Motive debuts tonight at 10/9c on ABC before moving to its regular timeslot at 9/8c on Thursday.
In 2010, ABC debuted The Whole Truth, a legal procedural that focused on both the prosecution and defense of a single case each week. At the end of the episode, the viewers would find out the truth behind what happened, ostensibly putting the rest of the episode into perspective.
While canceled after airing just a few episodes, the show popped to mind in checking out Motive, ABC’s latest acquisition of cheap Canadian programming to air during the summer months. Like The Whole Truth, Motive relies on a gimmick, albeit one with a key distinction: Whereas The Whole Truth built suspense around “What happened?”, a guiding question consistent across many crime and legal procedurals in which detectives or lawyers—and thus the audience—search for the truth, Motive is more interested in “Why?” Within the first few minutes of the pilot, viewers are explicitly told—via onscreen chyrons—who committed the murder and who was the victim, and the rest of the episode is about piecing together why the crime took place.
It’s an interesting idea—albeit one that owes a great deal to Columbo—that turns each episode into something of a puzzle, one that more often than not struggles to achieve the elegance the writers aspire to. There’s something inherently blunt about informing you that one person is a killer and the other a victim; that the victim in the pilot is played by Joey McIntrye—yes, that Joey McIntyre—and we meet him singing “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” at karaoke does little to help with this concern. It also means that as the detectives—led by Kristin Lehman and Louis Ferreira—start investigating the case, they inevitably have to burn through a series of red herrings we as audience members know are red herrings, which would normally be par for the course for procedurals except we really know they’re red herrings.
It’s a challenge for the show, given that procedurals normally work through a surrogacy between audience and detectives in which both groups are asking the same questions and looking for the same answer. Despite its premise, Motive is structured much like a normal crime procedural from the perspective of the detectives: They analyze evidence, filter through suspects, and eventually land on the person we already know committed the crime. The difference is we know when they’re wasting their time, which means we’re at least subconsciously reading those sequences as a waste of time unless given a reason not to. It puts a heavy burden on the show’s storytelling, creating what I’d consider a handicap rather than an advantage, and one that comes to rest on the crafting of individual stories and on the charm of the detectives going through their paces on a week-to-week basis.
On the former point, the pilot is a solid if unspectacular use of the format, at its strongest when it’s giving the viewer and the detectives information at a slightly different pace. The opening half of the episode offers some interesting use of the spatial and temporal dynamics of a crime procedural, confining itself to the scene of the murder to tell the story of the investigation as well as—through flashbacks triggered during that investigation—the story of the murder. The two stories converge at various points, nicely making the detective work—despite being perfunctory to the audience on a broad level—connect to other pieces of information that are new to the audience and contribute to our understanding of the killer and their actions. A number of details from the early parts of the investigation are revealed to be clues to the motive later in the episode, and so I appreciated the puzzle-like structure as the premise first revealed itself.
The challenge is how you sustain that once you leave the confines of the crime scene, and the answer relies on a lot of clichés, a lot of rushed and contrived storytelling, and the introduction of a team of detectives that fails to make any kind of impact in either tonight’s premiere or Thursday’s second episode (which is measurably worse than the pilot). Lehman, who you likely last saw as part of The Killing’s political wing, acquits herself well as Angie Flynn, in that she’s got a nice, relaxed approach to delivering the exposition necessary to keep the story moving along and has solid chemistry with her co-stars (especially Ferreira). The problem is the character lacks any real point of interest: That she’s a single mother is hardly original, and her interactions with her son are perfunctory at best. The rest of the cast, meanwhile, remains defined by personality quirks—or the lack thereof in the case of Roger Cross’ Sergeant Bloom—rather than actual personalities; Lauren Holly’s role as a flirty M.E.—which in this case stands for MILF Examiner—is particularly egregious in its one-dimensionality.
What seems to have happened is that Motive immediately defined its point of differentiation—the “Why?” question that drives the storytelling for the audience—and then filled in the blanks with the most generic crime procedural setup imaginable to maximize appeal (and marketability south of the border). As a result, however, Motive is bait without a hook: There’s something interesting about the idea that made me intrigued to drop in on the show, but there was nothing within these episodes that made me desperate to see the next mystery, or which gave me a connection to these characters that I can see evolving considerably in future weeks. There is potential here, but it’s mostly abstract in the light of two episodes that lack a clear or emphatic answer to a more important question than the killer’s motive: “Why should we keep watching?”
ABC is hoping our need for an answer to this question lessens as we roll into late May, and they’re not wrong in doing so. The show also comes with Canada’s stamp of approval: While it’s an inexpensive way for ABC to program the summer, it was actually Canada’s post-Super Bowl show, and continued to hold its own competing against Scandal and Elementary in a tough Thursday night timeslot. It’s already earned a second season north of the border regardless of its performance on ABC, ensuring to viewers who do eventually find a hook in the series that it will likely return next summer barring absolutely disastrous ratings.
There is nothing disastrous about Motive, a generally well made series that fits fairly well with ABC’s stable of crime procedurals (including veteran Castle and the now departed Body of Proof); there also isn’t anything that differentiates the show from every other procedural on television once you get past its flashy but ultimately debilitating premise, and the upside of sticking around to see if it evolves is too much of a mystery in these opening episodes.
- I’m always interested to see how Canadian series remark on their Canadianness, and Motive joins Rookie Blue as a show that isn’t exactly hiding its Canadianness—Motive is set in Vancouver—but also isn’t really calling attention to it. There’s a point in Thursday’s episode where they suggest a car during a hit and run was going 60, which lacks any distinctive ties to nation: Americans can read it as miles per hour, Canadians can read it as kilometres per hour, and both will still get the basic idea.
- Related: If you watch the pilot tonight, report back to see if you can find a way for a high school teacher and his wife who works at Sears—another nationally indistinct detail—have enough money to own that house in Vancouver. Or anywhere.