases and that means publicity for Eddie Alvarez. Not that Sgt. Brown is disagreeing too loudly. I suppose that's because he knows that Walsh is going to be investigating no matter what he says, and he's smart enough to derail Eddie Alvarez and Eddie Alvarez's theory – that it was a random attack. The first lead they track down from the contents of Kowalski's locker is a storage space the cop, who lived in the Bronx had in Brooklyn. There had been a fire in the locker, but much of the stuff didn't burn. There was plenty there. Kowlaski had been keeping files on his fellow cops. What he knew about Walsh is that he had been a baseball player with the Yankees at least for a short time (long enough to get his own baseball card at least), but the big surprise is about Cole. He is linked somehow to someone called Navan Granger who stole an armoured car out in the Midwest. When Walsh, con his own, confronts Cole about it, Cole admits that he in fact was Navan Granger but that he hadn't been able to break into the armoured car to get the money and that the experience had led to him being born again. Then they went after the person who has been calling and hanging up on Kowalski's wife, a 16 year-old drug dealer that Kowalski busted. They figured that he had motive, but it turns out that the kid is in a wheelchair and the elevator at his apartment building, where he lives with his mother, was out of order, so even if he wanted to kill Kowalski he couldn't. And he most assuredly didn't want to kill Kowalski because after the accident that put the kid in the chair Kowalski had become something of an unofficial big brother for him, taking him to Yankees games and helping him get his GED.

Figuring that if Kowalski had mentored one kid he might have tried to help others, Walsh and Casey look through some of his cases. They find a guy named Leon Wu who had been arrested by Kowalski along with Wu's brother. After the brother died in Joliet, Kowalski wrote a letter of recommendation for Leon's early release. Someone resembling Leon was seen leaving the scene of Kowalski's murder. So the detectives head off to arrest Wu – or at least confront him – along with a SWAT Team. However Banks is so terrified at the prospect of going through the door against a heavily armed guy that he loses it and just can't go in. We later see him emptying his guts into a garbage can. The cops go in and shots are fired, with Casey eventually gunning down Wu. But did Leon Wu kill Kowalski? It's made pretty clear that he didn't because we see Cole slipping Kowalski's gun and badge into a hole in the wall at Wu's place and then "suddenly" discovering them. But of course no one bothered to ask how or why the files in Kowalski's storage space got torched, and more specifically how Leon Wu could get at them.

The "B" plot in the episode concerns Banks and Delahoy. They're called out to a city councilman's house, supposedly to investigate a threat against his daughter. As it turns out it has nothing to do with the guy's daughter...someone has killed his cat and "obviously" it is meant as a warning/threat directed at him. Banks and Delahoy refrain from telling this guy what he can do with his cat and his threat – he is one of the people who votes on the NYPD budget after all – and go off to find out who killed the councilman's cat. Outside, they notice a lot of notices about cats who have disappeared with rewards posted. Maybe there's something more than meets the eye here and it isn't just related to the councilman. Looking around the neighbourhood they find a guy trying to stuff a cat into a bowling bag. Clearly this is the guy they're after (because anyone who knows cat's knows that stuffing a cat into a bowling bag is a good way to get your arm shredded). And so they give chase. They chase him into the subway and Delahoy follows him across one of the tracks when he sees a train coming. Figuring that this was a better way to go than a brain tumour he stands there waiting for the train to hit him. It stops within inches of hitting him. Meanwhile Banks has stopped the cat-killer in the next train, using a taser so he doesn't risk contact with the guy who might someone kill him. Once they get the guy back to the precinct they start interrogating him. They use the old "photocopier as a lie detector" trick (with an all-in-one printer instead) that some of the more knowledgeable reviewers link back to The Wire and Homicide: Life On The Street, but I've never seen The Wire. This gets him to admit some of the things he's done, but they get him to break by spraying him with something to attract cats and sticking him in a cruiser filled with them. Turns out his wife had lost their unborn child as a result of a disease she caught as a result of cleaning a cat litter box.

