Where did it all start? Was it with CSI, with its door-busting forensic scientists who shouldered aside the police to take down the bad guys? Or was it earlier, with Fox’s The X-Files and Millennium?
At some point, conventional cops had to took a back seat to the specialists. And now, they’re everywhere—the psychics and psychologists, the novelists and psychopaths with a moral code—picking up the slack for an unimaginative, often downright dopey police force. It’s law and order via science or, just as often, para-science. Police officers are relegated to bureaucratic duty, such as snapping on the handcuffs or closing the car door on a chastened culprit. From an intellectual point of view, television’s celebration of the untapped potential of the human brain should be a cause for celebration. Artistically, however, it fills more and more TV hours with less and less.
The latest contender in the smarter-than-the-cops stakes is Carrie Wells, played by Poppy Montgomery in CBS’ Unforgettable. She’s a former detective cursed with hyperthymesia, the inability to forget anything. She left the force when Syracuse PD shut down the case on her murdered sister, and, in the premiere episode, set nine years later, she still lives in the shadows of that tragedy. She makes her money counting cards in casinos at night. By day, she cares for elderly Alzheimer’s patients, which might have seemed ironic in the writers’ room, but on screen appears as shark-jumping bathos.
Unforgettable is a show cobbled together from the once good bits of once good shows. The paradoxical premise is, of course, designed for viewer empathy: the woman who can remember everything but the day her sister was murdered. The protagonist scarred by the death of a sibling is so hackneyed it warrants an entry on tvtropes.org, the Dead Little Sister: “the traumatic, disillusioning event that pulls many heroes into angsty cynicism.” Hmm… that seems to fit.
Then there’s the charming ex-partner and lover Al Burns (the ever-reliable Dylan Walsh), who is set up in the premiere episode for that other staple of long-form episodic drama, the “will they, won’t they?” romance plot. As predictable as Al may be, he’s surrounded by characters designed to show even more regular “diversity” casting: the older cop Costello (Michael Gaston) and a rookie, Saunders (Kevin Rankin), both white males, are joined by the currently fashionable non-specific minority, in this case a woman (Daya Vaidya). Screen time that might have allowed for character development is spent mostly on yet another curse of the so-called unconventional crime-solver, the slow motion sequence, either bleached of color, or oversaturated, in which the protagonist experiences a flashback, a vision, a mind-meld or visual insight into the case.
Unforgettable squanders time on not one but two such devices, repetitive flashbacks to fragments of the day Carrie’s sister was murdered, and glacial slo-mos of crime scenes where Carrie walks, sometimes twice, from different angles, through events the audience has already seen. In The Mentalist or Lie to Me, the pay-off from such repetition is often clever, catching the audience unawares. But in this premiere, smart audiences will have already worked out what Carrie saw long before she does. The same might be said of the solution to the risible mystery that acts as the pretext for all this wasted effort.
Like Jill Hennessy before her, Montgomery has left behind a taut ensemble show that underused her talents. And like Hennessey, she deserves richer material, as does director Niels Arden Oplev, who brought the first and best of the Stieg Larsson adaptations, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, to the screen. In his hands, this premiere unrolls as one of the best-looking openers of the fall season. His images incorporate an elegant, naturalistic palette, and scenes are choreographed to capitalize on his protagonists’ comfort in front of the camera.
But these highlights are scant, and can’t save the script from itself. It’s cute when Carrie can recite verbatim a lover’s angry sarcasm from nearly a decade before. But only the first time. When the team accompanies Carrie to her first walk-through of a crime scene, the Saunders mutters that he’ll leave “if there’s any chanting.” He could have become the witty skeptic on the team, but he melts quickly into admiring obscurity. One can only hope that actors and director have good work lined up, and solid exit strategies in place. For if ever a show sounded the death-knell of a subgenre, Unforgettable is it.