Sunday, April 26, 2009

Compelling Wreckage

"The Unusuals"

I have my own pace when it comes to absorbing new shows, and I just have to accept that critics who get screener DVD's with three or four episodes well ahead of the season premieres are going to reach the same conclusions sometimes weeks and weeks ahead of me. Tim Goodman, my favorite newspaper TV critic, has been on a roll lately -- his thoughts about a bunch of midseason replacements, from "Better off Ted" to "Parks and Recreation," have basically parallelled mine, only in a more timely fashion.

Goodman's piece on "The Unusuals" pretty much nailed all of the problems inherent in that new cop show's pilot -- bad casting, running jokes that aren't funny the first time, constant shifts in tone that are too abrupt for the audience. I taped the first couple episodes because the cast had promise (Amber Tamblyn from "Joan of Arcadia" and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Harold Perrineau from "Lost," Adam Goldberg from The Hebrew Hammer) and I was ready for a new cop show after the untimely demise of "Life on Mars."

Because I read Goodman's stuff compulsively, even when it's likely to spoil stuff I've been queuing up on the DVR, I knew well in advance of the time I actually sat down to watch "The Unusuals" that the SF Chronicle critic hated it. And I hated the pilot, too. If I had only taped that one episode, I probably would have instructed the recorder never to tape it again and left it at that.

But I had four episodes of "The Unusuals" lined up, and although I didn't watch them all in one sitting, I eventually got around to working my way through the series' first month. There's some worthwhile elements to Noah Hawley's self-consciously quirky drama, and a lot of the annoying elements from the pilot are not impossible to correct as the show develops. A lot of the things that really get on your nerves about "The Unusuals" are totally exterior. The quick-cut montages of New York City traffic and architecture are straight out of "Friends" and could just be axed without affecting the show at all. The clumsy, generic alterna-riffing employed as score could be improved by either switching to a more traditional synthesized orchestra soundtrack or hiring the brilliant music supervisor from "Life," since that much better police show has evidently been cancelled already. And a few of the castmembers who are dead weight could easily be transferred or simply killed -- this is a cop show after all.

The two partnerships at the show's core, Tamblyn and the ingratiating Jeremy Renner as Shraeger and Walsh and Perrineau and Goldberg as Banks and Delahoy, show some promise. The first two episodes have a too-earnest habit of forcing impressions of these characters into our minds by having them repeat recent plot developments in their life until you start to think, "Oh, no, here come dead-at-42 guy and brain-cancer guy again." But this has faded to an appropriate level in the next two episodes, as it's the storytelling that gets genuinely weird and interesting rather than continuing to overload the regulars with cutesy quirks. The dispatcher, an annoying disembodied voice in the pilot, becomes a real character in the fourth episode, and just that little gesture makes the show so much better.

In order to take the place of "Life" as network TV's representative wacky cases, lifelike characters show, "The Unusuals" needs to get rid of several misbegotten cast members -- the actors who play Cole and Beaumont stand out for their incompetence in a cast mostly consisting of pros, and the whole Eddie Alvarez character is just an annoying douche. Just because all of the other cops say so to his face and are constantly playing jokes on him and being mean to him doesn't mean we want to have to follow a whole plotline for him each week. Then again, in the fourth episode Eddie got to show a bit of depth, so perhaps this is another area Hawley and his writers are working on redeeming.

It's not clear whether "The Unusuals" has much, if any, chance for renewal. "Life on Mars" died an inglorious death in its same timeslot before "Lost," a show people generally need to take a few moments to prepare themselves before beginning anew. I like "Life on Mars," and indeed "Life," way more than I like this new show. But "Life on Mars" has already aired its finale (very cool, didn't copy the ending of the British original) and according to none other than Tim Goodman "Life" is dead. So if we can only have one of the three I suppose I would rather see "The Unusuals" than nothing, if only because it's nice to see Tamblyn playing a grownup and Adam Goldberg is a complete delight in anything he's in.

No comments:

Post a Comment