Don’t treat me like a girl. I’m fine.
— Detective Casey Shraeger (Amber Tamblyn)
How many shows about New York begin with a shot of the Statue of Liberty? If you haven’t kept count, rest assured, the number is high. Still, as The Unusuals opens on this mobile frame, descending to dark streets where cars and hookers cross paths, you might feel some small sense of surprise. For one thing, Amber Tamblyn is among those night ladies. When she observes, that traffic is slow tonight, a fellow underdressed, over-mascaraed worker sighs, “It’s the economy, girl.” Tamblyn, playing the undercover vice squad detective Casey, has a snappy retort: “Either that, or the allure of screwing a stranger under the bridge has died out.”
Topical, too self-righteously clever, and just barely edgy, it’s the sort of line you expect to hear on TV, not the sort that someone without a writing staff might come up with. Again, The Unusuals is looking pretty usual.
That’s not to say it doesn’t try to be otherwise. Within a minute or so, Casey is on the phone with her mother, who’s worried her maid is stealing from her (Casey’s a good, if frustrated, daughter), and receiving instructions on how to “seduce” johns in her earpiece: “Shake your hips a little” (she’s not an expert, but TV-style sassy). And a minute later, she’s swooped up by Sgt. Brown (Terry Kinney) and sent over to Homicide. When a dispatcher’s voice begins introducing post-commercial returns with Only-in-New-York calls (“Suspects are elderly twins in matching pink and white sweaters”), the show makes clear its premise: it’s not new or challenging or even very strange. It is, however, plenty quirky.
Cases in point: Casey’s new teammates at the 2nd Precinct. Each has his or her own “secret” (one only looks super-straight, another only seems overly emotional). She’s assigned to tag along with Walsh (Jeremy Renner), visibly reeling from the murder of his old partner, “a bully and a drunk” whose own secrets emerge during the investigation that takes up much of the premiere episode. Casey and Walsh go through the regular steps, cleaning out the locker (that is, confiscating what appears to be drug stash Vic Mackey might keep better hidden), visiting the grieving wife (“He was all flaws, but he was good to me”), and chastising the big-bosomed mistress (“I go to church, I got a mother, I’m not some home-wrecker”).
Throughout this getting-to-know-you portion of our program, Casey does her best to hide her wealthy family and fancy education opportunities (after being kicked out of six private schools, she left college to pursue her cop dreams). It’s her money, apparently, that makes her Brown’s choice to partner with Walsh. “I need somebody who can’t be bribed or intimidated,” he says, the last part ostensibly evidenced when she adeptly guns down a suspect who’s shooting at her squadmates. Unlike, say, rookie Ben (Benjamin McKenzie) in Southland, Casey doesn’t worry too much about her capacity for violence. Instead, she’s focused on what it means to be the outsider only just welcomed inside, who’s then supposed to inform on her new buddies.
Everyone looks both potentially shady and principled, and no one looks especially trustworthy. Eric (Adam Goldberg) seems mesmerized by his own death (he’s the one standing on the subway track before an oncoming train in the show’s promos) while his partner Banks (Harold Perrineau) is terrified of it (to the point that he won’t remove his bulletproof vest). Other signifying characteristics are less existential: practical-minded Beaumont (Monique Curnen) mouths off (she admonishes a whiny suspect in a hotdog costume, “Snack foods don’t get a lawyer”) and extra-ambitious Eddie Alvarez (Kai Lennox) speaks of himself in the third person.
The Unusuals likes to underscore its oddities. While the search for detective Kowalski’s killer provides drama, the pursuit of a cat-killer offers comedy (a storyline not so offbeat or funny as the self-entertaining cops seem to think). The mix of tones and interests suggests the show has more on its mind than procedural plotting and cops’ banter. As Casey steps into what seems a mess — of roiling resentments, nervous expectations, and apparent payback schedules — she is appropriately observant but also self-assured. This makes her an unusual girl in a cop show, not a sidekick (though Walsh might think she is) and not naive or idealistic (though Brown presumes this). If her mother’s (Joanna Gleason) nattering phone calls are already dull and her father’s (Chris Sarandon) doubts about her career completely predictable, Casey seems primed to push past the obvious. A former Dalton classmate runs into her in the precinct hallways, then threatens to expose her past as “Princess of Park Avenue.” Casey instantly pushes back: it appears that Miss Doesn’t Know How to Shake Her Hips has got game.
Casey’s survival at the 2nd — not to mention the show’s survival — depends on such surprises. “It’s the NYPD,” Brown advises, “If you’re not a little confused, you’re not paying attention.” It’s the sort of line only cops with writers utter, but maybe that’s okay. “Nothing in this world is what it seems,” he continues ominously, on his way out of frame. Let’s hope so.