A major theme in the show is the secrets and mysteries that the cops have. These are the things that Kowalski was collecting. Some we know, like Banks and his fear of dying at 42 like the rest of the men in his family, Delahoy and his brain tumour. Delahoy's resulting death wish leads to him going into the raid on Wu without a bulletproof vest. (The real mystery with Delahoy is how he survives: the subway train stopping within inches of him; a shotgun blast from Wu, fired at point-blank range, misses him entirely but leaves a pattern on the wall of a human body with a halo – seeing it Cole says "Jesus.") Some are well hidden. Walsh was a New York Yankee but why did he become a cop, and why does he "run" a deli (that he lives behind) where he only cooks when he feels like it and whatever he, and not the customer, wants? As for Casey, she has a secret she's desperate to protect. She's rich, or at least her family is. We get hints of it throughout the episode – her mom calls her claiming that the maid is stealing from her; Eddie Alvarez's girlfriend recognizes Casey from a high end prep school, and Casey makes it abundantly clear that if she tells Alvarez, Casey will reveal every little secret about her to him – before the big reveal at her father's birthday party. (And a special tip of the hat for the casting of Chris Sarandon as Casey's father. He's the husband of Joanna Cassidy who played her mother. Of course if Monty Hall – Cassidy's father – shows up as Casey's grandfather it will be too much of an in-joke.) Turns out that the fact that her family's rich, and that she was booted out of six private schools and dropped out of Harvard to become a cop is exactly why Brown wants her to help him clean up his squad. Because of all that, she can't be corrupted.

I can't really recommend this show, based on the pilot (and that may explain why it has taken me so long to crank this review out). A press release from ABC claims that the show is, "like a modern day M*A*S*H that explores both the grounded drama and comic insanity of the world of New York City police detectives." I don't see it. ABC has hyped this series as a "dramedy." I really don't see the "...medy" part either. The writers are clearly going for a black humour sort of comedy which is apparent from the Banks and Delahoy characters. The idea of partnering the vaguely suicidal Delahoy – who presumably wants to die in the line duty so that his badge will be retired (as explained by Walsh at the wake for Kowalski badges get passed from officer to officer until the badge "kills" its owner) – with Banks, who is obsessed with staying alive to the point where he constantly wears a bulletproof vest and becomes physically ill at the prospect of going through a door presumably struck the writers as funny, but it didn't work for me. The way that Delahoy survives certain death – when he's nearly hit by the train and when Wu shoots him – seems to fit in the same sort of black comedy mould. Eddie Alvarez reminds me of Frank Burns from M*A*S*H, the character that you absolutely know will be the butt of every joke in the precinct. The business of Walsh running his deli when he felt like it, and feeding his customer whatever weird combinations that he wanted (food that no one but he could possibly stomach), felt tremendously forced. Making the character of Casey Schraeger a rich girl hiding the fact that she's wealthy to be "one of the guys" is frankly rather trite. As for the "dram..." part of the show that was probably a bit better but not by much. The contrast between the serious case of tracking down Kowalski's killer and the "comedy" case of tracking down the cat killer didn't work for me.

Turning to the acting, I'm not really impressed. None of the four principal actors – Amber Tamblyn as Casey, Jeremy Renner as Walsh, Adam Goldberg as Delahoy, and Harold Perrineau as Banks really didn't impress me either. In Tamblyn's case, she's meant to be something of a blank slate, without any of the quirks that has left the precinct in disarray. Renner basically has a weary, deadpan quality about the way that he plays Walsh. It's fine and probably works for the character but it doesn't excite me. He seems bland. Goldberg's Delahoy is brash, loud and annoying to me but the truth is I've never really been a fan of Adam Goldberg's so I'm prejudiced. The one actor that I really didn't mind was Harold Perrineau. The fear of dying that Banks has is irrational and mostly only somewhat less annoying than Goldberg's Delahoy. However there was that one moment when Banks broke down to his partner about not being able to go through the door that worked for me, and that was largely due to Perrineau being able to really make us feel the terror that Banks had of dying in that situation.

I'm more disappointed with The Unusuals than I probably have a right to be. I suppose it's because at some level I bought into the hype that ABC built up for this show and it really doesn't work all that well in my opinion. My hope is that it will improve with time; that they can make the characters more dynamic and the quirkiness at once more realistic and less heavy handed. That's my hope. My expectation is that the show will continue on the course that was set in the pilot, and that's a shame because there are better shows out there than what I saw in the first episode of The Unusuals, including a number that look like they're going to be cancelled, and while I'll keep watching the show for a while in the probably vain hope that it will improve, I much rather be devoting my time to the shows that I really prefer.

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