TV Preview

TV Preview: Crime Procedural 'The Unusuals' Debuts on ABC

In ABC's "The Unusuals," debuting tonight at 10, Detective Casey Shraeger (Amber Tamblyn), center, moves from the NYPD vice squad to homicide.
In ABC's "The Unusuals," debuting tonight at 10, Detective Casey Shraeger (Amber Tamblyn), center, moves from the NYPD vice squad to homicide. (By Patrick Harbron -- Abc)
By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 8, 2009

"The Unusuals" is desperate to be loved. But what TV show wouldn't be desperate in this brutal prime-time landscape, where programs are truncated or yanked almost before their pilots have finished airing? "The Unusuals" has squeezed into ABC's crowded midseason field, launching tonight in a primo spot after "Lost," and it careens from genre to genre, scrambling to please everybody, putting us on a treadmill that speeds up, slows down and subjects us to bumpy terrain until we're ready to pull the red emergency-stop cord attached to our sweat pants.

This description may suggest "The Unusuals" is thrilling. It is not. It is spastic.

And yet it's distinctive, at the very least. It is distinguished in its refusal to slide neatly into a category. It's a cop procedural that falls somewhere in the vastness between "NYPD Blue" and "Police Academy."

What are you, "Unusuals," and what do you want from us?

The series opens on a Manhattan streetscape at night, with Amber Tamblyn in hooker getup, her hitched-up bosom front and center, suitably distancing herself from her last prime-time series, the God-centric "Joan of Arcadia." Tamblyn is Casey Shraeger, a mild-mannered detective in the NYPD's vice squad who's on a mission to snare a john. Within seconds, her sergeant rolls up and tells her she's being moved to the homicide division, where she'll work side by side with a gruff, roguish cop named Jason Walsh, whose previous partner was just "perforated" -- copspeak for "stabbed to death."

"The Unusuals" springs from the gate, asserting its premise within the first minute, and then quickly loses momentum by lurching between madcap comedy and atmospheric drama. One minute a widow is crying over her dead cop husband, the next minute two detectives are tackling a suspected cat killer. Scenes are stitched together by means of speeded-up, sweeping shots of the roiling canyons of Manhattan. The soundtrack is heavy on slap bass and percussion. Scenes are bookended by voiceovers from a loudmouthed, sassy-sounding female dispatcher who alerts officers to be on the lookout for suspected criminals like "a man in a hot dawg costume last seen runnin' west on Houston Street" who "may or may not be wieldin' a samurai sword."

This merry-go-round of clutter aims to convey how weird and eccentric the police beat can be. It's like a cop version of "Ally McBeal" (without the chuckles) or "Boston Legal" (without the social conscience). David E. Kelley, if he's watching at home tonight, will no doubt think, "I could've done this better."

As played by a cast of TV's best and brightest B-listers, the main characters are walking quirks. There's the sniveling, self-aggrandizing detective who preens for news cameras (Kai Lennox), the cop who never removes his bulletproof vest (Harold Perrineau, a "Lost" castoff), the sermon-spouting ultrareligious officer (Joshua Close) and the detective who's trying to get himself killed in the line of duty because he has a malignant brain tumor (Adam Goldberg, recognizable from about a dozen different pilots and guest appearances over the past decade).

At the center of this precinct of maniacs is Tamblyn as Shraeger, brandishing her deadpan manner, and Jeremy Renner as her new partner, doing his best to channel the comic stoicism of Harrison Ford. Tamblyn matches wits with him, though the show itself is far from witty. The best way to describe it is "infrequently amusing."

There is a kernel of intrigue at the end of the pilot. Shraeger's sergeant suggests that it's her job to ferret out corruption hidden among the precinct's eccentric characters. If Tamblyn is able to strip away the quirk and find some honest-to-goodness comedy and thrills, then we may have something here.

It'll take a couple of episodes to figure that out, though. Is "The Unusuals" carving out new territory in prime time? Or is it just buckling under the weight of its seesawing ambitions? If ABC leaves it on long enough, the show may solve its own case, which is not so much a whodunit as a whatisit.

The Unusuals debuts tonight at 10 on ABC.

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