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THE UNUSUALS (ABC)
(written by Noah Hawley; directed by Stephen Hopkins; TRT: 43:13)
The network's description: "(from ABC's press release, August 2008) As a cop, it helps to have a twisted sense of humor�because every moment could be your last. Just ask Casey Shraeger. She started her day as an NYPD vice detective posing as a Lincoln Tunnel hooker before unexpectedly being transferred to the homicide division. Casey quickly realizes that not only does everyone in her new department have a distinct sense of humor but everyone also has their own dirty little secret... Sgt. Brown is lusting after Detective Beaumont. Detective Delahoy is nursing a brain tumor and trying to die a noble death in the line of duty. His partner Detective Banks just turned 52 and fears that, like his father, he won't make it to 53. Detective Cole is deeply religious but has a shady past. And although Casey's new partner, Detective Walsh, appears to be clean, while investigating the murder of his former partner, Casey uncovers evidence that suggests that even Walsh may have a secret or two. Casey has a secret of her own. She grew up wealthy and privileged in New York high society and became a cop because she saw first hand how money can buy justice. As she learns from the precinct's mysterious and seldom-seen Lt. Little, Casey was brought to the homicide division because she's one of the few honest cops in the district. And with her help, Lt. Little plans to start cleaning house. Equal parts NYPD Blue and The Office, The Unusuals is a unique comedic procedural whose realistic setting makes the frequent laughs that much more outrageous. Writer Noah Hawley (a producer on Bones) confidently takes the police procedural into fresh, uncharted waters. Stephen Hopkins (24, Californication) directs."
What did they leave out? Look for cameos by "Rescue Me's" John Scurti, Adam Ferrara and Cornell Womack. (Peter Tolan serves as an executive producer on both shows.)
The plot in a nutshell: Life at the NYPD's 2nd Precinct is... unusual, for lack of a better word. That's the first of many lessons Detective Casey Schraeger (Amber Tamblyn) learns after being transferred from vice, literally in the middle of an undercover job. Schraeger's told by Sgt. Brown (an amusingly dry Terry Kinney) that she's been brought in to fill the void left by the murder of Burt Kowalski, a notoriously corrupt 20-year veteran who was stabbed to death earlier that evening. Her first duty: tell Kowalski's partner, Joe Walsh (Jeremy Renner), who subsequently becomes her partner. Walsh however initially seems more concerned about covering up Kowalski's misdeeds - from paying off his mistress to burning his porn and drug stash - than solving his murder. Filling that void then is the cheesily mustached Eddie Alvarez (Kai Lennox), the precinct douchebag that refers to himself in the third person. From here we meet the rest of the crew: Delahoy (Adam Goldberg), who's developed a newfound recklessness after learning he has a brain tumor that will kill him in six months; his partner Banks (Harold Perrineau), who constantly lives in fear of his family's curse - all Banks men die shortly after turning 42, which he just did; Cole (Joshua Close), a reformed criminal who's found God; and Beaumont (Monique Gabriela Curnen), the straight-laced den mother. You see what Schraeger is about to learn is that all of these people have secrets. And she should know, she's hiding one as well - she grew up as the "Princess of Park Avenue" and doesn't want anyone to learn about her silver spoon origins. In any case, Walsh and Schraeger eventually stumble upon Kowalski's biggest secret: he was keeping files on all of the aforementioned detectives... and their secrets. It's a revelation that ultimately informs Schraeger's true purpose - to find out what the hell is going on with the 2nd.
What works: Essentially a broader version of "Rescue Me" (but with cops instead of firefighters) the pendulum swings from silly to serious at a rapid fire pace. Whether it be the cases - while Walsh and Schraeger are tasked with Kowalski's murder, Delahoy and Banks are saddled with uncovering who killed a councilman's daughter's cat - or the characters - Walsh is a stone-faced tough guy but also runs the world's worst diner ("It's a Skittles reduction," he informs a horrified customer. "We ran out of fruit.") - the dramatic and comedic tones volley back and forth in a fun, deadpan style. Its humor is also refreshingly random - from Sgt. Brown keeping a spacewalk suit hung on the coat rack in his office ("I was going to be an astronaut," he explains to Schraeger, "Turns out, I'm afraid of heights."); to a mysterious meeting between Schraeger and the secretive Lt. Little (Cornell Womack) being interrupted by one of his lackeys to inform him that "Meerkat Manor" is about to start; to even the scene transitions, which feature audio from dispatch saying things like "Be on the lookout for a ninja or a ninja-like figure last seen outside the Essex Market." or "Be on the lookout for a Puerto Rican male wearing a cape and no pants." And there's also an interesting undercurrent of how our secrets define us and the nobility of wearing the badge ("He closed cases, he got things done," Walsh tells Schraeger about Kowalski. "The rest is just whatever.") that helps keep the show from getting too silly.
What doesn't: With a very scattershot tone from scene to scene (or even beat to beat), the show definitely walks a very fine line between too much silly and too much serious. Much like "Better Off Ted," I can easily see why someone would think this either the greatest show ever made or the dumbest show ever made.
The bottom line: Fortunately for me, I'm in the pretty darn great camp.