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'Unusuals' really isn't as quirky as it thinks

Amber Tamblyn stars in ABC's cop show ''The Unusuals.'' Amber Tamblyn stars in ABC's cop show ''The Unusuals.'' (patrick harbron/abc)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / April 8, 2009
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There's something a little dictatorial about the title of ABC's new cop show, "The Unusuals." I mean, if the characters on this show are, indeed, unusual, then ABC probably shouldn't have to tell us so. You wouldn't give Fox's "House" the name "Cranky, Drug-Addicted, Manipulative Doctor"; that truth should become self-evident to the viewer.

But the assertion of the title matches the tone of the series, which is bent on showing us just how eccentric it is. "The Unusuals," which premieres tonight at 10 on Channel 5, strains to be an oddball twist on your everyday average cop procedural, with an ensemble of neurotic detectives and a kooky New York atmosphere. That's why Adam Goldberg, the cover boy of quirk, is in the cast. This is "Law & Order" by way of "Barney Miller."

The premiere opens with vice cop Casey Shraeger (Amber Tamblyn) getting pulled off the street, all dolled up in hooker lipstick and a miniskirt, to help with a homicide case. The scene is meant to establish a madcap vibe, but it seems more like a poor excuse to deliver Tamblyn's cleavage to viewers ASAP. And then Tamblyn, who naturally captured bitter teen yearning on "Joan of Arcadia," is all wrong in a police setting, barking out the script's old-school cop lines - "Police, open up!" - with the ferocity of a puppy. "I don't want to ruin your day," she says to a woman, trying too hard to sound like a seasoned veteran, "but in my book you are definitely the mistress." Oh, snap.

Tamblyn's new partner in homicide is the hunky Jason Walsh (Jeremy Renner), who runs a diner when he's not working. Created by Noah Hawley of "Bones," "The Unusuals" may be trying to establish a "Bones"-like flirtation between Walsh and Shraeger, but so far the chemistry isn't there. Also in the 2d Precinct circus: The paranoid Leo Banks (Harold Perrineau, Michael from "Lost"), who wears his bulletproof vest in the office; a preachy born-again Christian named Henry Cole (Joshua Close); and the overly hard-boiled Sergeant Brown (Terry Kinney).

Are these characters really that out of the ordinary? If you've been watching ensemble dramas for the past 15 years, you probably won't find them particularly idiosyncratic. The show stakes its identity against a notion of normality that doesn't really exist on TV anymore. Every cop series on TV, including the dark, gritty likes of "CSI" and "Criminal Minds," includes a goodly share of freaky comic relief.

Mixed in with all "The Unusuals" nuttiness are a few random attempts to be moving, as each of the detectives harbors a difficult secret. The show aspires to that risky hybrid genre: dramedy. But, if not pitched just right, dramedies can short-shrift both the drama and the comedy, as one undermines the other, and that's what happens on "The Unusuals." The show is neither here nor there, neither amusing nor affecting. It doesn't really call out for further viewing, which is not so unusual at all.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

TELEVISION REVIEW
THE UNUSUALS Starring: Adam Goldberg, Terry Kinney, Harold Perrineau, Amber Tamblyn, Kai Lennox, Joshua Close, Jeremy Renner, Monique Gabriela Curnen

On: ABC, Channel 5

Time: Tonight, 10-11