NBC probably thought it had found a bargain when it picked up The Mysteries of Laura. To the network, this one program could have appeared to be the case of getting three shows for the price of one: a police procedural, a cop comedy, and a family dramedy. Unfortunately for Debra Messing, who plays NYPD detective Laura Diamond, the three parts of this show are so tonally dissonant that it feels like she is playing three different characters in three separate series.
The first show of the three features Diamond as an earnest and dependable detective who solves crimes, neatly nailing the killer each week. Although The Mysteries of Laura is set in the present day, this part of it has its roots in the crime shows of the ‘70s and ‘80s. These cases may be murders, but they aren’t pushing the ick factor as we see so often in current versions of this formula. No need to analyze splatter patterns at the crime scene or bone shards back in the CSI lab. Victims die slumped over with bloodless wounds, and Diamond channels her inner Columbo to crack the case via otherwise overlooked clues and a simple process of deduction.
This pattern, however predictable, would be fine if The Mysteries of Laura let itself fully be a throwback, along the lines of some other recent basic cable shows such as Psych. Not every show has to be cutting edge; a little self-aware nostalgia is sometimes a welcome change. Of course, even nostalgia needs to be done well. In the pilot, which premiered 17 September, the murderer and the way he was unmasked were ridiculous and even insulting to the audience.
Such lack of attention to crime-solving details might occur because The Mysteries of Laura really wants to be the second show, an irreverent cop comedy with a millennial sense of humor. Diamond might be understood as quirky and cool, and the pilot tries to capture a randomness in the workplace, where officers swap non sequiturs, as if the show is hoping for a Parks and Recreation vibe. But, trapped in the hour-long drama structure, the half-hour sitcom that The Mysteries of Laura might long to be never finds its footing. Besides, that series is already on the air on another network, and it’s called Brooklyn 9-9
The third show is a family dramedy in which Diamond is a struggling mom of twin pre-school boys with behavioral problems. She has a cheating husband (Josh Lucas), whom she is trying to divorce, but he doesn’t want to let her go. Unlike the workplace and procedural scenes, where the tonal inconsistencies make them hard to watch at times, the scenes of the detective at home with her family actually get you rooting for Diamond. She is adrift in a parenting dilemma with a partner who refuses to take it seriously. It also helps that these are the only scenes where Messing seems fully to inhabit her character. But The Mysteries of Laura doesn’t help her. Like the husband, it seems unwilling to take the domestic situation seriously or to create any sort of persuasive reality.
It is a bit surprising, not to say a mystery, to see a show that is as internally conflicted as The Mysteries of Laura. For all the criticism of network TV, one thing that the system does well is spot and hammer out such conflicts before a series is picked up. A lot of bad shows make it to the airwaves, but they usually at least have a clear, if misguided, sense of identity. Maybe we’re just witnessing a new stage in the development process, an experiment using viewers’ feedback to sort out whether the end product will be the cozy mystery, the hipster sitcom or the domestic dramedy.
Or it could just be a horrendous pilot. The second episode, which aired last Wednesday, suggested that the series is going with the old school procedural with just a touch of sitcom quirkiness and no family drama. This episode featured a bit of a shaggy dog story, following a string of potential murderers and implausible motives, but at least it had more internal consistency than the first. Still, after such a mess of a start, The Mysteries of Laura needs to make some decisions.