New Amsterdam: “Keep the Change”

The Time Traveler’s Confession

New Amsterdam

Mondays on Fox, 9 PM

“Keep the Change”

Written by John Mankiewicz

Directed by Jim McKay

Why is it that every homicide John Amsterdam investigates comes down to thwarted passion and/or love? Is this supposed to be some kind of theme for the series? Who has “themes” for police dramas? All these thwarted lovers and jealous spouses are experiencing a host of intense emotions that John apparently does not feel, or wants to feel, or somehow misses by inches. So he investigates the details, as if assembling the broken lives in a psychological jigsaw puzzle could somehow help him know when he’s found The One. But then, aren’t all lonely would-be lovers looking for The One? This veers uncomfortably close to a kind of sentimentality usually reserved for Hallmark cards and daytime dramas; certainly it argues that kind of disproportionate response to a situation that otherwise would call for a cooler reaction.

A homeless addict named Mick walks into the squad room to demand that the police investigate further into the supposed overdose death of his friend, Ollie, a reformed addict. Only John takes him seriously, and orders “expensive toxicological tests”. His hunch is justified by the tox screen and the realization that a right-handed man shoots dope into his left arm, not his right. Eva and John backtrack the dead man’s movements and find themselves at an opening ceremony for a homeless shelter sponsored by city councilman Ben Tucker (Stephen Kunken,Law and Order: Criminal Intent) and his wife, Daphne (Bridge Regan, The Black Donnellys).Their driver, Bob (Anthony Desio, Law & Order: SVU), a former addict, says the Tuckers turned his life around. He points them to a celebrity rehab center named New Horizons, which John infiltrates in order to get more information on Ollie. There he meets rock star Chris Duncan (Ian Brennan) who scoots as soon as he learns John is a cop.

Dealing with all these addicts reminds John of a turning point in his (too long) life, when he hit bottom in 1964 as a drunk. We see him emceeing at a club named “The Dutchman” (his own? An homage to Dutch Schulz?), where the horn player in the band turns out to be (surprise!) his own son, Omar. When John literally falls off the stage, drunk, he wakes up in stir with a new friend, Frank (Nick Sandow, Six Degrees), who steers him into Alcoholics Anonymous. There, John learns that writing down his confessions into a notebook, and reading it to another person, is part of the program. In one of the more fascinating scenes of the episode, we see him filling notebook after notebook–dozens of them–with details about his life, his failures, his omissions–including remorse over his abandonment of Fanny, whom we met last week. Eventually, John winds up reading this to young Omar, which explains a lot about their present relationship. While he obviously has told other children about himself, John may never have revealed as much about himself to anyone as to Omar. In one telling aside, he says that he would have “given the moon to the person who heard [my confession]”.

As the murder case progresses, John’s long memory comes more into play–he identifies a photograph of legendary blues singer Robert Johnson holding a familiar looking guitar, he directs Eva to the location of a hotel safe deposit box based on Ollie’s personal effects. John’s sympathy for and understanding of the plight of the homeless serves his case well, as he knows that Ollie would have had a hiding place for his valuables. Mick leads him to it. Eventually John ties Ollie to rock star Chris Duncan, who unfortunately dies of the same suspicious “overdose” as Ollie. I was hoping at this point that the story would be about the Devil come to claim Johnson’s guitar (the legend says that Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for mastery of the blues), but alas, the story went elsewhere.

This episode saw the debut of a new character, Sergeant Callie Burnett (Susan Misner, Gossip Girl). I can only imagine that this character was dreamed up in a “most annoying character” contest. There’s no way a woman that young and naive gets to be a sergeant at the NYPD. Nor would she consistently make sexually charged remarks to Eva, or about John. It’s like Burnett is asking to be hauled up in front of a sexual harrassment panel. Is this supposed to be groundbreaking? Between her behavior and that of the thuggish Santori (Robert Clohessy, Law & Order: SVU), the New York homicide squad is starting to make the Three Stooges look competent.

And what’s most annoying is that we don’t even need Burnett, Santori, even Eva Marquez. The problem is that this show is being written as a police procedural that just happens to involve an immortal, when it should really be about how the immortal guy deals with life and truth and change. Do we really care about the murder of the week? Only as it relates to John’s past. All his flashbacks and memories of the past would serve equally well if he had some other profession–journalism, insurance investigator, even a lawyer. I have not yet seen John really take advantage of the modern crime-solving machinery of the NYPD–that’s Eva’s job. John is more likely to use the intuitive leap from a long-embedded memory, such as when he identifies Robert Johnson’s guitar from a photograph. The flashbacks to John’s past in 1964 were far more interesting than the 2008 murder case, and had very little to do with that murder case. How does John’s alcoholism help him solve the murder? It doesn’t. It just makes him more compassionate. And how lucky is it that John’s suspect confesses, because there’s no way his “police work” would stand up in a court of law. Stealing a witness’ cell phone to illegally access her calls? Conning his way into a locked hotel room without probable cause or a warrant? There is no “procedure” in this procedural.

Worse, John’s search for The One who will grant him mortality is hitting speed bumps. Although he has charmed Sara Dillane into bed, he has not charmed her out of her suspicions of him. After a romp between the sheets, Dillane starts asking questions (hint: the questions should come before the sex, Doc). She pesters him for information about his antecedents, doesn’t apparently get the hint when he says he doesn’t drink, and admits she Googled him. Stalker, much? Who’s pursuing whom here? She finally delivers an ultimatum, always a bad sign in the first week of a relationship, and John caves. He tells her the truth; naturally she doesn’t believe him, despite having all these questions about his blood type, the tox report, his scars, his X-rays. I don’t know what kind of answer she was looking for; maybe she didn’t either. In any case, the character Sara Dillane came across consistently as confused and incoherent, poorly conceived, and with no chemistry whatsoever with John Amsterdam. I began to wonder if Sergeant Burnett was The One.

You can’t blame Amsterdam for the lack of chemistry. The best thing so far about John Amsterdam is that despite every possible excuse, he is not world-weary or cynical. There’s too much joie de vivre in those sparkling blue eyes, too much zest in his step, too much sheer lust for life in John Amsterdam. They really don’t need to dumb-down everyone around him; he has enough charisma to hold the screen against Tony Soprano. I can’t help but compare this show–and John Amsterdam–to ABC’s Pushing Daisies, another “procedural with a SF twist”. In that series, Ned posseses the unique ability to bring the dead back to life, and confers de facto immortality on his dead girlfriend, whom he can never touch again because it will kill her dead forever. Wisely, the producers of that show made the romance and Ned’s gift the true heart of every story, and the result is magical. In New Amsterdam, the producers are still trying to make this work as NYPD Blue with a twist. Not gonna work. Without the chemistry to make the romance work, without the chops to make the crime plots work, this is rapidly becoming vanilla pudding. The only thing keeping me coming back is a chance to see John Amsterdam’s past lives.

New Amsterdam helped Fox tie for third place, with a 6.3 million, 2/5 share. That’s down from last week’s 7.2 million. Dropping numbers is not going to secure this show a permanent spot on Fox’s schedule. Ratings quirks being what they are, though, this week’s Entertainment Weekly listed the show in its Top 20. Granted, it was spot #20, but it’s amazing that a show with this low ratings made it on the radar at all. if the network percieves it as a show with ‘buzz’, regardless of sinking ratings, it might decide to take a flyer on it, particularly if this year’s truncated pilot season leaves Fox without viable new shows for the fall. I hold out hope — not much, but some — for a renewal. Stranger things have happened.