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Emotionally Invested Detectives: One Last Look at ABC's "The Unusuals"

I'm really going to miss The Unusuals.

Given that the series ended last Wednesday evening without much fanfare, you might be wondering why I'm bringing this up now. I was on vacation so have only just gotten the chance to watch the final installment of ABC's tragically underrated cop drama The Unusuals ("EID"), written by Danny Zuker, and was not only impressed by the way it seemed to effortlessly fuse serious character beats, zany cases (this week's involved a serial accuser and break-and-enter gonzo porn), and off-kilter humor.

Throughout its (far too) short run, The Unusuals--created by Noah Hawley (Bones)--has always played by its own rules. Much like the dynamo partnership of Casey Shraeger (Amber Tamblyn) and Jason Walsh (Jeremy Renner), one of the best mismatched cop partners on television. Ever. Her wounded rich girl shtick was diametrically opposed to his low-key salt of the earth approach but they found a supportive (and, indeed at times, nurturing) partnership that played to both their strengths. Both came from unexpected backgrounds: Shraeger from one of Manhattan's wealthiest families; Walsh from professional baseball. They were outsiders in a profession that many today still regard as little more than trash collectors, public servants who round up the city's detritus and send it away from delicate eyes.

But The Unusuals didn't stop there. No, it also provided us with two other remarkable partnerships of opposites: that between Eric Delahoy (Adam Goldberg) and Leo Banks (Harold Perrineau) and Alison Beaumont (Monique Gabriela Curnen) and Henry Cole (Josh Close). While brain tumor-afflicted Delahoy seemingly couldn't die (even after several scenarios that should have resulted in his death), Banks is obsessed with his own mortality at the age of 42, wearing bulletproof vests, buying inflatable furniture, and investing in a lifetime supply of hand sanitizer. Cole concealed a misspent youth that was at odds with his deeply religious views, which themselves were a source of humor for his street-savvy partner.

And that's to say nothing of the hugely ambitious precinct pariah Eddie Alvarez (Kai Lennox), who sadly didn't even appear in this week's series ender. Nor did Terry Kinney's space-obsessed Sgt. Harvey Brown, for that matter. Their absence from this nearly flawless installment depressed me even further as the episode didn't function as a season (or series) closer in any way, especially as some of our main characters weren't even along for the ride.

Still "EID" let The Unusuals go out on a high note. While Cole and Beaumont had to go undercover as a couple in therapy (complete with an embarrassing and awkward session where they had to hold each other in silence for fifteen minutes) and Delahoy and Banks had to wade through a stack of pornos (in order to identify apartments which the "Bagman" had broken into), Shraeger became the titular emotionally invested detective.

Investigating the strange accusations made by Abigail Allen (Fringe's Betty Gilpin) a.k.a. Margot Stanford, a mentally unstable woman who changed her identity years before, Shraeger uncovers a long buried secret from the woman's past: an unsolved abduction and beating that left her in a coma for ten days when she was sixteen. It's a case that forces Shraeger to come to grips with her own privileged youth as an unwitting member of New York City society and the fact that she moved in the same circles as both Margot and her attackers.

The scene in which Shraeger finally gets one of the perps to confess to the decade-old crime was a thing of beauty and showcased Tamblyn's rough-and-ready charms in this role: confident, strong, and canny, she fully embodies the reality of this role. And the solemnity of the final scene, in which she tells Abigail/Margot that her attackers have been caught--only to receive little more than a blank stare from the intensely in-denial Abigail--and then sits beside her on the couch and allows Abigail to put her head on her shoulder was a masterclass in nuance and emotional depth.

I do wish that we could have gotten to the bottom of Delahoy's condition. After getting medical examiner Dr. Monica Crumb (Susan Parke) fired from her job for illegally using the hospital's MRI machine, Delahoy learns that he does have a mass in his brain that is likely causing the bizarre symptoms he's experiencing (not least of which is smelling horses everywhere). Delahoy's storyline has been an intriguing element of the series since the pilot episode. Yes, the seemingly supernatural elements fell by the wayside along since that first installment (remember the angelic hail of buckshot?) but his battle with mortality--and accepting his possibly fatal condition--have been one of the series' most compelling backbones, especially when juxtaposed with Banks' irrational fear of dying. I'm sad that we won't get to see what happens to both of them next, just as Delahoy finally comes to grips with the severity of his condition and gets brutally shafted by one-time lover Monica.

