I Speak TV: ‘The Unusuals’
ABC’s marketing department needs to be fired.
If you’re like me, you endured months of promos for “The Unusuals,” the new cop show set up in the unenviable post-”Lost” timeslot. And, if you’re like me, you quickly grew tired of the quirk being shoved down your throats.
“They arrest people in hot dog costumes and one-man bands! Ain’t that wacky? We think so, hee hee hee haw haaaaw!”
After three months of this, I not only didn’t want to watch the show, I was violently against it. But I am also a man who will watch almost any pilot, provided they give me something. And as annoying as the promos made the premise seem, “odd cops, odd criminals” is, to me, at least worth a gander.
So imagine my surprise when “The Unusuals” turned out to be not that odd at all. Just good.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a healthy dose of The Quirky – I imagine it being pitched as “NYPD Blue meets Boston Legal” – but what got me on board was how realistic the characters seemed in spite of the quirk. Not gritty-real. There are no Denis Franzes on this show. But if you flip through Yahoo’s weird news section, you’ll know that most criminals aren’t masterminds or drug lords. Usually, they’re morons who choose the exact stupidest method to get by. So it makes sense that the cops who have to deal with this kind of moronitude (you like that one?), day in, day out, have developed a healthy sense of “Shit, whatever, man, I’ve got my own things to deal with” unflappability these characters display.
The easiest way to spot smart writing is when you hear dialogue that’s sharp but not overdone, but that’s not the only way. Another way is to see someone do something unexpected, but makes total sense.
Alfred Hitchcock had a sure-fire trick for getting an audience to quickly side with a character – show them doing their job well. Nowhere is this more evident than opportunistic Eddie Alvarez. We already know a lot about him by the way he keeps referring to himself self-aggrandizingly in the third person. But then he goes to talk to a witness who only speaks Chinese. At first, we expect a “wa-wa-waaah” moment where the egotistical cop has egg on his face. But then he gathers himself, slowly asks for help in practiced Chinese, and suddenly he is someone we can root for – even if he’s a jackass.
The other way to spot smart writing is when you can spot a theme without it being hammered over you repeatedly. “The Unusuals” pushes the idea that everyone has secrets – particularly cops – and each episode asks which ones are worth keeping, which are destructive, and what those secrets mean to the people who keep them.
A crutch of many shows – “characters with a secret” that honestly, isn’t worth keeping (how much easier could Kate on “Lost” have made things for herself if she’d just DIVULGE SOME FUCKING INFORMATION ABOUT HERSELF!) – turns into a strength, giving the audience data on a character the other people might not have, and showing us why he might not want to share.
It doesn’t override the main story, but it adds a flavor that’s missing from a lot of cop shows, now that “The Shield” and “The Wire” have made “gritty urban despair” the go-to motif.
It took me a half-hour into the pilot before I realized how much the show reminded me of the late classic “Homicide: Life on the Streets,” in the way it showed detective work in unglamorous but respectable (and frequently funny) terms. Then it went and re-used the old “photocopier-as-lie-detector” gag from “Homicide’s” pilot, which momentarily annoyed me, but ultimately I accepted as a nod to a structural influence.
In other words, I can call this show “Homicide”-esque, and mean that in the best possible way.
This is a recommended show – particularly since “Lost” tends to kill every show that follows it. In five years, there has not been a single new show to premiere after “Lost” that has lasted a full season, so this one’s got a bit of a hex on it already. But give it a try anyway.