The victim has always been your thing, right?
— Charlie (Malik Yoba)
According to Detective Michael Raines (Jeff Goldblum), the problem with being a writer is that there are just too many decisions to be made. His observation is perhaps extra insightful, coming as it at the beginning of the Raines series premiere, which seems a little too in control of its own choices. The result is a taut little TV whodunit focused on yet another quirky lead detective.
Imbued with Goldblum’s typical stammering affectations, Raines suffered an on-the-job tragedy that caused him to take some time off to get his head together. Now back on the job, he’s also able to converse with the victims of the crimes he’s investigating. There’s nothing supernatural going on here. The series chalks up his ability, in part, to his abandoned dream of writing Raymond Chandler-type stories, but also suggests that Raines is teetering on the edge of sanity. Call it an overactive imagination or schizophrenia, Raines’ condition allows him to people who aren’t there — referred to as “figments of [his] imagination” — and he does it a lot.
This gimmick doesn’t seem entirely fresh, given the recent onslaught of talking-to-the-dead shows. To combat potential staleness, series creator Graham Yost avoids the spooky and stone-faced, instead summoning the Philip Marlowe tradition of detecting. This means lots of stylized dialogue (Raines’ euphemism for intercourse: “The beast with two backs”) and concept shots that invoke noir masters like Billy Wilder and Robert Altman (the pilot features, several times, the distinctive High Tower apartment building used in The Long Goodbye). And while such allusions are obvious, the show is afflicted by a tonal disconnect between how Raines’ sometimes charming, sometimes disconcerting idiosyncrasy and the noir heroes’ hardboiled, proletarian affects.
On occasion during the pilot, directed by Frank Darabont, Raines does behave like Sam Spade: at such moments he seems more of a smarmy smart-ass than clueless meathead. For example, while he investigates the murder of a young prostitute named Sandy (Alexa Davalos), he repeatedly calls her father (Graham Beckel) “Chester,” even though his name is Vernon. Raines, straight-faced, explains to Vernon that “Chester” rhymes with “molester,” suggesting that her father must be one, in order for Sandy to end up a whore. Right? Wrong. Raines’ judgment earns him a well-deserved right hook to the face, as well as classification as a sympathetic, anything-to-protect-a-lady stereotype. Though no chain-smoking femme fatale arrives to cloud his judgment further, we see that when it comes to women, Raines will tolerate no disrespect to a lady by any man.
Still, he does hold to some standard ideas about women and men’s interactions (as these involve violence, betrayal, and “penis size”), most supported by a usual-seeming array of secondary characters. These include the tough but lovable Capt. Lewis (Matt Craven) and the saucy, intuitive, blond assistant with a noiry name, Carolyn Crumley (Nicole Sullivan). Raines is most prone to seek out advice from Charlie (Malik Yoba), his ex-partner, here popping up so conveniently that he seems in the tradition of “magical Negroes” who appear whenever white heroes need assistance. For Raines, this assistance takes the form of talking, as the two meet on park benches or backed up by picturesque piers. Though they display considerable mutual charisma, Charlie’s existence is premised on his capacity to help Raines solve crimes, that is, come to conclusions he’s already inclined to come to. This obvious device pushes an already contrived premise to proportions approaching parody.
This not to say that Raines isn’t enjoyable. Like any crime show should, it delivers an engaging and intricate mystery, a formula updated by herky-jerky camerawork, multiple good-looking locations, and a tense, mostly electronic score. But for all its good ideas, Raines is overwhelmed by Goldblum’s characterization — both familiar and strange. If you are not prepared to watch Goldblum talk to himself a lot, you might just want to rent The Maltese Falcon or catch Monk re-runs instead.