Can There Be Only One?
Mondays on Fox, 9 PM
Written by Allan Loeb & Christian Taylor
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom
Written by Daniel Manson
Directed by John David Coles
It’s said that Ponce de Leon came to the New World in search of the Fountain of Youth. Apparently a Dutchman named John got there first, along about 1647, and got more than he bargained for. Fox’s new Monday night drama is a police procedural with a twist–not only is “John Amsterdam” a hell of an investigator, he’s immortal. He’s a man in pursuit of death in more than one sense, because his immortality is contingent on one thing: finding his soul mate. Once he finds her, he becomes mortal again. eHarmony notwithstanding, in four hundred years, he hasn’t found her.
Not that that has stopped him from trying. Almost the first glimpse we have of John Amsterdam is of him seducing a young woman via the tango. In the course of the pilot and first episode, we learn that not only does he do this on a regular basis, but he has ex-wives and children to show for it. In fact, much of the population of Manhattan would seem to be his descendants. I hope that Amsterdam has a good head for genealogy, because he risks bedding one of his own great-great-granddaughters if he doesn’t take care. Rather than looking for Ms. Right, John Amsterdam seems to be looking for Ms. Right Now.
Let’s address the problems in this whole scheme. The first one is the eternal youth thing. Since none of us wants to watch an ancient gremlin creeping around New York, the creators have made John not only immortal but forever young. One must assume he’s also immune to disease, and we do see him come back to life after being pronounced dead. But at some point, aren’t his neighbors going to notice that he doesn’t age?
Secondly, this immortality was allegedly conferred on John because he saved the life of a Native American shaman during a massacre. A woman who apparently could not save her own people from measles and smallpox somehow figured out the secret to eternal life–a secret she didn’t share with other members of the tribe.
Third, the whole logic of the soul mate clause makes no sense. Why would John seek out the one woman who will kill him? This is about as Freudian a connection as one could ask for.
Fourth, by now John’s photograph, fingerprints and possibly his DNA are in the system, and it’s only a matter of time before someone links him with a 100-year-old case or something, and starts asking difficult questions. Has John planned for this contingency?
Fifth, the whole police procedural aspect of this show fails. There isn’t a single clue that’s not obvious, a single suspect who isn’t telegraphed well in advance. The plots are contrived to showcase the unique aspects of John Amsterdam’s life — his intimate knowledge of the City’s past, his personal life and network of family, his colorful hobbies. I don’t really have a problem with this, but viewers who are looking for a puzzle leavened with a little wit will find themselves disappointed.
Fans of SF and fantasy movies by now have clued in to the many, many similarities between the premise of this show and the whole “Highlander” series of movies, as well as the TV series that ran for six seasons. Astonishingly, in July, during the Television Critics Association press tour in Los Angeles, the producers claimed never to have seen “Highlander”. They also denied any link to Pete Hamill’s 2003 book, Forever, which is about a man who travels to New Amsterdam in the 1700s and saves the life of a black slave, who then casts a spell conferring immortality on him until his quest is fulfilled. Incredibly, the producers claim never to have heard of Hamill’s book until the series was in production (Hamill has shrugged off the controversy and declined to sue.) While I believe in such a thing as synchronicity, and know that there are no really original plots, I find it hard to believe that no one in Hollywood mentioned these prior works during development meetings.
So where does this leave “New Amsterdam”? Struggling. The show itself is no more nor less interesting than most of the other new entries into the schedule. We don’t really need another police procedural set in New York; that turf has been owned by Dick Wolf’s “Law and Order” franchise for decades, and what they don’t own is rented out to “CSI: NY”. Will it really make any difference to dress up a generic police procedural in supernatural window dressing?
Actually, yes. I was surprised, nay, astonished to find myself actually enjoying this show. There are awful gaffs, of course, but this is a new series and it will inevitably stumble at first. Zuleikha Robinson (“Rome”, “The Lone Gunmen”), playing John’s partner Eva Marquez, is so repressed by her by-the-numbers character that none of this actress’ sparkle and verve comes into play. What a waste. But Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (“Firewall”, “Kingdom of Heaven”) plays John Amsterdam with the kind of blue-eyed, exterior cool one expects of a Daniel Craig or a Paul Newman. His Amsterdam claims to be a cynic but responds to most crises with warmth, humor and intelligence. He accepts his crazy situation with resignation and wit. After an encounter with one woman, his secretary/daughter asks, “Is she The One?” To which he responds wryly, “I dunno. Do I look older?”
