The Unusuals: "Pilot"

The commercials for The Unusuals, ABC's new light-hearted(ish) cop drama, are a bit misleading. For one thing, the show comes off as a wacky collection of kooky characters, doing zany things: Michael from Lost always wears a bulletproof vest; this guy Eddie Alvarez talks about himself in the third person; the Adam Goldberg one stares down a train—he so crazy! Chalk it up to the marketing from a network that hasn't had a decent procedural stick around for quite some time (though keep a close eye on Castle, my friends). So they went for broke, called the show The Unusuals, and kept pushing the notion that, "This ain't your grandma's cop-type drama, and it comes after Lost!"

Well, this first episode pretty much throws that whole notion out the window. The characters aren't so much unusual as tragically flawed, and quirky: Harold Perrineau's Leo Banks wears his vest everywhere, sure, but because everyone in his family had the odd trait of dropping dead at 42—and he just celebrated his corresponding birthday. Eddie Alvarez (Kai Lennox, otherwise known as "Male Trooper" from Starship Troopers), as you might have guessed, is fiercely insecure, and constantly the butt of jokes around the office. And Eric Delahoy (Goldberg) is distraught over the news that he has terminal brain cancer, so the whole train thing was his own private what-does-this-all-mean moment.

But the unfortunate death of Kowalski, an office favorite, sparks all sorts of changes. For one, Casey Shraeger (Amber Tamblyn) is snatched up from vice cop—where she goes undercover to hang out with the most attractive set of street prostitutes this side of the Atlantic—to a plum gig as a detective with the NYPD. It's a promotion she's not quite ready for, but the captain assures her she's the best person for the job; before she knows it, she's working with Jason Walsh (Jeremy Renner), former partner to Kowalski, to unravel the mystery of his death.

Shraeder, arguably the central character, is an outsider in many ways. For one, her past doesn't match up with the other cops. Her family is exorbitantly wealthy, unlike the others who ostensibly live paycheck-to-paycheck. If that fact got out, her coworkers would ostracize her immediately, and she wants nothing more than to succeed at this job. The captain, though, tapped her because she's an outsider to the internal NYPD system, and there's some strangeness afoot she needs to suss out. Kowalski, as it turns out, was a shady character: On one hand, he serves as a Big Brother to troubled youth (one of whom is Dookie from The Wire(!)); on the other, he had a secret storage unit, where he kept files on all the cops in the department.

As a leading lady, Tamblyn's nails the uncomfortableness of her new surroundings, but not much else. Her accidental flirtations with Walsh still come off as forced, and much of her emotional outbursts (anger, for one) are far too strained to buy. Thus it's hard to feel much sympathy for the gal, and much of the Kowalski business fails to engage. The rest of the cast bounces along just fine, though when it comes to the final scene—a drunken send-off to Kowalski, underscored by the discovery that even the honorable Jason Walsh might have been in on the dirty dealings—it becomes clear that there's not much at stake yet. We need people to root for week-after-week, people to feel bad for when they get caught in this web of corruption.

Goldberg, though, shows a lot of potential. After the whole train thing, his character finds himself on the receiving end of a face full of buckshot, but miraculously he emerges unscathed; cue religious experience, helped along by Goldberg's obliviousness to just how ridiculous he sounds. And though the Kowalski–fueled witch hunt will probably be the main crux of each episode, the other cops' antics break some of the tension. This week finds Banks and Delahoy going after a supposed cat killer, first using a photocopier as a fake lie detector, then locking the man in a car full of bitter felines until he confesses. It's certainly unusual, but it's yet to be determined if The Unusuals' brand of unusual is built to last.

Grade: B-

Stray observations:

  • This show wins the award for sassiest voiceover, by a long shot.
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