Before Their Time: The Unusuals

Welcome back to Before Their Time, Geekade’s monthly feature dedicated to great shows gone too soon. This month’s best season you never heard of belongs to The Unusuals, a trope-busting police procedural/comedy/drama whose 2009 blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-10-episode run suffered inexplicable neglect and cancellation in spite of a prime time slot (it followed Lost), excellent writing, and an effervescent cast.

The Unusuals was Noah Hawley’s first TV creation, and its vivid writing, world-building, and characters prefigured his much more well-known TV adaptation of Fargo. The cast, which delivered complex arcs and snappy one-liners with equal aplomb, featured Jeremy Renner, Amber Tamblyn, Harold Perrineau, Adam Goldberg, Monique Gabriela Curnen, Josh Close, Kai Lennox, and Terry Kinney as NYPD detectives in the (fictional) Second Precinct. The show’s title describes its characters as much as its cases, both of which are endowed with all the strangeness and frenetic energy you’d expect from Lower Manhattan. Cops, suspects, and victims transcend caricature, connecting viewers with acts that range from essentially benign (an elderly gent sows his wild oats in a 15 MPH car chase) to chilling (a woman’s sublimated trauma manifests as false police reports), with painful hilarity in between (a B&E porn outfit turns unsuspecting marks’ homes into film sets).

The pilot opens with Sgt. Harvey Brown (Kinney) pulling Casey Shraeger (Tamblyn) from a vice detail to investigate the murder of – and replace – Burt Kowalski, late of the Second Precinct. