Things I Learned From… The Unusuals

No, I hadn’t heard of it either!  I came across this short-lived and little known American TV series on DVD, and thought I’d give it a go.

So what’s it all about?  The Unusuals are the detectives of New York’s 2nd Precinct.  In the words of one cop, “I’ve worked three other precincts, and none of them were like the 2nd.  Maybe it’s the criminals.  We get a lot of oddballs and nutjobs.  Hell, maybe it’s just us.”

Indeed, the detectives are pretty ‘unusual’ themselves.  New girl Casey is hiding the fact that she hails from one of NYC’s richest families.  Her affable partner, Walsh, runs a wildly unsuccessful diner on his days off and has a past full of secrets.  Banks wears a bullet-proof vest day and night, convinced that, like all his male forebears, he’s going to die at the age of 42.  His partner, Delahoy, is hiding a potentially fatal brain tumour from his colleagues.  Socially inept Alvarez refers to himself in the third person and is the butt of everyone’s jokes, and the Captain is convinced there’s corruption in his precinct… but where?

Throw in a wild assortment of cases, from a psychotic cat-killer to a family crime spree, a missing dementia patient to a store that sells everything you need to commit murder, and you’ve got a slice of New York like no other.

And yet…

For a long time, I just wasn’t sure what was bothering me.  The cast, including the terrific Amber Tamblyn, Lost’s Harold Perrineau, and a post- Hurt Locker Jeremy Renner, are superb.  The writing is always solid, and there are some great moments – the clever con pulled on the precinct the night Alvarez is left in charge, or Walsh’s tribute to his murdered partner at the end of the first episode.  Even the crackpot comedy scenes work on their own terms – but somehow, the whole is never the sum of its parts.

So what went wrong?  Tone is a tricky thing – and all the more so when you’re trying to combine the black comedy, the drama and the tragedy that a real-life cop lives through every day.

Shows can and do manage it – some cases investigated in The Shield have a despairing comic edge, and The Wire’s Omar heading out semi-naked for breakfast cereal is as preposterous as it is awesome.  But I think the reason they succeed where The Unusuals doesn’t is that they also accord the proper weight and consequences to their more serious scenes.

Example.  The first episode opens with the news that Walsh’s brutal and corrupt partner is dead.  With the senior officers insisting that it was a mugging gone wrong, the Captain wondering if Walsh is corrupt too, and Walsh and new partner Casey discovering that the dead man was keeping files on his fellow officers, the stage seems set for a serious plot thread about police corruption and murder.  And remember, this is the first episode, the viewers are still trying to get a grip on what kind of show this is…

Walsh confronts one of his colleagues about the contents of his secret file, and discovers that the cop is a petty criminal who went straight and adopted a new identity to join the NYPD.  Now – remembering his dead partner, the secret files, the distinct feeling that something is rotten in the state of the 2nd Precinct –  what does Walsh do?

He says  “fine” and walks away, not to mention this until other circumstances reveal the connection, several episodes later, and force him into action.

And now we’re totally confused.  It’s fair enough when the comedy plot threads have no particular consequences – but how can the dramatic ones have no consequences either?  Are we supposed to take the possible police corruption seriously, or not?  The cop’s secret is potentially connected  (via the file)  to the murder of a fellow officer – and even the dead man’s partner isn’t following through on it?

Mixing tones is a risky business.  If you’re going to do it, I suppose the lesson to learn here is – make sure each plot thread has a consistent tone and works on its own terms.  As long as we know what to take seriously and what’s meant to be absurd, you might just pull it off.

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