What appears to be mere philandering at first–John’s frequent marriages and liaisons–turns out to be his quietly driven search for the one woman who will make him mortal and thus, as he tells his son, give value to his time on earth. Other than the shaman’s cryptic clue about “soul mates”, John doesn’t know how he will know when the woman he’s found is “the one”. When they meet? When they dance? When they have sex or children or share a mortgage? Without clear guidelines, John appears to be fumbling his way through a love life characterized by passion, tenderness and honor, but perhaps not true love. Full credit goes to Coster-Waldau, who shows us the long-simmering pain and frustration inherent in this situation in John’s eyes.
One of the best “twists” to this format is John’s children. Unlike the “Highlander” series, which posited that Immortals were sterile, John is anything but. Time after time we learn that someone who appears old enough to be John’s parent is actually one of his descendants. Stephen Henderson (“Law and Order: SVU”, “Third Watch”) plays Omar, John’s local bartender–ironically, since John is a member of AA and proudly announces that he’s been sober for more than 15,000 days, or more than 40 years. As we learn in the pilot, not only does Omar know John’s secret, he guards the secret workshop where John makes “antique” furniture in the persona of his 19th century self, which Omar sells for a fortune. In the second episode, “Golden Boy”, we learn further that Omar is actually John’s son by an African-American wife. Even as attorney John “York” courts Lily (Omar’s mother) in 1941 New York, his legal practice is assisted by a fiftyish secretary who is actually John’s own daughter; her wry comments reveal that she is in on the secret. Later, John tells Omar’s grandson, who is also John’s great-grandson, that he can’t die. Discovering all these wildly diverse family members/descendants was one of the fun parts of the show–rather than having John constantly battle disbelieving others, he is surrounded by people who know, accept, and live with his “secret”. Every time John struck up a conversation with someone who knew him, I wondered if this was another descendant. How weird it must be to have a grandfather who looks younger than you do.
Nor was it only the children who made an appearance. In the pilot episode, John solves a murder partly through his memories of an artist with whom he once had an affair. The artist, now an old woman suffering from Alzheimer’s, recognizes him as her long-lost lover and reproaches him for leaving her. Omar insists that John show up at the cemetery on the anniversary of his mother Lily’s death, to lay flowers on her grave. A passing reference to Sarah Bernhardt, the fiery turn-of-the-20th-century actress, implies a liaison with the famously amorous diva. Again, while we might easily dismiss this as mere promiscuity, there’s the shadow at the back of Amsterdam’s eyes to remind us that this is more than adventuring, it’s a quest for mortality and meaning. In one particularly memorable moment in the pilot, John quietly wipes blood off Omar’s face after a fight. It’s a gentle touch, a fatherly touch, which speaks of care and connection at a time when we don’t even yet know the true relationship between them. This would be an impossible sell if Coster-Waldau weren’t selling it; the success of this characterization falls entirely on his shoulders and he carries it off well.
A host of small touches add some charm and depth to what might otherwise be pretty dull procedural non-drama: a secret passageway into John’s studio, the use of a Decembrists’ song to set the mood, passing mentions of jazz greats John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk. Like Forrest Gump, John’s known everyone worth meeting in New York, since the day he arrived. John’s penchant for antique watches and vintage photography equipment adds personality, while the dialogue sometimes sparks with a witticism precisely timed and delivered.
The second most important “character” in this show is the city of New York. A more quintessentially American city is hard to imagine–as old as the nation, as diverse as its people, it has a rich and unique history to exploit. The format of the show allows us to “time travel” through John’s memories in a more believable fashion than any “Journeyman” trip, and opens up marvelous possibilities: John meeting George Washington, during the General’s campaign against the British in the Revolution, or later during his Presidency in New York? John watching the erection of the Statue of Liberty, seeing the influx of immigrants through Ellis Island? One could write ten years’ worth of stories linking John to the life and evolution of one of the most interesting cities in human history. I’d love to see a show that incorporated the City’s past so organically into the story.
I doubt we’ll get a chance to see that, however. The Hollywood Reporter stated in an October 2007 article that production had been stopped on the series “indefinitely”. “With seven episodes of [the] supernatural drama in the can, the network’s executives have decided to take a look and decide whether to order additional segments, something considered unlikely.” The drama debuted with solid numbers; the pilot won its time period with 13.7 million viewers tuning in, a 8.3 rating/12 share from 9 p.m.-10 p.m. However, on its second night, it lost 22 percent of its previous audience to finish at second place behind “Don’t Forget the Lyrics”. Those are still good numbers, and one can easily explain the slippage as confusion on the part of viewers. Fox has been bouncing the show all over the schedule, and one might reasonably hope that when it settles into its regular Monday 9 PM slot the ratings will settle out. That may be a moot point, however, if the network refuses to order more shows. With production shut down for nearly half a year now, it’s doubtful that the show will get a green light for more scripts unless ratings soar spectacularly. As much as I like the little touches in “New Amsterdam”, I feel that, in the final analysis, they aren’t really enough to keep this show on the air. There’s just not enough new meat on these old bones.