New Amsterdam: “Legacy”

The Sins of the Fathers

New Amsterdam

Mondays on Fox, 9 PM


Written by Barry Pullman

Directed by John David Coles

I wonder how many times John Amsterdam has lost track of his children, or rediscovered them. In last week’s episode, he confessed to having fathered at least 63 children over his 400 years. Even my shaky math skills can tell me that’s enough, over time, to populate all of Manhattan. No wonder he calls himself Amsterdam–he is the city. I do fervently hope that if he finds his true love in New York, that she turns out to have been born in Wisconsin or Europe. Otherwise, some queasy incest issues may arise.

Episode 6 of New Amsterdam is all about family ties–mostly broken or frayed family ties. John’s partner Eva is struggling to work out problems with her overprotective cop father, Eddie Marquez (Nestor Serrano, Law & Order). John and Eva are called to the scene of a Chinatown shooting, and John is stunned when he seems to recognize the victim–a blond young man who bears a strong resemblance not only to John himself, but to John’s son Roosevelt “Rosie” (Zachary Booth, Damages), who ran away in 1913. Worse, the young victim turns out to be Alex Spoor, scion of a well known crime family. He surreptitiously confirms his hunch with a below-the-radar DNA test, and sets out to investigate his own descendants. John clearly feels responsible for a branch of his descendants to have turned to crime, although what he intends to do about it remains a mystery–reveal himself as the patriarch, and then ground the whole gang without television? The tale unfolds as a strange mix of almost Biblical family dynamics and NYPD/FBI turf wars. Giancarlo Esposito (Gospel Hill) stars as FBI Special Agent James Lawson, an over-eager, perhaps overambitious organized crime profiler who wants to take over the case, and persistently shuts John out.

Unfortunately, we got a reprise of Sergeant Callie Burnett (Susan Misner), who has my vote for Most Unlikely Female Cop on television. The producers have tried to make this willowy, model-thin blonde a wisecracking, sarcastic taskmaster, but I’m not buying one minute of it. For one thing, she’s played too young to be a hard-bitten commander who’s come up through the ranks. She is too vulnerable, too eager to please. Misner does make her convincing in the one scene where Burnett finally tears Special Agent Lawson a new one, but it’s the only time I’ve seen so far where she actually acts like a person in authority. The rest of the time, she’s like an overeager puppy.

On the other hand, veteran Serrano plays a good scene with Nicolaj Coster-Waldau where John meets Eva’s father. What starts out as a pissing match between two alpha males (yawn) turns into a genuine human moment when Amsterdam is humble enough to apologize to his partner’s father. You don’t see much humility on television these days.

Of course we get the usual flashback/tie-in with John’s former life. This one, where he turns out to have been an artist named Dutch in the 1910s, is the weakest one I’ve seen yet. I really didn’t like this John, and not solely for the way he treated his family. I hate the cliche of the “temperamental artist”, a motif that was dated when “La Boheme” was new. In every other past life of John’s, he has been pretty much the same guy–affable and honest. He fights a duel for Fanny’s honor in the 1840s and dares to marry a black woman in the 1940s, but in between he regresses to a drunken, self-centered brat. He’s abrupt, tempestuous, dishonest and callous. Who is this guy, and what did he do with John Amsterdam? This is the first time Coster-Waldau seemed out of his element, obviously “acting”. And yet, as John waslks away from the body of Alex Spoor just as he has discovered him, the look of devastation and shock on his face is as honest and real as the best we have seen from Coster-Waldau so far. Clearly, this particular “take” on John Amsterdam–artist and rake of the early 20th century–didn’t work for either the show or the actor.

When John finally tracks down the aging patriarch of the Spoor clan, we do get a touching, affecting scene. Theo Spoor (Larry Keith, All My Children), unaware that the “young man” across from him is his own grandfather, reveals that it was he, not the errant young Rosie, who took the family into crime. His bitterness and anguish are just enough to burn past his egocentrism, as the old man realizes what the cost of crime has been to his family. Similarly, we see a flashback of John talking to Rosie, who has just walked in on Dad messing about with his latest model. “You’re my son, you always will be,” John assures Rosie. John of 1913 is so blinded by his own ego that he can’t see tht this connection is exactly what alienates and embarrasses his son–the thought of being linked forever with a thoughtless rake. Rosie runs away, and eventually makes a life as a good, honest teacher, while John “Dutch” Amsterdam never makes it into the prestigious Armory Show. Theo, who has seen the ruin of his hopes, and John, who has seen the renewal of his, both contemplate how the sins of the fathers eventually trickle down to the sons.

At this point, I have to stop and ask myself why John puts himself–and everyone he loves–through this hell, time after time. John knows that every time he marries and fathers children, he will eventually have to “leave” them. He will always cause them pain and suffering. What kind of selfish bastard perpetrates this on women and children lifetime after lifetime, dragging a legacy of pain behind him through the centuries? The only way a man could justify this would be that, every time he marries or has a relationship, he thinks that this woman is The One. And obviously, he’s been wrong every time. So just as obviously, he could be wrong about Sara Dillane. So perhaps this show is not “rushing” a romance as much as some fans complain.

And clearly, John has no way, no secret signal, that will tell him which woman is The One. He gambles with his life–and several people’s happiness–every time he lets himself fall in love. This sounds not so much like a mystical romance to me, as a working definition of hell.

There were some fine moments in “Legacy”. John’s boxing workout with Omar was a fine piece of brawny masculinity. Sgt. Burnett actually had one good line: “Partners. Like marriage without the makeup sex.” Awkward, but funny. John knows exactly why most Manhattan tenements are only six stories high, an answer born out of his long historical perspective. John smoothes the way with a Chinatown elder by remembering the elder’s great grandfather’s job–a stoolpigeon. Could it have been that John was the guy who controlled great-grandpa? That was a fine link between past and present. All these fine moments almost made up for the ludicrous turnaround in Sara Dillane’s behavior–having cast John off and refused to answer his calls, she suddenly seeks him out, forgives him, and initiates a booty call. Classy lady, that one.

New Amsterdam fell to 6.2 million from last week’s 6.3 million viewers. So far, the numbers have fallen every single week, despite holding a strong lead on iTunes downloads, where it finishes every week in the top three most popular downloads. It seems more people are watching this show online than on the tube. While that is encouraging, it isn’t making the Fox Network much money on the Web; if the ratings on broadcast television don’t improve, there will be no more New Amsterdam after April 14, the last date for which an episode is scheduled to air. Then again, it may be that audiences, learning that this series has been out of production since October, are unwilling to invest any time catching up in a show that seems doomed. Whatever the reason for falling numbers, I hope the network will at least show the remaining two episodes. I’ve enjoyed the tale so far, despite its uneven qualities. A premise this quirky deserved better.