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Arresting Television: An Advance Review of ABC's "The Unusuals"

"Everybody has secrets, especially cops."

On the surface The Unusuals, which launches tonight on ABC, may not seem all that unfamiliar in an age when all cops, doctors, and lawyers are routinely portrayed as either unfailable heroes or crackpot eccentrics. But scratch beneath the surface and you'll find an intriguing and offbeat police drama.

Yes, The Unusuals, from creator Noah Hawley and Sony Pictures Television, is quirky. Hell, it wears its quirkiness on its sleeve like a badge of honor. After all, the cops of the 2nd precinct in Manhattan tackle some rather unusual crimes, like the premiere episode's cat murderer and there are cases overheard on the police radio involving a streaker in a cape, a suspect with a samurai sword, and a (ahem) ninja. They're the front line of defense against crimes that are just too... odd for others to pay attention to.

Is it a little much at times? You bet. But don't let the series' innate quirkiness get to you. The Unusuals is clearly positioning itself as NYPD Blue crossed with Barney Miller. Yes, there are homicides and other crimes typically found in every single cop series, but there's a levity and humor here that's not often found in most straightforward police procedurals. And there are also some other interesting approaches at work here that might make you a believer in the unusual as well.

For one, there's a rather intriguing and taut serialized element that runs underneath the mysteries of the week and a compelling partnership between two very different police officers. Amber Tamblyn (Joan of Arcadia) plays Casey Shraeger, a vice cop from a extremely well-heeled family who is pulled off of a honey trap gig in order to partner up with Detective Jason Walsh (Jeremy Renner), an oddball cop whose last partner, Burt Kowalski, was just discovered stabbed to death in a local park.

Walsh, a cop who also runs a terrible greasy spoon hole-in-the-wall (where a Skittles reduction is the height of haute cuisine) as an escape, quickly puts Shraeger to work as they clear out Kowalski's locker--filled with cash, drugs, and porn--and set to working on figuring out who killed him. It's not an easy case as this guy had a wife aware of his proclivity for cheating around, a mistress who's not exactly grieving for his death, and a host of enemies... including one from within the NYPD itself.

In an interesting twist, this crooked cop seemed to have detailed files on all of his comrades at the NYPD, each of which detailed their histories, vices, and dirty little secrets. And, believe me, there are secrets aplenty here as every one of the cops in the 2nd precinct seems to be hiding something, from the mundane to the illegal.

Additionally, there's a compelling supernatural element to the series, in particular the case of Detective Eric Delahoy (Adam Goldberg, here all twirly mustache and spindly nerves), a cancer-stricken cop who seemingly cannot be killed. In the pilot episode alone, we see Delahoy face down a charging subway train and get shot at point-blank range and yet walk away from both encounters. Meanwhile, his partner Leo Banks (Lost's Harold Perrineau) is terrified that he'll follow in the footsteps of every man in his family and die at an the age of 42. Banks is so scared, in fact, that he spends his days in Kevlar body armor and using anti-bacterial cleanser. There's a nice juxtaposition there between two partners, one of whom can't seemingly be killed, the other who is traumatized that he'll die at any second; the mystery behind Delahoy's seeming invincibility isn't explained in the first episode but remains tantalizingly vague. What should we make, after all, of that halo effect on the wall after his shooting? Hmmm...

The cast is all sensational. Tamblyn and Renner make a fantastic pair; both are completely different yet both are brilliant, if eccentric cops. Tamblyn's family gives her access to higher levels of society than the other cops and her background as a wealthy scion of a Manhattan socialite clan contrasts sharply with the grittiness of her work. (Look for Joanna Gleason to turn up as Shraeger's oblivious mother, who tells her that she "looks like a lesbian" in her outfit and questions whether she is wearing a bra.) Renner, meanwhile, makes a compelling if offbeat detective/former pro baseball player/short-order cook, prone to giving his vegetarian customers pork chops and issuing off-the-cuff brutal truths. (Of Casey, his new partner he says, "You're new and you're wearing too much eye makeup and a thong. I don't think you'll last that long.")

Likewise, Goldberg and Perrineau are absolutely amazing together, comprising one of the more memorable cop show pairings in recent memory. Rounding out the cast in the precinct bullpen: Kai Lennox as the bombastic Eddie Alvarez, a detective prone to speaking of himself in the third person; Josh Close as Southern boy Henry Cole, who has a penchant for Bible-thumping and group prayer who is hiding a rather huge secret about his identity; Monique Curnen plays gruff street-savvy Detective Allison Beaumont; and Terry Kinney plays Sergeant Harvey Brown, man hoping to rid the precinct of corruption and graft.

Ultimately, The Unusuals is an offbeat and compelling police series that offers a tantalizing blend of bizarre cases, eccentric characters, and an overarching mystery that seems to involve the secrets of every single character in the precinct. I'm intrigued enough to see where this story is going and to find out just what Kowalski was up to with his mysterious files. For a cop show that could rest its laurels and just be a run of the mill procedural, that is, in and of itself, pretty unusual.

The Unusuals launches tonight after Lost at 10 pm ET/PT on ABC.


Barrett said…
Definitely sounds intriguing, especially with that great cast of characters. I only wonder if it's trying to do too much? A quirky cop drama with supernatural elements and comedy? It's a lot to juggle but at least it's not another cookie cutter cop drama. I'll at least check out the first episode.
TVBlogster said…
The fact that ABC canceled "Life on Mars" and replaced it with another cop show with a supernatural element, yet with a younger cast, makes me not want to watch this. Wonderful review, Jace, but I'm boycotting ABC, and passing on this one. I miss Sam Tyler already.
Jace Lacob said…

The Unusuals couldn't be more different than Life on Mars, which was inherently a sci-fi cop drama whereas this is a police dramedy. Yes, there is a seemingly supernatural element but it's a subplot rather than the main thread. (Personally, I couldn't watch the US LoM which paled in comparison to the original and the ending was completely ridiculous.)
Eric said…
I'll give this a shot. Didn't watch Life on Mars so don't have any expectations one way or another about this. Could be fun.
Art Picked Me said…
What kind of show should I push this on my friends as?

I just need a couple popular shows to compare it to so I know who to force to watch this, cuz I wanna keep these people employed, I really like the cast and from this review, it seems like even if this doesn't start as the best show, it's something that could definitely get a lot better once it gets a good ways.

Thanks. lol
Chris said…
Quirky is right! And I enjoy Tamblyn, so I gave this an easy try.

But that was totally Joanna Gleason~ I recognize her from Into the Woods, which should easily point out what sort of awesome movies -I- watch...
Anonymous said…
What's a Skittles reduction?
I know what skittles are, but reduction?
sorry, english is not my first language.
greebs said…
Watched this last night and can't imagine I'll return for a second viewing. The show was way too precious for its own good, the dialogue often felt forced and generally seemed like a waste of what is admittedly a tremendous cast.
Brian said…
I disagree with greebs. I found Pushing Daisies to be far too quirky/precious (after two eps I couldn't stand it anymore), but I thoroughly enjoyed the pilot of this show. And I never like cop shows.
Mad Typist said…
Thanks for the great review. It inspired me to check this show out (I normally avoid cop shows, as there are already a billion of them on the air). I'm glad I did - the pilot was outstanding, and I'm very excited to see where the show goes from here.

You're right that Amber Tamblyn and Jeremy Renner are a fantastic pair. I was also pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoy the Adam Goldberg/Harold Perrineau pairing as well.
Karen said…
It was interesting enough to keep me tuned in for next week. It looks like I might finally enjoy a cop show.

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