“Immortality: A toy which people cry for, And on their knees apply for, Dispute, contend and lie for, And if allowed Would be right proud Eternally to die for.”
— Ambrose Bierce
This apparent out-of-the-gate diversion will make sense in a second, so bear with me. When it comes to science-fiction, one of my favorite aspects of the genre is time travel. As a science nerd, I love breaking down the intricacies of the “rules” that different time travel stories have set for their universe. After seeing Primer I literally spent hours online pouring over the massive timeline flowcharts folks made, and I once spent a night getting terribly drunk and arguing about the details and implications of the movie’s version of time travel with friends. (Hi, yes, I’m a fucking nerd. How ya doin?) But on another level, I also love time-travel stories because of an intellectual curiosity about being able to see things that happened long ago or that will happen long from now. And this second reason has also caused me to be a bit of a sucker for stories about immortality, because they touch on the same thing. This is probably why one of my favorite issues of “Sandman” is the one tracking the life of a mostly immortal named Hob Gadling in one-day-a-century glimpses over the course of 600-odd years. Point being, I was super-psyched when I first heard about “New Amsterdam,” which focuses on a dude who’s been living in NYC for about 400 years.
Said dude’s name, at least in the present day, is John Amsterdam. That they went with Amsterdam being his last name — when the show’s title holds up on its own given the fact that New York was originally called New Amsterdam — is simply the first of several disappointments the show’s premiere has in store. But more on that in a bit. So this John Amsterdam was granted immortality way back when from some Native Americans, and we learn that he’ll keep on keeping on until he finds the one true love of his life. Once he lands his soulmate, he’ll become all mortal again, with the aging and the stabbing-actually-kills-you and all the other things that go along with mortality. While he’s held many professions in the past (including having been an acclaimed furniture maker — acclaimed, at least, among certain present-day antiques experts), John presently works as murder police, which is a nice touch, given the fact that someone who’s lived this long must surely have a morbid curiosity about death and all the ways man can be got. But it’s not a nice touch given the fact that my TV bleeds procedurals at this point and, as I’ll get to in a second, the procedural aspect of the show just ends up muddying the waters.
One thing the premiere does a good job of is giving us a fair amount of background through conversations with an old bartender friend who knows of John’s longevity and through the use of flashback dreams. The old friend is an angle that could have some merit, although Fox isn’t likely to let a show like this have long, interesting conversations between John and his pal, so we probably won’t get the type of payoff here that we could on another network. And as for the flashbacks … well, I’m OK if they never use them again, because they come off kind of cheap and cheesy, compounded by really bad hair and makeup. Note to producers — we’re in the age of high definition, so when you do closeups of old-timey John and his fake beard, you might want to do a better job of covering up the netting underneath the fake beard. I’m just saying.
In fact, there are two major problems with this first episode, and the flashbacks highlight one of them — it lays on the cheese a bit thick. There’s a pretty solid sequence of two scenes in the opening minutes of the show, and I was actually feeling optimistic about things, right up until we were hit with this voiceover line: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” I know this is Fox and all, but a little more subtlety and less on-the-nose would go a long way. The other problem with this episode, which is the far greater one, is that it’s all a bit of mess. As they were putting this premiere episode together, it’s clear that the folks behind “New Amsterdam” didn’t know what kind of show they wanted it to be. A fantasy genre show? A cop show? A romance? A character drama? Of course, there’s nothing to say that a show can’t be all these things, it’s just that this episode wasn’t able to juggle all those balls so well.
Now, I have it on good authority that the show manages to settle down and find itself a little more over the next two or three episodes, although I don’t know what that means. While the cop aspect of the show was by far the weakest, I expect it’s not going anywhere, and that’s really too bad. Nevertheless, given the dearth of shows on my DVRs until things come back full steam in April, I’m willing to give “New Amsterdam” a chance, if only because there are some glimmers of potential. As John, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (don’t the Dutch really have the best names?) has a bit of a Nathan Fillion vibe to him, if you took Captain Reynolds and cleaned him up a bit (I know, many of you want your Mal kept plenty rough and dirty, and I hear you). I wasn’t enamored with Zuleikha Robinson as Amsterdam’s new partner on the job, although I think that has more to do with the cop show angle than her, particularly as she was excellent during her stint on the second season of “Rome” (she played Gaia, the tough-ass broad working for Vorenus who winds up killing Pullo’s first wife and becoming his second wife). Also, while he wasn’t used much, if they keep Robert Clohessy around (he was prison guard Sean Murphy on “Oz”), that’s not a bad thing. So yes, the cast seems competent enough, although the other apparent female lead was under-utilized and unrecognized to me, so no thoughts about her one way or the other just yet.
But as I said at the top, the idea of immortal stories intrigue me, and when the episode was actually focusing on that part of the storyline, it mostly worked. At least, as well as most mid-season premieres can work. His way of making some side cash is kinda clever (although it falls apart if you actually think about how it might play out in the real world), and the idea of him running into folks he knew way back when, with them all old now, can be touching (the curse of immortality, of course, being that you have to watch all your loved ones age and die). If this show can settle down into a more cohesive thing, it might have some legs.
That being said, I don’t really expect that to happen. I think the procedural angle is going to stay, to the show’s detriment. And the main “love of my life” premise of the show is already wobbling dangerously on the cheese precipice. At best, this show might simply reach the heights of “not bad.” But given the impending return of other shows’ new episodes coupled with Fox’s love of a short leash, we may not even get the chance to see all of the episodes in the can to find out how well it settles down. All of which is a lukewarm way of saying “watch at your own risk.”
(“New Amsterdam” has a two-part premiere tonight and Thursday night on Fox at 9 p.m. before settling into its regular Monday-at-9 time slot next week.)
Seth Freilich is Pajiba’s television editor. Given that he can’t remember what he did last weekend, he wonders how in the hell John is able to have an apparently perfect recollection of every damn thing he’s seen and done over the past 400 years.
"Come Writers and Critics, Who Prophesize with Your Pen. And Keep Your Eyes Wide, the Chance Won't Come Again."
"New Amsterdam" / The TV Whore
Mar. 4, 2008
TV | March 4, 2008 | Comments ()