Damnit, “Unforgettable” producers. The punny blood is on your hands with this one. I didn’t want to do it. You forced my hand.
You could have called your new Poppy Montgomery drama “Crime-Fighting Redhead Memory Girl” and I wouldn’t have had a clue how to start my review. You could have called it “Super-Brain Coincidence Procedural” and I’d have wracked my own less-than-super-brain for hours musing on an appropriate lede. You could have named it “Poppy Montgomery Looks Great, Solves Mysteries and Doesn’t Know What People From Syracuse Talk Like” and you’d have taken all of the ammunition out of my critical pen.
But no. That’s not the way you chose to go. You took the approach that dared critics to be lazy, forgetting that you were premiering in the same week as 20 other network dramas and that, amidst that avalanche of new programming, “lazy” would be a welcome respite.
Most shows make us work at least a little bit harder. “‘Revenge’? More like revenge on viewers!” or “‘A Gifted Man’? More like a gifted director for the pilot!” or “If this pilot weren’t so dull, a ‘Person of Interest’ would be me!”
Would that I were a proud man, too proud to rise to your bait.
I am not. Because if you name your show “Unforgettable,” you’d darned well better hope the resulting drama is memorable and while I’d shy from saying that “Unforgettable is a bad pilot, it’s also a pilot that would have even Marilu Henner pausing and trying to remember if she’d actually watched.
Full review after the break…
Poppy Montgomery stars in “Unforgettable” as Carrie Wells, a woman with Marilu Henner Syndrome, which is to say that she has absolute and total recall over every moment of her life. Actually, I take that back. There’s one day she doesn’t remember, but it’s only the most important day of her life, so no biggie.
This particular memory condition has obvious advantages for Carrie. Back in the day, she was the best darned detective in all of Syracuse. But her inability to put anything in the past caused her to flee that successful job and boyfriend Al Burns (Dylan Walsh) to move to New York City, where she makes a living bilking underground illegal card games.
Then, one day, a series of coincidences transform Carrie into a CBS procedural. A woman in her apartment building is murdered and Carrie just happens to have visited her days before, making her a walking crime scene photo. Then, because it isn’t convenient enough that Carrie’s the only one with the intellectual reserves necessary to solve her neighbor’s murder, the detective assigned to the case just happens to be her old Syracuse boyfriend, the one man in New York City who wouldn’t require any convincing that Carrie’s gifts are both real and a viable way of helping to solve a crime.
Is “Your honor, I have Marilu Henner Syndrome” a legitimate way to get your memory submitted in court as evidence? Presumably “Unforgettable” will have to deal with that in future episodes. But a bigger concern is how episodes will function when every single plot point — including her escape from a potentially sticky situation at one of those underground gambling dens — can’t hinge on Carrie having first-hand, present knowledge that would take advantage of her memory. It would be a particularly bleak and depressing drama if this memory were a blessing, but the corresponding curse was that she could only solve murders if she previously knew the victim. Then CBS could have called it “Tragic Memory Dead-Friend Girl.” As it stands, the pilot already conflates, or at least ignores the distinctions between, Marilu Henner Syndrome and eidetic memory, which will leave many viewers perplexed as to what superpowers Carrie possesses and what her limitations might be.
And honestly, I’m more interested in Carrie Wells as a character than Carrie Wells as a women who will help the NYPD cracking a mystery every week. I cringed a little at the bold-faced irony of a woman with an endless memory spending her spare time tending to patients with Alzheimer’s, but a show is entitled to gun for a little melodrama. I’d still have rather watched the less-than-totally-ethical things Carrie has done to make money and the specific relationships her gift/curse has damaged. Instead, “Unforgettable” does to Carrie’s gift what CBS does to just about every gift: Puts it to work solving generic crimes.
Basically, Carrie is the latest in a long line of TV gumshoes who solve crimes by squinting really hard. It’s an art that Simon Baker’s Patrick Jane has mastered on “The Mentalist” and that Tim Roth expanded on in “Lie to Me” with a tilt of his head. In lieu of adding new body language to express how Carrie’s concentration is allowing her to catch bad guys, “Unforgettable” has come up with a decent visual representation for her ability to flash-back through every moment in her life, complete with a gauzy blur around things which would have been in her periphery. Thankfully, even though we don’t see her doing it, Carrie seems to go through life spinning around in circles so that she has a full 360 panorama on every place she’s experienced, which is astounding to me as somebody who can’t even remember if his most recent barber left the edges of the hair at the back of my head rounded or squared. This visualization is the only real flourish in the pilot, which was directed by Niels Arden Oplev, who I also felt sucked a lot of the perverse intrigue out of the original Swedish “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”
If the specific show around her were more inspired, Poppy Montgomery would be a perfect leading lady for this sort of vehicle. There are attractive actors of both genders who are incapable of plausibly conveying thought on-screen, but Montgomery has never had a problem with the hard edge necessary to be believable investigating and cracking cases. Montgomery was one of the primary forces behind my watching more episodes of “Without a Trace” than of any CBS procedural before or after, but I don’t remember her having these struggles with her American accent. I tried suggesting to Sepinwall that Montgomery may be under the mistaken impression that Syracuse is actually in Alabama, not that her accent is consistently Southern either. It’s just a mess. It’s the only part of Montgomery’s performance here that I don’t buy, but it’s not a small thing.
There’s a good supporting cast to “Unforgettable,” though they’re mostly there to initially doubt Carrie’s acumen and then be really impressed. That’s satisfactory for Dylan Walsh, but I wish somebody would give Kevin Rankin something more and better to do than he’s ever going to get as a supporting regular on something like this or “Trauma.” The same is true of Michael Gaston. I understand why he might prefer the idea of a steady paycheck over the uncertainty of being a migrant character acter, but I’d rather seem him on four or five different shows being briefly excellent over the course of a year than have him show up every week in a negligible capacity on a show I probably won’t remember to watch. [I understand why Rankin and Gaston would like the regular gigs and it’s easy for me to be picky when I’m playing with somebody else’s bank account.]
I may check back in on “Unforgettable” a couple times to see how they work around the need to do episodes with fewer coincidences. But then again, I may just forget to. Nothing in the pilot suggested this was an ongoing memory I’d regret making.
“Unforgettable” premieres at 10 p.m. on Tuesday (September 20) night on CBS.