New Amsterdam begins with shots of Manhattan and a voiceover: “‘New York is a beautiful catastrophe,’ someone once said.” That someone was Le Corbusier, and if he’s not credited by your narrator, the expediently named John Amsterdam (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), his assessment of the city’s architecture stands in for a broader assessment of its history, purchased in 1642 for some $24 worth of beads and fabrics by Dutch colonists, redrawn periodically to accommodate denizens with wealth and power. Exciting, diverse, throbbing with energy, the island is also a function of its history, often repressed but never forgotten.
All this describes John’s story as well, though the series appears reluctant to dig into it. On its surface, New Amsterdam is yet another show featuring a detective with a gimmick. John, it turns out, was a Dutch soldier, who appears first off as he’s helping to take the land from the Mannahatta band of Lenape Indians. He’s not so bad as the other soldier bullies, however, going so far as to step in front of a sword meant for an Indian shaman (Tamara Podemski), who is in turn so grateful that she casts a spell on him. That is, he will be immortal until he finds The One, his soulmate, mostly likely a woman whose true love will allow him to stop the forever business and grow old and die. As the shaman appears occasionally in flashbacks — chanting and waving smoke over John’s chest — she appears completely strange and odious, a stereotype granting a gift that is also, of course, a curse for this very white man. As if to underscore the point, a lingering overhead shot reveals that his chest is pasty as he coughs and writhes in pain.
Much as he appears pained in these flashbacks, John’s current life, in NYC circa 2007-2008, indicates that he has figured a way to live with the whole immortal thing (see also: Angel, Moonlight, and of course, the Highlander movies, comics, TV series, and games). During the first two episodes, he discloses through a few key conversations (and more explanatory flashbacks, such that the show feels a little like Lost for one man) that he has taken up several careers over time (he was a lawyer in 1941), keeps serial dogs (each named by numbers, the current one being 36), and has stayed in Manhattan, which means he knows everything about the place, handy when it comes to solving murder cases.
He has also taken up with several women and had several children — all of whom he outlives. Perpetually in search of The One, he laments, “If I can find her, it will all have value. Time will have value.” He briefly encounters a latest candidate in the first episode, Dr. Sara Dillane (Alexie Gilmore), who finds him collapsed on a subway platform following what looks like a heart attack, and so sets in motion a search-plot.
After the pursuit of The One, his job is the dullest aspect of John’s adventure. As the series opens, he has a new partner, Detective Eva Marquez (Zuleikha Robinson), whom he wearily educates on what happens next: “Look, Detective Whateveryournameis,” he sighs, “First week you make an effort, second week you hate my guts, third week you ask for a transfer.” She juts out her chin and submits that she’s tougher than his previous partners, but the plotty cliché is established (see: Monk, Life). It hardly bears mentioning that John is also a whiz of a detective, sniffing out the details his forensics and detecting teams miss (see: Dexter). “I like to solve puzzles and it intrigues me, death,” he tells Eva. He goes so far as to note the first body’s scent — Heliotrope — a favorite of Sarah Bernhardt. “She that lesbian comic?” snorts Detective Santori (Robert Clohessy), “How come I’m not shocked?” Yeah, yeah, those man-boys who work homicide in TV’s big city, they’re all cretins — except for John.
His specialness is premised on his burden, that sense of “value” he craves, the losses he suffers every time a loved one dies, over 400 years. This is enhanced by the fact that when he launches into an action sequence during the pilot, directed by Lasse Hallström (say, a foot-chase through the streets and subway), the background includes elegant images of New York (rather than the usual forgettable stand-in city). Even more overtly, he’s accompanied by a choral soundtrack, punctuating his leaps and falls. John is also possessed of an exceptionally mournful mien, which he shows most frequently in conversations with Omar (Stephen Henderson).
Owner of a jazz club and the room John rents above it, Omar is wise and irascible but he is not the magical Negro you might anticipate (see: Raines). He is instead a particular reminder of John’s past, which is, the second episode begins to reveal, full of ignorance and guilt, as well as deep devotion and decent decisions. More interestingly, John’s whiteness is a visible and remarked-upon factor in his story, not merely a given, as it is in every other show about a remarkable white detective. The shaman contrivance is surely tedious, but it appears that New Amsterdam uses the immortal design not as a way to Forrest-Gump its protagonist into a set of trite historical situations, but more cleverly, to ask questions about those situations.
While it’s hard to gauge the depth and/or corniness of these questions (the first set, having to do with an interracial romance in 1941 and the entrance of the U.S. into WWII, is soapy and earnest), the series acknowledges a simple historical context, immerses John in a complex extended family structure, not to mention an unconventional series of relationships with his loved ones, who apparently agree to keep his secret, even to aid him in keeping it. He’s a sensationally privileged white guy, but not precisely comfortable with it, as his encounters with the “less fortunate” teach him empathy (you might say that first ruin-in, with the shaman, sets him on this not-quite moralistic road). Thus far, the series hasn’t explained why he keeps his most intimate and familial company with women and people of color. He might be embodying the problem of the New World’s ugly history. He might be exploiting it. Or maybe he’s not getting it.