As far as I’m concerned, this has been a pretty lousy year for American television. Deadwood is off the air, after three incredible seasons. The West Wing is gone after two presidential terms. There’s talk of NBC canceling Crossing Jordan, which stars the ever-lovely Jill Hennessy. The fate of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which is the only network series I’ve added to my previous TV-viewing schedule this year, hangs in the balance. And pretty much everything else is a mindless game or reality show, a series that should’ve been a one-off “movie of the week,” or another formulaic CSI or Law & Order clone.
Which explains why my fingers are crossed for Raines, the new Jeff Goldblum crime drama debuting on NBC next Thursday night, March 15, in ER’s timeslot (10 p.m. ET/PT). I am feeling particularly in need these days of a different sort of police or private-eye series (sorry, Andy Barker, P.I., just won’t do), and Raines is definitely different. At least judging from the pilot episode, this is not Ghost Whisperer meets Dragnet, as some critics have charged. (Nor is it “Ghost Whisperer minus the boobs,” as one TV Squad wit put it.) Instead, it’s a personality-driven serial that finds the stuttering Goldblum as Los Angeles police detective Michael Raines, who has recently returned to duty after being shot, along with his partner. That attack left Raines more than a bit off; he’s now seeing people. Dead people. The victims of homicides he’s charged with investigating. In the pilot, for instance, he’s confronted by what seems to be the ghost of a college student and likely prostitute, who, much to Raines’ consternation, won’t go “back to whatever dark, twisted malfunctioning part of my brain you come from” until he solves her slaying.
Admittedly, this does initially sound like Ghost Whisperer, or maybe Medium. But the crucial and reality-respecting distinction here is that these spirits aren’t spirits at all; they’re being necessarily manifested by Raines’ unconscious both to give him somebody off whom to bounce his thoughts about the case at hand--and to provide him with greater sympathy for the people who’ve been murdered. As the fatality in the pilot (played by the fetching Alexa Davalos) tells him, “I only know what you know,” and that’s because she represents his own questioning self, prodding him to dig further into the available clues, to doubt the easy evidence and, in a nice turn, forcing him to address the prejudices and stereotypes that can hinder a police investigation. Rather than adopt the easy Ghost Whisperer comparison, I’d liken the concept here to what the mother and son who write as “Charles Todd” do with their post-World War I mystery-fiction series starring Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge (A False Mirror, Watchers of Time), burdening their shell-shocked protagonist with a troubled conscience that takes the form of a loquacious Scottish soldier Rutledge had ordered executed on the battlefield. Raines is equally weighted down in this new series by loneliness and self-doubt, which he seems to escape only by successfully resolving crimes.
Which isn’t to suggest that Raines is a one-man show. It also brings back a few performers we haven’t seen enough of lately, including Linda Park (formerly of Star Trek: Enterprise), playing Detective Kim Lance; Matt Craven, who I remember best from his role in the short-lived Rob Lowe legal series, The Lyon’s Den, but who here plays LAPD Captain Daniel Lewis, worried by Raines’ apparently new habit of conversing with himself; and Nicole Sheridan, who used to play the ditzy dog walker, Holly, on King of Queens, but who here does a fine job as some sort of hyper-effective LAPD researcher.
I can’t say that the Raines pilot is flawless. The twist at the end was pretty obvious, though I liked to be right about it. The episode is a bit too self-consciously noirish for its own good, winging in a jazz trumpet-filled soundtrack and moving the plot forward with Goldblum’s narration, as if to give us the impression that this is a modern cop drama with Chandleresque roots. Yet the eccentric nature of the series isn’t as over-the-top as I’d expected (actually, feared). And in a field of network programming distinguished by its almost complete absence of novelty, Raines should be graded on a curve for at least trying to be something special.
But see for yourself. Although the series doesn’t premiere until next Wednesday, the pilot--penned by Graham Yost (who did a lot of writing for another unusual series, Boomtown, a few years back)--is already available on NBC’s First Look Web site. Let’s hope this show wins enough viewership that it can stick around longer than some of Detective Raines’ vaporous visions.