Smart, intriguing ABC cop series is a treat for viewers with offbeat tastes.
One cop is suicidal while his partner lives in fear of a deadly family curse. A New York Yankee-turned-cop with a dark past builds trust with his new partner, a Park Avenue scion who’s turned her back on wealth. Their sergeant is a retired astronaut with a full-sized space suit in the corner of his office. They chase serial killers who prey on cats, the oldest and dumbest family of crooks in New York history, and the killer of one of their own. Circling around them all are more strange police and even stranger criminals, with a corruption conspiracy in the background that’s only hinted at in murky but clever revelations.
ABC’s new cop comedy-drama The Unusuals is a smart whirlwind of offbeat comedy and slow-simmering paranoia that manages to stay above the too-pervasive trend towards preciousness, thanks to its gritty texture and the perfectly-pitched acting of its talented ensemble cast. Early ratings results have not proved promising, which is a shame. Like Life On Mars, its predecessor in the post-Lost death slot, it’s a vigorous effort to make original television.
The two episodes so far have kept the action moving confidently forward while gradually shading in character detail without seeming overly expository. Casey Shraeger (Amber Tamblyn), a journeyman vice detective working undercover prostitution stings, transfers to the Homicide unit of the NYPD’s Second Precinct, a station house where seemingly every detective and officer has something to hide or something off about their personality. She’s partnered with charismatic detective Jason Walsh (Jeremy Renner) to solve – as her first case – the murder of Walsh’s partner. Charges of corruption and illicit behavior swarm the fallen officer, providing the viewer with a gateway into a larger tangle of allegations and deeper meanings that likely involve their fellow officers.
It seems the precinct’s Sergeant Kowalski (Terry Kinney) has brought Shraeger in as a means of cleaning house, whether she wants to help or not. Shraeger, meanwhile, goes to lengths hiding her silver-spoon past. Circling this central story are long-time partners Eric Delahoy (Adam Goldberg) and Leo Banks (Harold Perrineau), two detectives at a crossroads: Delahoy is suicidal thanks to a recently-diagnosed brain tumor, while Banks has become convinced he’ll die sometime in the next year. He’s just turned 42, the same age his father, grandfather, and uncle reached before dying in terrible accidents. That Delahoy miraculously survives a shotgun blast in the first episode only makes them more agitated with themselves and each other.
All of this was just the first two episodes, the beginning of ten that ABC has ordered. Hopefully every one will get the chance to air, because show creator Noah Hawley (Bones) has stuffed the show with characters and situations that must represent a career’s Rolodex of ideas. What’s probably most surprising is how accessible the show actually is, and how well it works. There are no clumsy wads of backstory filled in at odd places, no scenes of a guest-star getting brought to speed about details for the sake of audience clarity. Instead almost everything is rooted in character development, coming out of each their interactions with each other and the strange world around them.
Though it’s still too early to predict standout performances, Renner (The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford) shows a relaxed confidence as the mysterious Walsh. Tamblyn, a long way from Joan of Arcadia, mixes her character’s confusion and resolve into a controlled performance that shows strength without resulting to TV-woman-detective superficiality. Goldberg and Perrineau, playing different kinds of panic bouncing off one another, are all manic aggression and self-loathing. Goldberg’s made a career of playing shifty oddballs, and he’s well used here. Perrineau, having jumped the Lost ship at the right time, seems at greater ease as the more clearly-defined Banks. Only one character, detective Allison Beaumont (Monique Gabriela Curnen) has yet to define herself in relation to the others, though a revelation at the second episode’s conclusion is likely a step in the right decision.
Where’s it all leading? Can the show realize its potential? It’s hard to say after two episodes, and it’s been a while since ABC could build a hit drama out of a midseason replacement. (We’re tempted to say since Grey’s Anatomy, though there’s possibly a more recent example than that.) Ultimately there’s a Cable feeling permeating the show, as if its character-driven nuances might be better served by the USA Network or possibly FX. If all else fails – and the show deserves to succeed – we hope it finds a berth where it can flourish. Television this promising deserves room to grow.