‘Unforgettable’ Isn’t Exactly That

Great television isn’t easy. But, as it happens, some people aren’t looking for compelling long-form narratives or sharply written comedies. The existence of networks like USA and TNT is evidence enough that for a good swath of the television watching population, the go-to option is what is best described as “visual comfort food”. Law & Order and CSI, in all of their iterations, are pure formula, but the viewer knows that when she turns on the tube at the end of the day, she can get caught up in an intriguing mystery fronted by a stock set of characters, ones for whom no backstory is necessary. Certain figures rise to prominence over others—your Jack McCoys, your Olivia Bensons—but all one needs is a keen interest in Agatha Christie-type storytelling and a stomach for some gruesome crime scenes in order to get reeled in.

Despite premiering on a major network like CBS, Unforgettable fits so well within this dynamic that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t snatched up by a network like USA or TNT. The show did actually almost end up with that fate: after being initially cancelled by CBS following the end of its first season, it was in talks for being picked up by TNT (and, somewhat humorously, Lifetime), though CBS later reneged its cancellation order. The reasons were obvious, as Unforgettable proved to be a reliable contender ratings-wise, and with its renewed second season debuting soon, it appears that the horizon is sunny for this young procedural.

Along with all of the routine cop show traits—strong emotional appeals, vividly realized crime scenes, and corny workplace banter—Unforgettable stakes its ground on a fairly simple premise. Carrie Wells (Poppy Montgomery), a former detective, has a skill that should make her the most wanted employee by any police department in the world: she has hyperthymesia, a condition wherein she can recall every event that she experiences, even those details that most would forget immediately after looking away. Medically, the condition is intriguing, especially since there are but a handful of cases neurologists have to work with. With respects to its functionality on Unforgettable, however, it ends up draining any dramatic tension out of the mysteries being solved by Wells and her ex-boyfriend/fellow detective Al Burns (Dylan Walsh).

A helpful corollary is the seemingly limitless medical brains that occupy the medical procedural House, M.D, who no matter the circumstances are able to navigate the twists and turns of obscure diseases (usually) before the patient is near death. However, House, M.D., along with having fleshed-out, complex characters, has the benefit of being instructive in its clue-finding. An average viewer won’t likely be privy to the nuances of the manifestations of metabolic diseases.

With Unforgettable, very little of what Wells needs to look out is something a passerby couldn’t pick up if she was paying close attention. Whereas with House, M.D. the viewer anticipates learning about a new fact of the disease’s pathology, here all he does is wait for Wells to remember. Her discoveries do illustrate the broad point that humans rarely actually take in all their surroundings, but the scenes where she goes back and “remembers” the event in stylish slo-mo and freezeframe, usually end up feeling like chores.

Additionally, Wells’ memory often ends up not just as fact scavenger but also deus ex machina. In an early episode, where she is looking out for a young boy who was a witness at the murder of his parents, she finds him in an upright stack of sticks leaning against a driveway, a detail that was not in any way relevant until she happened to remember that they might serve as a good hiding place. Curveballs like these are frequent in Unforgettable, and while they’re consistent with Wells’ amplified neural capacities, they prevent the audience from engaging in the sleuthing in a substantial way.

The “comfort food” aspect of Unforgettable takes up a majority of the program’s first season, there is an emotional arc that runs throughout. One of the primary motivations for Wells to re-enter the detective game comes in her inability to remember the one murder she wants to solve more than any other: her sister’s, which she witnessed at a young age. The purpose of this storyline, of course, is to provide a bigger mystery to keep viewers reeled in for the entirety of the season, but if the deus ex machina is a problem for the weekly mysteries, it’s an even bigger problem for this one, as its being solved is contingent on a hazy, half-remembered account. As new information is discovered, the memory becomes more interesting, but access to any potential leads on the case is left entirely obscured to the viewer, which takes the ability to hypothesize for oneself—an integral part of the crime procedural—largely out of the question.

None of this matters in the end, of course. The value of Unforgettable is the ability to tune in after a long day at work, turn the thinking cap off, and just get caught up in the mystery, which is an easy thing to do. The cast’s performances are at best solid and at worst functional, Montgomery and Walsh’s charming rapport being the driving engine behind it all. The crimes have that Law & Order familiarity that naturally provides for easy watching. Just don’t expect much else; otherwise, you’ll end up being disappointed at just how forgettable this program can be.

Bonus features included on the six-disc first season set are numerous, including cast interviews, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and deleted scenes. Though all of these will only draw in those who count themselves as devoted fans of the show, there’s also a short feature on people who have hyperactive memories, which could prove tantalizing even to the casual watcher.

RATING 4 / 10