The Case of the Gimmicky Detective

Why the next generation of procedurals doesn’t measure up to CSI and Law & Order.

Still of Poppy Montgomery in Unforgettable.
Poppy Montgomery in Unforgettable

Photograph by Heather Wines. © 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All rights reserved.

With so many TV series launching each year, how do new procedurals stand out from the cop, lawyer, and doctor shows already crowding the schedule? This fall, it’s all about the gimmick. The new offerings include a cop-like dude battling rebels and dinosaurs (Terra Nova), a brain surgeon whose dead ex-wife prompts him to serve the poor and uninsured (A Gifted Man), a wannabe heart surgeon who moves to Alabama (Hart of Dixie), and a detective who uses fairy-tale tropes to solve mysteries (Grimm, which premiers at the end of October).

These stunts surely help pilots get green-lighted, and they surely attract viewers’ attention in a 30-second network trailer. (Dinosaurs!) When it comes to developing a consistently watchable television show, however, a high-concept gimmick is often one strike against you. Or, in the case of two recently launched procedurals, it’s more like two and a half strikes.

On Unforgettable (CBS, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET), star Poppy Montgomery announces the show’s premise at the top of each episode. “I’m Carrie Wells,” she says. “Only a few people in the world have the ability to remember everything. I’m one of them. Pick any day of my life, and I can tell you what I saw or heard. Faces, conversations, clues—which comes in handy when you’re a cop. If I miss something the first time, it’s OK—I can go back and look again. My life is unforgettable.”

The problem with this show is not the medical condition, which is rare but real. (It’s called highly superior autobiographical memory, though you may know it as Marilu Henner’s disease.) The issue here is that a cop with an infallible memory is astoundingly boring. Carrie’s condition enables her to step back and replay a scene until she notices something untoward. (As the folks at the A.V. Club observed, this means her investigative style is essentially to puzzle over round after round of “spot the difference” pictures.) In Unforgettable, crime-solving is a matter of Carrie staring into space as she “watches” herself revisit an incident in her past (a visit to a murdered neighbor’s apartment, a hotel hallway, a parade of people filing out of a crime scene). Her fellow cops get antsy when she does this—they don’t teach it at the academy—and they’re not alone. As a viewer, it is not at all thrilling to wait around for someone to remember stuff.

One of the pleasures of procedurals is guessing along with the detectives—collecting the clues thrown out by the forensics team (data recovered from a busted iPhone), the medical examiner (petechial hemorrhaging), and the cops at the crime scene (an Amtrak station), and concluding that the victim was smothered with a travel pillow after he used his cell phone in the quiet car. On Unforgettable, the investigative breakthroughs come from Carrie’s feats of recollection, so those of us at home can’t possibly play along. This isn’t the first time TV characters have used their quirky gifts to solve crimes, of course: Medium’s Allison DuBois had her middle-of-the-night premonitions, and Adrian Monk’s OCD was a milder version of Carrie’s pattern-recognition technique. But we got to see those characters work out what their insights and observations meant. Carrie is far too sure of herself. She’s a computer in a tank top who spits out solutions.

Person of Interest (CBS, Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET), also begins with a voice-over introduction from Mr. Finch, a mysterious billionaire played by Lost’s Michael Emerson. (It says something about Emerson’s talent for playing the sort of creepy character always associated with the adjective mysterious that I have a sense of his Lost persona even though I’ve never seen that show.) “You are being watched,” he begins. “The government has a secret system. A machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know, because I built it. I designed the machine to detect acts of terror, but it sees everything. Violent crimes involving ordinary people, people like you. Crimes the government considered irrelevant. They wouldn’t act, so I decided I would. But I needed a partner, someone with the skills to intervene. Hunted by the authorities, we work in secret. You’ll never find us. But victim or perpetrator, if your number’s up, we’ll find you.”

Every week, Finch’s machine coughs up the Social Security number of a New Yorker who will be affected by a crime, and his associate, former CIA agent John Reese (Jim Caviezel, whose affect is pitched somewhere between sleepwalking and narcolepsy) watches that person until something happens. Reese is a peeping tom with a purpose: He uses the suspects’ phones as sensitive microphones that make him privy to their every utterance, and he points his binoculars at their bedroom windows. This is stalking, not detective work: There are no clues in Person of Interest, nor are there any mysteries to tease out. Again, there’s no way for amateur sleuths to play along at home—all we can do is watch Reese respond as the action unfolds before his eyes.

Why are TV writers making their mysteries less mysterious? I think it’s because lots of new procedurals try to fit more than just a case of the week into the 44-minute running time. Most shows also have a serial element, a mystery—usually a quest for elusive information—that lasts throughout the whole series. In the case of Unforgettable, it’s Carrie’s attempt to remember the day her sister was murdered; on Person of Interest, it’s a driven cop’s attempt to capture Reese, who is wanted for a number of serious crimes around the world. Person of Interest’s writers are also trying to draw our attention to that Big Brother machine and the principals’ back stories: Why does Finch have a terrible back injury, and why is Reese such a loner? These larger arcs are supposed to encourage fans to keep tuning in each week, but they can’t be so intrusive that they alienate casual viewers and send them stretching for the remote. That’s why most shows relegate the serial to a tacked-on coda.

Established, syndication-friendly network procedurals—the CSI, NCIS, and Law & Order franchises—soft-pedal the serial stuff. These lean, mean shows win in the ratings, but they don’t often get credit from critics for their absolute mastery of the form. Tune in for an hour of CSI, and you know exactly what you’re going to get: a body, a cause of death, a dose of high-tech forensic science, and a confession.

Procedurals that try to expand on the genre’s basic formula have a much more difficult task. Consider CBS’s The Good Wife. In its third season, it’s juggling storylines about Alicia and Peter Florrick’s separation, the budding love affair between Alicia and boss Will Gardner, Peter’s new job as the Cook County state’s attorney, the financial health of the Lockhart & Gardner law firm, Eli Gold’s crisis PR practice, Kalinda Sharma’s kick-ass love life. And, oh yes, there’s also a weekly legal case. To make room for all that personal drama, the screen time devoted to the legal story has been pared down—this season, it’s never taken up more than half the show’s running time.

The Good Wife squeezes a lot into every scene (a development in the investigation can also serve as an opportunity for flirtation or conflict), but it’s still trying to weave too many threads into each episode. It’s frustrating to get only seven minutes of Eli’s scheming, and I feel bad resenting young Grace Florrick for eating up precious screen time chatting with her tutor.

The Good Wife is in some ways a victim of its own success: There’s so much to like about the show that a single episode can’t contain all the goodness. Unforgettable and Person of Interest have the opposite problem—they don’t do anything well.

Irrespective of the quality of these shows, it’s always the legal cases that get shortchanged. By cutting out the clues and the witness interviews and the blind alleys—you know, all the stuff that makes a mystery a mystery—the writers can build in more time for a series’ recurring elements. Far too many of The Good Wife’s courtroom plots, for instance, end with a last-minute bombshell courtesy of investigator Kalinda or an unexpected legal TKO. And in Unforgettable and Person of Interest, the premises themselves make depth an impossibility.

Instead of doing a crummy job solving unsatisfying mysteries, perhaps these shows should make an even more radical turn. From time to time at least, The Good Wife needs to ignore the courtroom and stick to the subplots—let Eli’s work for the cheese lobby take center stage, or focus exclusively on a showdown between Alicia and Peter. Meanwhile, Unforgettable and Person of Interest would do well to pay more attention to the big picture. If they get us thinking about larger puzzles, maybe we’ll be too distracted to fixate on the shows’ ridiculousness.