There are three certainties in life for regular TV viewers: death, taxes, and crime dramas. Attitudes about policing and law enforcement have evolved over the years, but the central concept of working as a unit to bring the worst parts of humanity to justice is a tale as old as time. Judging by the procedural nature of today’s network TV landscape, this idea is unlikely to ever dissipate. Look no further than ABC ringing in the new year with Will Trent, which desperately tries to break its idiosyncratic lead out of the confines of an overcrowded genre.
Based on Karin Slaughter’s bestselling book series of the same name, Will Trent follows the titular protagonist who, despite being abandoned at birth and enduring a harsh childhood in Atlanta’s overwhelmed foster care system, has become the special agent with the highest clearance rate at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Will, played by a ravishing Ramón Rodríguez, is severely dyslexic but has an uncanny ability to deconstruct crime scenes down to the most minute details. Oh, and he’s always dressed to the nines in a three-piece suit—the outfit acts as physical and emotional armor from the personal and professional horrors he has to confront daily. At times, the character brings to mind a more serious but equally fastidious Adrian Monk, the beloved detective that Tony Shalhoub played for eight seasons on USA’s Monk.
Written by Liz Heldens and Dan Thomsen, the ABC drama’s pilot effectively establishes a unique visual language that Will uses to “read” crime scenes and introduces the leading players working alongside him. His investigation into a police corruption case has left him with the words “RAT,” “SNITCH” and “TRAITOR” emblazoned on the side of his vintage Porsche Targa. Needless to say, he isn’t exactly in good standing with officers of the Atlanta Police Department.
Will’s colleagues include Amanda Wagner (The Wire’s Sonja Sohn), the ball-busting head of the GBI who has a mysterious soft spot for him; Faith Mitchell (Iantha Richardson), Will’s begrudging partner after his corruption investigation brought down her mother; Michael Ormewood (Jake McLaughlin), a homicide detective whose marriage is hanging on by a thread; and Angie Polaski (Erika Christensen), an APD detective who grew up in the same foster home as Will, leading them to become mutually destructive, on-again-off-again lovers. Angie is the supporting player with the most to work with in the first two episodes watched for review, while the rest fall into common archetypes seen in procedurals. (In a guest-starring role, Jennifer Morrison gives a particularly devastating performance as the mother of a missing teenager).
The series begins with Will attempting to drop off his late neighbor’s chihuahua at an animal shelter only to end up adopting her at the insistence of the shelter’s workers. As a character, Will is immediately likable and secretly craves a bit of emotional connection. From the outset, Rodríguez imbues the character with a quiet sensitivity—and a little Southern charm—that is ever-present underneath the deadpan humor and quippy one-liners that Will uses to keep others at a distance, and every moment with the scene-stealing pooch supplies a lot of the comic relief.
Since the trailer’s debut a couple of weeks ago, some longtime fans of the novels have taken issue with Rodríguez’s casting, insisting that he does not match the description of Will in the book (tall, lanky, blonde). But the truth is, although the protagonists have the same names, their motivations and backstories seem to be charting a distinctive path. Rodríguez should be given the freedom to make the character his own, and the writers have an opportunity to lean into the actor’s cultural background.
Judging by the opening multi-episode storyline, the screen adaptation has a much lighter touch than most crime dramas and thrillers; the stakes never feel higher than necessary apart from generic action sequences and confrontations with suspects that are par for the course. This creative choice is a double-edged sword. It will welcome viewers who have never read the source material, but it risks alienating longtime fans of Slaughter’s books, which are far more gripping and focus on gruesome cases.
When Will Trent was ordered to series last August, Deadline reported a difference of opinion about the show’s format. While the creators wanted a more serialized approach, network executives pushed for standalone episodes. It’s an interesting choice considering that ABC asked the showrunner of its other crime drama, Big Sky, to find a way to mix “cases of the week” with a larger, overarching mystery this season. The two shows have very different tones. But if its initial couple of episodes is any indication, Will Trent could stand to benefit from the same tactic.
In the current era of peak TV, episodic mysteries alone might not be enough to keep viewers coming back weekly. Relying on the existing fandom of the books to make up most of the early viewership—especially on a network that is notoriously tough on freshman shows—seems like a particularly tall order. If Will Trent wants to cut through the noise of a crowded genre, it will need to reevaluate its storytelling approach and lean into the eccentricities of its promising protagonist.
Will Trent season one premieres January 3 on ABC.