And, really, that need to know what would happen next applies to all of the members of the second precinct, from Delahoy and Banks to Shraeger and Walsh and all of the other members of this colorful and well-drawn cast of characters. I'm beyond crushed that this intelligent and riveting series isn't continuing next season. After just ten episodes, I feel an intense camaraderie with this motley crew, from their choice of after-hours hangout (a Chinese restaurant where the oysters are not recommended) to their ongoing squabbles (just look at Banks and Delahoy's old married couple routine). We saw them on the clock, off duty, on dates, and getting shot at. But the action never took a turn for the obvious, soapy angle and it never lost the sense of humor that made it such a fun hour of television.

Yes, I suppose you could say that I was emotionally invested in these characters. Do we, like Walsh tells Shraeger, get one of these a year, a series that we find ourselves sucked into despite wanting to remain aloof viewers? If so, The Unusuals was mine, a series that proved itself too different, too smart, too unconventional for network television.

Ultimately, The Unusuals was unlike any other police drama on television, a quirky and entertaining dramedy that didn't take itself too seriously but instead used its innate humor to conceal a beating heart underneath the uniform. That, in and of itself, is, well, unusual. It will be severely missed.

Comments

Samantha Hunter said…
Indeed. Now I am depressed all over again.

I don't think, though, that Monica dumped Delahoy in a brutal, unreasonable way -- she sacrificed everything to help him, but he wouldn't help himself. She obviously cared but he couldn't care enough for himself, or her, to take care of himself. It was a fantastic dynamic, but I can't blame her and I would have loved to see this round out one way or another.

The themes of help -- helping the victim, helping each other, refusing to help yourself... how Jason often helped Alvarez, and people lean on or brush up against each other was incredible.

I said it once, will say it again -- I would happily trade Chuck (though I love Chuck) to have Unusuals back. I think Bones (though I have loved it all along) has completely gone off track, and can't believe it's back for 2 seasons. I barely made it through last season -- and yet we lose the Unusuals. No fair.

I'm in love with every single one of them, even Alvarez, and even though they're gone, I know as a writer, these characters really hit home and I expect they will influence my own ideas about character construction greatly... I keep hoping some little miracle will happen and someone will see the error of their ways, but probably not, huh?

Sam
Mazza said…
Thanks for writing something about Unusuals. You've been one of the few T.V. writers to support the show and really champion it. It's too bad that ABC didn't give it another shot b/c I really loved it.

@Samantha Hunter Don't think I would trade Unusuals for Chuck but I'd like them both to be on! Wish USA would just pick up Unusuals and Chuck and air them together. Would be a great night of T.V!
Sue said…
This show just got better and better with each episode. I, too, was bothered that Alvarez & Sgt Brown were absent from the final episode (which proves it wasn't meant to be the last one!).

You summed everything up perfectly in your post. I can't add one thing, nor disagree with any points.

I'm still holding out hope that a cable network picks it up - even if it's a mid-season (Jan 2010) pickup.

Are you listening TNT, TBS, FX or USA???
Turner said…
Thank you for the beautiful send-off. I'll add it to the list of Unusuals artifacts I've been keeping at my page, http://bit.ly/SaveUnusuals

The fact that this show has gone by the wayside is a real crime against the intelligent viewing public. The scene in "Crime Slut" with Delahoy reading Vonnegut over a piano solo and the SWAT raid was a work of genius. One of the most powerful, unique, and simply artistic moments I've seen all year.

I found myself more excited about this show than even Lost. I, too, will miss it.
Karen said…
Beautiful. And exactly the thing.
Thank you for that.

I too am hoping it gets picked up... I think it'd be great on the USA Network.
Anonymous said…
I love this show. I will miss it. This was the best show of mid season.

