Obsessive, Compulsive, Procedural #1: ‘Unforgettable’

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Unforgettable

Created by John Bellucci and Ed Redlich

Based on J. Robert Lennon’s short story The Rememberer

imdb, CBS, Tuesdays at 10 PM

1.01 Pilot

Directed by Niels Arden Oplev

Written by John Bellucci and Ed Redlich

Based on J. Robert Lennon’s short story “The Rememberer

1.02 Heroes

Directed by Niels Arden Oplev

Written by Sherri Cooper and Jennifer Levin

1.03 Check Out Time

Directed by John David Coles

Written by Joan Binder Weiss

1.04 Up in Flames

Directed by Niels Arden Oplev

Written by Michael Foley and Erik Oleson

*****

Launching a new police procedural is tricky. On one hand, you have to stand out from all the competition – especially visually. At the same time, you have to be familiar enough not to alienate viewers. You have to be old, but in a new way.

Unforgettable has an interesting twist on the Sherlock Holmes formula that it is able to express in a visual way, using an effect that is borrowed from film and therefore new to TV. It also owes a great deal to a fellow CBS procedural – enough so, that it would easy to dismiss Unforgettable as The Mentalist with ginger hair and a push-up bra.

Like The Mentalist, Unforgettable features a detective who uses mental techniques to solve crimes. Like Simon Baker’s Patrick Jane, Poppy Montgomery’s Carrie Wells is both part of the police force and apart from it. They are both scarred by the murder of a member of their family and are involved with the police to give them access to police resources to help them solve their family tragedy. They both have complicated feelings for the leader of their police squad.

The differences are more instructive than the similarities. Patrick Jane’s mental techniques are trained; Carrie Wells’ incredible memory is genetic. Patrick Jane’s family was murdered because Jane’s arrogance attracted the serial killer Red John; Carrie Wells’ sister was murdered when Carrie was still a child. Where Jane’s character is defined by his arrogance, Carrie’s is defined by her innocence. (The series has gone out of its way to point this out, pairing her with children or innocents in the first 3 episodes.)

As an example of Carrie’s innocence, in Pilot we are introduced to her volunteering at a seniors’ residence, which she leaves for her night job: counting cards at blackjack. Casinos, like the underground New York one that Carrie takes to the cleaners, hate card counters, but it is hardly wrong to beat an unfair game through the use of skill. When the casino owner tries to muscle his money back from Carrie, she turns the table on him and his goons using only her memory and the truth, the weapons of innocence.

Patrick Jane’s mental abilities are internal, but through a neat visual trick Unforgettable is able to externally represent Carrie’s abilities. She has hyperthymesia, defined as “an extraordinary capacity to recall specific events from one’s personal past”. This ability is distinct from the eidetic memory as demonstrated by Dr. Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory and Dr. Spencer Reid in Criminal Minds, but Unforgettable makes that distinction somewhat moot by presenting Carrie’s hyperthymesia as a powerful form of visual memory that allows Carrie to walk through her visual memories, a narrative trick that owes a lot to the photograph analysis sequence in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. In essence, Carrie is her own DVR.

Despite the help of celebrity hyperthymesiac Marilu Henner as series consultant, Unforgettable is far from accurate in how it represents the condition. Just as a starter, those with the condition can’t see themselves in their visual memories – except in mirrors. Despite this, the series does play fair. Carrie can walk through her visual memories, but she can’t actually see anything that she was not in a position to see originally. (e.g. In Up in Flames, she sees a file, but can only see a portion of the label.) While she may not have noticed the shadow originally in the pilot episode, it was within her field of vision. In other words, she saw it without observing it.

You see, but you do not observe.” – Sherlock Holmes, A Scandal in Bohemia, Arthur Conan Doyle

The most interesting thing about Carrie West is that she is both Watson and Holmes. Unlike Patrick Jane who sees and observes, Carrie (like Watson) first sees without observing, then later, observes without seeing, or at least observes what she previously only saw.

This creates for Unforgettable both an opportunity and a problem.

The opportunity is that TV may suddenly have a uniquely fair mystery show. When mystery fans say that a mystery is “playing fair”, what they mean is that they have all the same information as the fictional detective and have the same opportunity to solve the mystery. The most unfair procedural currently on TV is House, because all the doctors and many of the nurses possess information (and specialized training) that the audience does not. Historically, the fairest TV detective was Ellery Queen who would break the fourth wall and invite viewers to solve the mystery using all the same information that he had.

