Unforgettable

This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Todd VanDerWerff and Scott Von Doviak talk about Unforgettable.

Unforgettable debuts tonight on CBS at 10 p.m. Eastern.

Todd: The way CBS’ new detective show Unforgettable depicts it, you’d be forgiven for imagining that the condition hyperthymesia (which is now called Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, or HSAM, but is still called hyperthymesia in Unforgettable world) makes the entire world into a fun puzzle out of Highlights For Children. Catching criminals now entirely comes down to spotting minute differences between the way things usually are and the way things they were in memory, and solving crimes largely involves just standing on sidewalks and remembering things really hard. There are plenty of sequences in the pilot of Unforgettable that more or less consist of borderline nonsensical editing, when main character Carrie (Poppy Montgomery) will start remembering the past, then putting herself in the past, then looking around, and the editing is working overtime to make you think something profound is happening when, really, what you’re doing is watching a woman stare at stuff intently. All of this is why Unforgettable will almost certainly be the biggest hit of the fall season.

Okay, maybe not. Even the CBS crime procedural audience has shown something of an unwillingness to just follow the network down whatever random alleyways and strange mental powers its found to build new television programs around. Sure, they’ll hang around for The Mentalist, but that has a charming star and solid scripts. There is a certain level of quality the procedural audience hopes to find when tuning into a procedural, and they won’t always stick around for, say, that Criminal Minds spinoff they’ve heard so much about. That said, the CBS crime procedural audience is, shall we say, slightly older than the average audience, particularly for the shows that air a bit later, and Montgomery in this show is going to be like catnip for old people, possessing, as she does, everything they are without: a lithe body, youth, sass and charm, an ex from Nip/Tuck, and the ability to remember every thing that’s ever happened to her ever. (The old people are right to love Montgomery, who brings a lot of charm to a role that really doesn’t seem to be crying out for it, just as she did on the underrated Without A Trace, and is probably the sole intentional reason to recommend the pilot.)

Yes, that’s the premise of Unforgettable, a show that was, perhaps surprisingly, not rushed immediately into production when everyone found out Marilu Henner could remember every day of her life. (Suggestion: Rename HSAM “Marilu Henner Condition,” so everyone knows what you’re talking about.) The show has actually been in development for a couple of years now, though one assumes the Henner news got the show on the fast track at CBS. Unforgettable follows Carrie, who’s a former detective who abandoned that life to become a nurse who cares for older folks who are having trouble remembering things, because HSAM involves both lots of “spot the difference” puzzles and a constant, crushing sense of the bitter irony that is everyday life. However, her amazing, borderline superpowers of being able to remember stuff really well mean that she’s on call with the police, particularly when she stumbles upon a body outside her apartment, leading her to call in the police, including former flame Al (Dylan Walsh), who’s the kind of guy who compliments her on having a really nice neck when the two are lying in bed together in a flashback scored to Staind’s “It’s Been A While,” meant to let us know that, well, it’s been a while since these two last saw each other. Joining the two is the always enjoyable Michael Gaston, here playing Mike “We know you’re good in your own right, Gaston, but what we really want here is J.K. Simmons from The Closer” Costello, walking font of exposition.

The problem with Unforgettable should be immediately obvious to anyone who’s ever watched TV: There’s just no way that Carrie’s skills would be so handy to the police on any case where she didn’t have some sort of connection to the victim. (In tonight’s pilot, she once helped the victim with her groceries and, thus, got to see the inside of her apartment, in addition to stumbling upon the body.) This means that either the show needs to ditch its “she can’t go back on the force because it really messes her up and she’s a nurse now!” backstory (which will probably happen if the show’s even a moderate success) or it needs to keep having people tangentially connected to Carrie wind up dead out of nowhere, something that could be amusing and also suggests a much better show about a superpowered memory woman who uses her powers to bump off the slightly annoying people on her block.

The other problem, of course, is that there’s just no good way to dramatize remembering stuff. Oh, the show tries. It tries valiantly. It tosses out multiple Carries and scenes from the past presented as present and all sorts of shenanigans to make us think we’re being entertained or watching something other than a woman furrowing her brow and murmuring quietly to herself. But it never really succeeds. When the “exciting” climax of your episode involves the main character abruptly remembering that she saw something out of place through a restaurant window, the standards of drama have sunk through the floor of the basement. Add on to that the fact that Carrie doesn’t do any real detective work and instead relies on remembering stuff at convenient times—or having Al spur her to remember those things at convenient times—and this is a show that just doesn’t understand the second half of the phrase “dramatic action.”

But wait: There’s more. As with all crime procedurals nowadays, there’s some sort of dark, vaguely serialized back story. Now, this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The latest season finale of The Mentalist proves there’s a way to do this sort of thing well (particularly if that show has the guts to make the twist at the end of last year’s finale stick). But the whole thing is so half-assed and lazy in Unforgettable that it’s hard to see how anyone would have a response to it that wasn’t shocked laughter at how clumsy it all is. See, Carrie can remember every day of her life but, of course, the day that her sister was murdered. She’s blocked that day from her supercomputer brain because, well, how would we have an overarching mystery otherwise? And when she does detective work, she gets lost in her missing memories of that day, which she refers to as being “lost in the woods” (where, conveniently, her sister was killed). Somewhere, Tana French is sharpening her suin’ pencil.

So, yes, Unforgettable is a mess. It’d be the worst new drama of the year, if it didn’t have Charlie’s Angels racing it to the bottom. That said, there’s one thing this has on Charlie’s: It’s gloriously, gloriously stupid, to the point where nearly every scene contains at least one moment of wholly unintentional hilarity. There are a lot of laughs here, right up through the taken-straight-from-the-pilot-of-Grey’s-Anatomy twist at the end. Essentially none of them are intended. But by the time you get to the scene where Carrie is crouching in an alley, and no one is saying anything, and the camera is cutting between various angles of present-Carrie and past-Carrie, seemingly at random, and it’s hard to make heads or tails of just what is going on beyond Montgomery’s hot, staring action, well, you’ll likely be laughing at this show harder than you’ll laugh at any of the new comedy pilots. And that’s something, at least.

Scott: This is going to be the “Yep, it’s definitely a tumor” kind of second opinion, because Todd’s diagnosis is right on the money. I wish I could say the patient has six weeks to live, but these CBS procedurals have a way of surviving even the bleakest prognosis. Granted, Carrie is quite a remarkable character: nursing home volunteer by day, casino card counter by night, and ace crime-solver in her spare time. Is there anything she can’t do? Besides maintain a credible American accent for the length of an episode?

But I kid Poppy Montgomery, who at least manages to keep a straight face during her many “I’m thinking… thinking… ” scenes. I’ve heard of a photographic memory, but apparently Carrie has a holographic memory, in HD, with digital surround sound. These sequences make no sense, because people can’t step outside of themselves in memories and take a 360-degree scan of their surroundings from every conceivable angle. You’re pretty much stuck with that first person point-of-view, but of course, that wouldn’t be cinematic enough to set Unforgettable apart from the latest CSI clone.

A gimmicky cop show has to justify its gimmick, and the pilot for Unforgettable doesn’t do that. It could have easily told the same story without Carrie’s super-memory powers, which doesn’t bode well for future episodes. Neither does the back story of Carrie’s murdered sister, which promises to be doled out in such tedious, incremental fashion, no one could possibly care about whatever revelation awaits. Next patient, please.

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