TV Review – Instinct (2018)
Alan Cumming won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his role in the 1998 revival of Cabaret at the 52nd Tony Awards. For two decades, he was more a Broadway star. He appeared in several films, but his breakthrough was probably his role in CBS’ The Good Wife (2009) for which he was nominated multiple times for the Emmy Award. It would make sense that CBS would tap Cumming to lead their next procedural program. Given that Cumming has worked for GLAAD and HRC on behalf of LGBT rights, it also makes sense that CBS would use Cumming in this show, which represents the first, prime-time, network TV drama that has its protagonist be an openly gay man. Obviously, there was Will & Grace, but that was a comedy and not a drama. LGBT characters have popped up in supporting roles in numerous dramas but none have been played by the actor who was the lead or the first on the call-sheet.
Cumming stars as Dylan Reinhart, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He works in UPenn’s Department of Psychology & Brain Science. He teaches a course called Abnormal Behavioral Analysis aka Intro to Psychopaths. He wrote a book on the topic as well. What’s revealed is that he’s former CIA, but he left for love and to pursue a personal relationship. However, he still has a contact in the CIA named Julian Cousins, played by Naveen Andrews (Lost and Sense8), who helps Dylan get covert information that even the police can’t get.
It’s reminiscent of the scene in David Fincher’s Seven (1995) when Morgan Freeman’s character has a contact that digs up library records to help track the serial killer. In fact, the first episode of this series is a rip-off of that Fincher film. Fincher’s serial killer has a modus operandi that’s similar to the serial killer here. Yet, the killer is portrayed more sympathetically here than in Fincher’s film and arguably the book on which this series is based.
Michael Rauch adapted this series from James Patterson’s Murder Games (2017). The tone of that book is pretty grim given how it opens with the killer describing how much he likes the sound and sensation of stabbing someone and watching them die in a pool of their own blood. Yes, the protagonist has a snappy sense of humor, but there is a darkness that comes to the book, which Rauch apparently doesn’t want to go near. There’s depths to the book that six hours of television would be needed to plumb, but Rauch wants to wrap up the whole book in one hour, so what was lesser Fincher becomes even more lame Fincher.
It’s not as if the mystery needed to be as or more clever than the mystery in Seven or even in Fincher’s Zodiac (2007), but there’s simply no weight or gravity to anything. The murders are treated so light and airy that moving from crime scene to crime scene seems like it’s supposed to be fun, which was perhaps not Patterson’s intention. With the inclusion of Whoopi Goldberg in a small role, Rauch and director Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man) don’t really take any of this material with much seriousness either.
CBS has done many police procedural programs. From The Mentalist (2008), Elementary (2012), Scorpion (2014) and Bull (2016), this series is on par, if slightly out of step. A lot of the same dynamics exist. The male protagonist is very much akin to a Sherlock Holmes-type who is often eccentric, odd or a maverick and he’s often paired with a woman who is more calm, rational and straight-lace, physically stronger or tougher. This dynamic also exists here. What happens sometimes in those dynamics like in ABC’s Castle is the eccentric man and tough woman will have romantic undertones or sometimes even overtones.
That can’t happen here because Dylan is gay and his partner is a female NYPD detective named Elizabeth Needham aka Lizzie, played by Bojana Novakovic. She’s just a placeholder. Her character isn’t as interesting as Stana Katic’s character in Castle or Lucy Liu’s in Elementary. Rauch’s first episode does not do much to hook us or make us care about her, except by saying her fiancé died, but even that is glossed over and not given enough gravitas to hook us.
Given the #MeToo and Time’s Up Movements, I wouldn’t necessarily argue that Lizzie should be a gay or bisexual man too, but it would be more interesting if Lizzie were. Dylan does have a boyfriend or male partner named Andy, played by Daniel Ings (The Crown and Lovesick). The first episode shunts him to the side. Andy isn’t part of the police investigations. Andy is a bar owner who used to be a corporate lawyer, but just because he’s the domestic presence for Dylan’s life outside of murder mysteries doesn’t mean there has to be a Chinese wall between Dylan and Andy.
Andy could be like Timmy Callahan from Third Man Out (2005), which is part of a series on Here! TV about an openly gay detective. Third Man Out is about Donald Strachey, a character from novels originating in 1981. That series wasn’t just about the murders. It was also about the relationship between Donald and Timmy. We saw them at home and in bed. Donald being gay wasn’t just lip service. The hope is that Dylan’s relationship with Andy isn’t just lip service going forward. So far though, the first episode makes Dylan’s being gay relatively a non-presence. The second episode takes a step in the right direction but still Dylan’s personal life with Andy feels like an afterthought.
Running Time: 1 hr.
Sundays at 8PM on CBS.