Too many cops and lawyers shows get it wrong. It’s one thing if you design your show around compelling criminal cases using your interchangeable cast to explore a them, and not to delve into the lives of the characters (e.g., “Law and Order”). But the more recent trend (e.g., “Lie to Me,” “Castle”) is to build cop shows around gimmicks, and hope that by casting a recognizable face, the audience will bring their own favorable preconceptions about the lead character. Unfortunately, that’s short-hand for television writers — why bother developing an interesting backstory if the lead character brings his own? We know who Nathan Fillion and Tim Roth are, and we therefore assume their characters will be “Nathan Fillion” or “Tim Roth” characters, and writers do little to disabuse us of this notion, opting to build a show around the character instead of building characters around the show.
“The Unusuals” bucks that trend. They use recognizable faces, but most television viewers won’t be able to put a name to those faces. It’s the guy from “Lost” (Harold Perrineau). And the dude who was Chandler’s crazy roommate on “Friends” (Adam Goldberg). And the girl from Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, or for more savvy TV watchers, the lead from “Joan of Arcadia” (Amber Tamblyn). We know them, but we don’t know them, so writers — or at least good ones — are forced to give us something more. Something that makes us care about the characters besides their filmography. “Life” is the best recent example of this: They took two recognizable barely-knowns, Damien Lewis and Sarah Shahi, and built the characters around the show. The result: Arguably the best cop show on TV.
“The Unusuals” also does something that most other cop shows — save for “Life” — don’t do, either. It adds a smart sense of humor. There are no jokes, of course; but the humor is wry, a little offbeat, and borderline dark, without being uncomfortable. It’s the sort of cop show you’d expect from Peter Tolan (“Rescue Me”), who serves as an executive consultant; Noah Hawley (“Bones”) is the series creator. But what’s so remarkable about “The Unusuals” — in contrast to so many of the other midseason pilots this year — is that it’s not a pilot episode that presents a premise that might be good if the writers change this or that. “The Unusuals” is not only promising, the actual pilot is good in and of itself. In under an hour, the writers manage to make you care about the four lead characters while also creating the base for a compelling season-long case.
Amber Tamblyn plays Detective Schraeger; she is pulled off of vice duty (where she’s posing as a prostitute) and partnered with Detective Jason Walsh (Jeremy Renner) to investigate the murder of Renner’s former partner, Detective Kowalski. Tamblyn, like many of the other characters, has a secret, and it’s these secrets that propel the characters’ narratives. Schrager’s secret? She’s a Manhattan blue blood, and her decision to go into this particular line of work doesn’t sit well with her wealthy, snobbish parents, nor would it sit well with her co-workers if they knew she had access to more money than the combined salaries of half the forice. Renner’s Detective Walsh, meanwhile, is a former first-baseman for the Yankees, and somehow manages to also own and run a NYC diner while he’s not investigating murders. He’s the show’s straight man, and his secret is as yet unknown. It’s the murder of his partner that looks to be the season-long storyline — his partner was either a dirty cop, or a good cop that held on to too many dirty cops’ secrets.
Then there is Adam Goldberg’s Detective Dalahov; he’s got an untreated brain tumor and has only six months to live, which somehow makes him otherwise seemingly invincible to death (he cheats it twice in the pilot episode). His partner is Detective Banks (Perrineau), who has the exact opposite problem. He just turned 42. His father, his grandfather, and his uncle all died when they were 42. Banks is therefore terrified that death is around every corner, which makes him an amusingly hesitant cop. Dalahov and Banks are preoccupied with the pilot’s B-plot, about a serial cat killer; it’s the weakest part of the show, but it does well to demonstrate the show’s quirky nature (don’t worry, “Pushing Daises” haters — it’s the best kind of quirk, the kind without whimsy). Rounding out the cast is a suspicious born-again Christian cop (Joshua Close) and a bumbling Schrute, Detective Alvarez (Kai Lennox).
“The Unusuals” airs Wednesday nights, after “Lost.” If you missed the pilot (the poor ratings suggest that most people did), catch it on ABC’s website. It’s worth it. Although it has some cracks (so far, it’s trying a little too hard to kook up the place) it’s the rare cop show that deftly balances humor and a serious subject matter, and it sports a brilliant cast, to boot.