Since Carrie is a human DVR, viewers with DVRs and a high definition TV might be able to duplicate her trick of rewinding to key visual moments in the show and freezing the action to find the clues. Whether the show is actually constructed and shot so that viewers would be able to do this is unclear, but it certainly appears to be the case, and as always, the appearance of fairness is as important as actually being fair.

The problem is that with Carrie acting as both Holmes and Watson, her supporting cast must find new narrative roles, something that Unforgettable is struggling with, unlike The Mentalist where the supporting cast and their roles were well-defined by the end of the second episode, with Teresa Lisbon (Robin Tunney) as the loyal, stubborn leader, Wayne Rigsby (Owain Yeoman) as the muscle, Grace Van Pelt (Amanda Righetti) as the researcher and Kimball Cho (Tim Kang) as the Sgt. Friday robot. The strength of The Mentalist is that the supporting cast is so good that each character could solve the mysteries, they would just take longer than Patrick Jane to get to the solution and use radically different methods.

Roe Sanders (Kevin Rankin), Mike Costello (Michael Gaston) and Nina Inara (Daya Vaidya) are all ciphers, mainly reduced to running errands and watching Carrie solve the mysteries. Only Dylan Walsh as Al Burns can hold his own with Carrie. Of course, he does have the advantage of being her former partner (and lover). The pilot also gives him a role beyond leader suggesting that his contribution to the team is to see what’s not there. (Al is the one who points out that the chef’s knife is missing from the victim’s kitchen.) Carrie sees (and eventually observes) what is visible, Al sees what should be there and isn’t.

Al’s affinity for the unseen is also reflected in his need to conceal, to lie and to keep secrets. This inclination was what doomed his relationship with Carrie the first time around. (Although, as Al wryly notes, having a girlfriend who never forgets anything has its unique disadvantages.) In the series, they have already butted heads over Al’s tendency to lie to suspects, witnesses and their bosses. Carrie’s natural inclination is have everything visible, Al’s inclination is to obfuscate.

The back-story of Al and Carrie’s relationship is that they were partners and lovers in Syracuse on that police force. Al urged Carrie to stop investigating her sister’s murder, because the investigation was taking such a toll on her. Carrie left the police force and Al to move to New York. (In the pilot, Al starts to remind Carrie that she left him and realizes how stupid reminding Carrie of anything is halfway through saying it.)

In addition to The Mentalist, Unforgettable also tips its’ hat to Veronica Mars: in Check Out Time, the defence attorney Debi Moser (Linda Emond) having researched Carrie’s past, compliments her on solving crimes for the Syracuse P.D. while still a co-ed, suggesting that Carrie is a grown-up Nancy Drew/Veronica Mars.

The tragedy of Carrie Wells is that the only thing that she can’t remember is the murder of her sister. Solving that mystery will be the central mythology of the series, just as Red John is the central myth of The Mentalist. Carrie’s memory of the man who killed her sister is starting to come back in bits and pieces: in Check Out Time, after Carrie tentatively suggests to Al that she sit down with a sketch artist, Al gets her a computer with an suspect sketch program on it and sets it up in the basement of the squad’s headquarters – protecting Carrie’s privacy and keeping her investigation hidden and off the books – unseen the way he likes it. Clearly, the completed sketch will be an important part of the first season finale.

Creators John Bellucci and Ed Redlich and director Niels Arden Oplev (of the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fame) do a really good job in the pilot tying a bow around the tragedy. Pilot starts and ends with Carrie volunteering at the seniors’ residence. The last scene makes it clear that the old woman that Carrie helps is actually her mother, Alice (Deanna Dunagan), trapped in a dementia similar to Alzheimer’s, one that makes Alice believe that her dead daughter is still alive. (Oddly, she also remembers that Carrie is a police officer, which happened years after the murder, but she does not recognize Carrie.)

The gut punch of the episode is not that Carrie’s only connection to her mother is an event so traumatic that neither can remember it, or even the fear that Carrie’s genetic gift contains within it the seed of her own loss of memory and dementia, it is the delivery of Al’s file on her sister’s murder, a file that he has kept active for all the years that they have been separated. Al may have urged Carrie to stop investigating her sister’s murder, but he never intended to stop, just to continue the investigation secretly. In other words, her catalyst for leaving him was unfounded.

Unforgettable has the solid foundation for a long-running procedural: a strong lead character and a unique visual gimmick. It does need to find a way to make Carrie’s supporting cast more than simply cardboard cut-outs.

The OCP is obsessive and compulsive about procedurals. Check in with us every Wednesday as we examine a different TV detective and how they solve crimes.

Michael Ryan

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