J.M
Tempest said…
I'm bummed, too, that this didn't get picked up. The characters were wonderfully done. Interesting and quirky -- and not just quirky for quirkiness' sake. These characters made sense. I think "The Unusuals" would work beautifully on USA or maybe even TNT. (And "Life" -- even though there was a sense of resolution, I'm still irritated that it's gone.) I think the ratings for Unusuals would have picked up once word got around just what kind of show it was.
Paola said…
I know I'm going to be depressed when I watch the last episode so I haven't watched the last three episodes yet because I'm trying to hold on to these characters as long as I can. I’m missing them already.

*sigh*

Where am I supposed to get my weekly Jeremy Renner fix now?
Samantha Hunter said…
Mazza, I do like your plan better. :)

I was attempting to demonstrate my love of TU by sacrificing Chuck, but honestly, yes, would rather have them all. Who wouldn't?

I had to pull back at sacrificing Castle -- it may not be as deep or layered, but it's such a fun show for a writer to watch, and it's my weekly fix of Nathan, which I cannot give up for anything. ;)

Sam
jack said…
--SPOILER ALERT---

--SPOILER ALERT---
Hi, I'd like the last episode explained please. Could someone tell me how the locksmith managed to get the keys? He saw the schedule of the doctor. He got the doctor's keys for changing them. He broke in, whenever there's a session. Sneaked passed the doctor. Copied the keys. And than got the doctor to tell him when the couples were on holidays. And the doctor would ask that question the couples for that information without being involved???
I don't get it.

--SPOILER ALERT---

--SPOILER ALERT---
Holley-an emotionally-invested viewer said…
I too am sad to see this show go. The cast was wonderful and the writing was intriguing.
Loved your review of this ep!
Mad Typist said…
I too will miss this excellent series. It had a ton of potential - more than most of the crap on TV right now - so it's premature ending is just heart breaking to me.

It kills me that I am never going to find out if Delahoy can beat his brain tumor, or see Banks reach his 43rd birthday.
Karen said…
Thanks for a great eulogy for The Unusuals. I so enjoyed this series and this was the only site that seemed to give it any praise. I'm so disappointed that it didn't get picked up and hope (against hope) that these great characters will find a home elsewhere. Thanks for all your hard work!
AskRachel said…
At first, I just thought this was a quirky and fun show but, surprisingly, I quickly found myself falling in love with the characters and think the show really found its voice in the last few episodes. I think it would have only gotten stronger and I'm very sad to see it go. Thanks for the farewell tribute!
Anonymous said…
Was very upset to see this show cancelled. I finally found a show I really looked forward to watching. I'm sick of all the "reality TV" shows on lately. Why does ABC keep cancelling good shows?
Karin said…
I agree with you 100%. This was a most "unusual" show, and I loved it. I have lost my favorite shows this season. All fairly new and not given the chance to grow. Life, Life on Mars and The Unusuals. All of them quirky, non-formulaic gems in a sea of reality dross. I had even gotten my teenaged son hooked on The Unusuals. I'm depressed all over again. What is wrong with the networks?? They have to give shows the chance to build. Younger audiences have to be given a chance to even find these shows before they get cancelled. My son loved this show...but he never would have watched it if I hadn't had it on first.
Unknown said…
The Unusuals was by far and away my favorite new show of the year. AFter a couple episodes and getting to know the characters I was hooked. It's a crime that ABC canceled this before giving it a fair chance. Whatever they have to replace it is certain to be nowhere near as good.
Anonymous said…
This must be one of the better "cop"-shows I've seen in quite some time. It's just all over bloody funny and at the same time some what serious. Delahoy makes the day, but in all the total cast makes up this show. It's a keeper, unlike so many other shows that seem to live on for ever.

Banks'll never turn 43 now :/
chicks2 said…
I recorded the entire season on my DVR and just finished watching the series. I am so mad/sad that this show was cancelled! I loved the dynamics of the partners and the team, and after TOO MANY seasons of cop shows that take themselves so seriously (Law & Order, CSI, Without a Trace, etc), this show was a welcome change. BOO!
Anonymous said…
I've pretty much arrived after the party's over, but I recently found this show and watched and am completely heartbroken that it ended! This show was one of the very few that pulled you in completely and won't let go, even after it's over. Best show I've seen in a long time.
Unknown said…
Well said everyone,I also agree that show should not have been cancelled after only 10 episodes.But I suppose that this things will happen to more shows which altough liked by viewers would be inexplicably be axed by networks,sadly indeed. :(

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