‘Motive,’ one new trick, one old pony
New ABC cop drama reveals the perp's motive at the very end
May 15, 2013
Network programmers are under a lot of pressure to try something new. But it’s a natural impulse to want to stick with what has worked before.
Those two conflicting forces help explain the existence of shows like ABC’s new crime drama “Motive.”
The show fiddles around conspicuously with the usual narration techniques of murder mysteries — most notably by labeling the perpetrator in the first few moments of each episode and by revealing the motive at the end — but the characters, plots and dialogue stick to the playbook. The show could appeal to the creatures of habit who enjoy CBS’s procedurals — especially since those shows will be going on summer hiatus — but viewers drawn by the promise of innovation will be disappointed.
Premiering next Monday, May 20, at 10:01 p.m., “Motive,” which originated in Canada, puts a veneer of novelty on its conventional stories. When we first see the killer, an onscreen graphic appears with the words “the killer.” Same goes for the victim.
But as viewers of “Columbo” will remember, detective stories have been giving away whodunit for at least 40 years.
The story is generally told chronologically, following Det. Angie Flynn (Kristin Lehman) as she solves a murder committed in a coastal city that is probably recognizable to Canadian viewers. But we also see frequent flashbacks that blend visually into the action: We’ll see, for example, a close-up of the suspect being interrogated, and then the camera pulls back to reveal the suspect at the murder scene.
Finally, the reveal at the end isn’t how the detective catches the bad guy — as it was on “Columbo” — but the motive of the crime. In the first episode made available for review, this comes out of nowhere; in the second, it’s not a surprise.
These gimmicks are only a veneer on an old-fashioned frame. Angie is a by-now-familiar character: the tough but intuitive detective and single mother who flirts unproductively with her male partner, in this case Det. Oscar Vega (Louis Ferreira), a somewhat less intuitive type whose character remains vague after two episodes.
Their boss, Staff Sgt. Boyd Bloom (Roger Cross), is such a cliché — a grouch who at one point has to tell Angie to go home and stop pursuing her hunches — that the show makes a winking reference to it. Angie asks Oscar, “Why is he always grumpy?”
The department’s coroner, Dr. Betty Rogers (Lauren Holly), seems to have been given a one-word character description: “sarcastic.”
In the first episode — non-spoiler alert! — a band geek who enjoys sneaking into people’s houses kills a teacher at his high school. (The teacher, who we first see in a karaoke bar, is played by the former New Kid on the Block Joey McIntyre.) Coincidentally, the teacher’s wife slept with her boyfriend the night of the murder.
We’re given an easily missable hint as to how Angie will solve the mystery early on, and the eventual reveal is fun. But a lot of the sleuthing is unimaginative or implausible.
In the second episode, airing in the show’s regular time slot, Thursday at 9 p.m., a local politician tries to place the blame for his hit-and-run murder of his family’s baby-sitter on the girl’s boyfriend. Solving this one, Angie and Oscar are so absurdly lucky that the script makes a winking reference to the absurdity.
In both episodes, Angie rejects the obvious suspect before everyone else does. She and Oscar argue over her stubbornness listlessly. They’re probably as tired of this form of TV-partner dysfunction as we viewers are.
Both episodes throw in some titillation in the form of teenage sexuality. Angie comes home to find her son, Manny (Cameron Bright), in bed with a girl who offers to show Angie the results of her breast-augmentation surgery. The second victim, who wears a private-school uniform, is unknowingly taped having sex with her boyfriend on a nanny cam.
It’s easy to guess the producer’s motive for adding the high-school-age sex: They have to liven up mediocre stories somehow. That might work with the “CSI”-”NCIS” crowd, but the folks at the broadcast networks have to stop relying on safe choices like “Motive,” if for no other motive than to keep their jobs.
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