Matt Haviland looks at the return of the recently cancelled CBS series to the airwaves.
Unforgettable opens with a SWAT member who sounds unconvinced he’s in a hostage situation. Not wanting to jar us out of our boredom, Detective Carrie Welles responds not to what he said, but to the word “indeterminate,” which the SWAT member uses (as a whole sentence) to answer her question about which one of the “bad guys” (his words) is posing as a hostage. Her response is jokey, which takes aim at the first problem with this extra’s performance: How am I going to believe you without laughing? Viewers won’t buy that. The second inconsistency Carrie skewers is his five-syllable apology for the dumbed down a capella, “How Much for that Hostage in the Window?” For a detective who can remember everything she sees, Carrie proves she can also look through a script and remember when the writers went to a dumb action flick, got home and watched a dumb procedural, and then decided to look up “uncertain” in a thesaurus. When Al makes a crack about his partner doing homework, we have to wonder if her borderline psychic powers have been rubbing off.
Then it turns out the scene was only an exercise. They run into a warehouse and catch the bad guys, Carrie’s mind flashing to mugshots whenever she identifies a criminal they had on file. Which happens when she sees a doe-eyed hostage who’s actually one of the bad guys. Who’s actually an actor who shakes her partner’s hand after a high school basketball buzzer goes off and the camera shoots upstairs to other police officers behind a camcorder. Everyone starts clapping and whooping. Carrie wonders if she’ll get a gold star after Al says they just beat their old record. “Nothing to see here folks,” announce the writers, “just showing you we can do cool stuff with hyperthymesia (that’s perfect visual memory, in case you didn’t know).” So the SWAT member was giving a better performance than we thought, because how believable would a real SWAT member be playing with fake scenarios? He would get into character with knowledge of hostage situations. But come on, he’s not a trained actor.
None of this is an indication of anything, wrapped as it is within layers of dramatic irony. We get our first indication of Unforgettable’s emotional realism capacity before the commercial break. Carrie is laughing with Al about the improbability of a hostage situation in Queens. Then the music goes all David Lynch and a man upstairs with the build of Alec Baldwin says, “They’re the ones.” We barely hear Carrie’s joke about slushy machines as the music gets louder, and the camera switches back and zooms closer, into the exact thesaurus result for “foreboding” plastered on the face of a grim policeman who knows something about these two. Unforgettable is smart enough to have said, “Just kidding!” about everything leading up to this, but the fact that its final punch line isn’t supposed to be funny tells us that we’re in for another round of second grade detective stories. You don’t read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes until you’re old enough to understand what words like “melodrama” mean. Unforgettable plays its dramatic notes at a higher volume than it should to elicit calculated response.
But this is a good enough show. What you’re looking for with generic stories where the kidnappers say not to contact the cops – and the missed money drops where they give an ultimatum to the tune of, “We know you told the cops, darn it!” (played out on the Men in Black screens of Carrie and Al’s new office in the Major Crime Section of the NYPD, headed by a man who seemed so ominous before the credits rolled…) –comes with batteries included. Everything feels right at home. But there are limitations to this format if you’re going to be lazy with it. Carrie’s perfect memory, and how she can whip it out in high-pressure situations; walking around her past self walking around crime scenes as her future self goes, “Hm,” is our main draw to the show.
But when she sits down before they solve the case to connect our kidnapping victim (referred to, I kid you not, as “Little Lara”) to the unsolved cold case of her sister Rachel, Carrie’s life decision to stop worrying about her sister’s murder somehow also works as the reason she doesn’t want this promotion (that reminds her of that murder) because she’s actually afraid of letting it go. Draw up a diagram for that logic. Well, Poppy Montgomery can do concern, but she wasn’t very convincing in her confused grief over the killer-in-the-woods cold case she’s been flashing back to for about a year. Someone might do well to trigger her memory of the disgraced hostage negotiator who told them cops are interested in catching bad guys, but he’s interested in helping people. The excitement of real-time crime situations (with lives still on the line) melds perfectly with Carrie pacing the shadows of New York City: 2 Weeks Ago, looking for that one clue before it’s too late now. Where did Carrie happen to be when the killer happened to be there, too? That’s an exciting question if you pack it between a bunch of agents with regular hippocampus-temporal cortex systems asking Carrie, “What are you thinking? What are you thinking?” Add some heartbeats to the soundtrack and you’re golden.
When Carrie sits down to weep about that terrible afternoon in the woods, there are no distractions. No lives on the line because her sister was killed. All it hinges on suddenly, is the separation between drama and melodrama. We’ve spent too much of the episode playing time-cops and robbers to get weepy now, unless you’re going to give us something more inventive. Unless you do it with the right touch, having built a strong foundation for our reaction. What happened in that old board game, Thin Ice, when you dropped too many marbles on the tissue? They fell through. When your episode script is dripping with melodrama and thin on character and you drop all the sister murder marbles at once, everyone at the table (high on childish dramatics) will laugh as story elements fall into the pool of other story elements. Little Rachel’s death was only on screen long enough for us to notice it.
Unforgettable is lucky that the Pressman Toy Corporation built three strikes into the game before we put it in the box. Since any procedural worth its gimmick can drop unlimited genre convention marbles while keeping the game fun (“That’s the body we thought was the killer’s!” “Would a man kidnap his daughter?” “Last-minute cell phone triangulation followed by secondary character banging a table!”), you’re guaranteed thrills as long as they use the gimmick well. To give Carrie’s hyperthymesia weight, there have to be story elements for us to follow it through the series. We’re not coming back if Carrie doesn’t have a sister who died at some point. With all the marbles under the script, even relying on the effective use of conventions and the viewer-playalong of revisiting old footage to see if you can make the connection Carrie’s about to make (about, say, this dirty doggie plush toy and the broken keychain at the crime scene) can make for a fun show as long as there’s some tension in wondering which marble will break the ice. Clunky as they are, heavy moments are needed to keep the show grounded in long-term consequence, even if they break through with awkward timing, because the breakage is catharsis and the tissue is how the script holds our suspension of disbelief. We can watch one marble fall through and put the other ones back fast enough to rebuild the drama. But then the sister won’t be part of it. (But we’ll know the sister is there with the other marbles, and that she’s going to come back, which creates a reserve tension the show can draw from as the season goes on. The marbles that worked in this episode will never return. The marbles that didn’t can at least promise to be there creating some kind of weight in the future. They’re an investment for our faith in the game.)
Based on the scene, Detective Carrie Welles’s memory is utilized as a super power or Blues Clues. Everyone else structures her recollections on a psychological game board that responds to them. What makes a show last is that the core story sticks with us. Unforgettable won’t, but it is constructed well enough to clear your mind before Monday. After all, there are enough players around the table to blow steam, say, “Wow!” or burst into tears when Carrie flexes her brain. And that’s how this works. You don’t go into family game night expecting – or even wanting – legitimate drama. You want to ease your own drama. Following instructions you’ve known since childhood is enough for catharsis when you’ve got enough players. As long as nobody’s cheating, it won’t feel cheap. All the pieces, including Poppy Montgomery’s Australian accent, which pokes through near the end, are waiting to be played. Most importantly, the guessing games recall images, like the corpse’s tattoo, that we recognize from earlier in the episode (“A-ha! I’m a genius!”). The only things under the surface are more game pieces.