New Amsterdam: “Soldier’s Heart”

Publish and/or Perish

New Amsterdam

Mondays on Fox, 9 PM

“Soldier’s Heart”

Written by Eric Overmeyer

Directed by Bobby Roth

What happens if you aren’t your soulmate’s soulmate? Oops. That’s the final surprise in “Soldier’s Heart”, an episode that feels like what this show might settle into, if given a chance. It’s about memory and pain and loss, and how we deal with the unbearable. The twin threads of the story–a homeless, damaged Gulf War vet played by Orlando Jones (Ghost Whisperer) and a murdered psychiatrist treating patients with recovered memories–weave in and out, stitched together by John’s memories and some mighty convenient coincidences.

The murdered shrink turns out to be a coworker of Dr. Sara Dillane (Alexie Gilmore, Law & Order: Criminal Intent), the ER doctor who may or may not be The One, the soulmate who will redeem John Amsterdam from a life of, uh, life. Despite 400 years of experience seducing women, Amsterdam is kvelling about introducing himself to her, until luckily the case requires them to meet. At which point she immediately recognizes him as the dead guy who walked out of her ER. She insists on examinations and tests, which he happily obliges with, and a certain low-key, flirtatious vibe starts to hum. Until the final act, when she introduces John to her husband. Like I said–oops.

Actually, this doesn’t bother me much. I know it’s too much to hope that Dillane turns out NOT to be “The One”–TV is never that subtle–but a little corner of me wants Amsterdam’s soul mate to be someone else. Not the bland blonde doctor lady with the dishwater personality, but a woman with enough fire and passion in her to brew up some chemistry between her and Amsterdam. Zuleikha Robinson would be fine for this, if they had actually written a character for her to play. The fiery actress who stole all her scenes in Rome could definitely hold the screen with Coster-Waldau. But I’m not expecting that to happen.

In the meantime, we get a little more of Zuleikha Robinson’s colorless Eve, mostly being bitchy, and Robert Clohessy (Law & Order: SVU) as Detective Santori, who I think is supposed to be a sort of ironic Greek chorus, but who comes off mostly as a wisenheimer. Neither of these characters make me feel good about the investigative powers of the NYPD; building up the hero detective by making everyone around him act like an idiot may work, but it does so at the cost of viewer respect. Eve and Santori sit passively by while Amsterdam browbeats a “confession” out of Jones’ terminally confused Sgt. Wilcox, apparently unaware that his blathering would never hold up in testimony. That scene was cringeworthy enough, but later on in the episode, Amsterdam claims to have a sudden epiphany that what he did was bad and manipulative, and it turns his case around. I call baloney–an experienced investigator, let alone one with literally hundreds of years of experience–would have known exactly what he was doing. The “police procedural” part of this show continues to limp badly. It’s not the focus of the series, and perhaps should not be, but that’s no excuse for sloppy characterization, reliance on coincidence, and lazy writing.

Nor is that confession scene much helped by Orlando Jones. There was something profoundly off in his spastic, over-the-top Gulf War vet. Maybe it’s the idea that most of our honored veterans are dangerously unhinged twitch jobs that’s growing old. Maybe it’s the fact that no one could take him seriously as a murder suspect. Maybe it’s the fact that Amsterdam could clearly have convinced Wilcox to confess to the Zodiac murders and the Lincoln assassination, given time. Played against Coster-Waldau’s relatively laid-back Amsterdam, the scene came across as awkward and unbalanced. Possibly because Coster-Waldau wasn’t playing a cliche.

I expected an episode devoted to memory to have a little more depth to it. Certainly it’s a fascinating topic to explore when the subject is a 400 year old man. Less so when it’s a warmed-over helping of false memory syndrome, coupled with some rather obvious references to “phantom pain” and repression. The murder victim was treating patients who claimed to have recovered repressed memories–only in this case the shrink rejected the idea of recovered memories and was treating them for hysteria. Her former research partner objected. Lawsuits and dissolutions followed. Tempers simmered. Finally, after ten years, the late Dr. Prender decided to write her memoirs, and within a week was dead. Even Eva can connect the dots on this one, and they focus their investigation on the doctor’s former co-workers. It wasn’t a riveting story, serving only as a springboard for some musings on memory and a chance for Amsterdam to meet his Dr. Dillane. As I said, as long as the writers keep the focus on those parts of this tale that don’t echo (badly) shows like Law & Order, it’s more interesting by far.

I continue to applaud Nicolaj Coster-Waldau’s performance. His Amsterdam is understated, subtle, laid-back, as one would expect of a guy who has probably actually seen it all, done it all, and worn the T-shirt. I don’t know how long his character can get by with his constant revelations as to his extensive past–how many Army tours/wars? Three?–before someone calls him on it, but it continues to add a really necessary dose of humor to John’s character. That occasional twinkle from our not very melancholy Dane is a much-needed antidote to the bland and by-the-numbers “procedural”, keeping our focus on John rather than his cases.

The premise of New Amsterdam was a lot more interesting when it was basing itself on Pete Hamill’s “Forever”–the immortal hero cannot die until he finds his soulmate, and cannot leave Manhattan ever. In fact, during the initial press buzz about this show, it was strongly hinted that detective John Amsterdam could not leave New York, lest the spell keeping him alive and eternally young be broken. That conceit disappeared as soon as we learned of his service in WWII in Europe, and is put to final rest in tonight’s episode, “Soldier’s Heart” (an old reference to what we now call PSTD), in which we get flashbacks to John’s service at Antietam in the Civil War. Last time I looked, Antietam was in Maryland.

Too bad, because this makes the premise almost unsustainable. If John Amsterdam is forced to contain his search for true love to the island of Manhattan, well, it might almost make sense that somewhere in that city of 1.5 million he might find The One. It’s a lot of people to sift through, even if you cut the number of siftees in half, but he’s got all the time in the world. It’s plausible enough to pass my baloney meter. But if his “world” is expanded to include, apparently, North America and Europe, then his search becomes hopeless.

And it’s not just John’s search for love that becomes less believable. During our flashbacks to the Civil War, we meet Walt, John’s orderly who is helping to care for wounded Union soldiers. At the end of the episode, we learn that “Walt” is actually famed American poet “Walt Whitman”, who in fact did serve as a nurse in the Union hospitals. It’s fun when he presents John with a first edition copy of “Leaves of Grass”, which John later realizes “might be worth something”. Fun, but a direct attack on my credulity. I love the idea of John knowing, even if peripherally, everybody famous who ever lived in New York City. It’s a small island. But to have him become the Forrest Gump of the 19th century, meeting everyone who later became famous, is really pushing it. This whole idea works better in a smaller, more limited setting. After all, Walt Whitman was a New Yorker; why couldn’t John meet him in a veteran’s hospital on the Lower East Side? Or a coffee house after the war? Why does John have to leave Manhattan at all?

New Amsterdam pulled respectable ratings in its first night in its “regular” time slot, Mondays at 9 PM. Placing third with 8.78 million viewers, it earned a 2.5/6 rating share among the 18-49 demographic. Considering that it did this without the American Idol lead-in of the first two nights, that’s not as bad as it may look. I’m still not sure this show has any kind of chance–production has been on hiatus for some time, and this is, after all, the notoriously trigger-happy Fox network here–but it’s entertaining enough to keep me coming back on Monday night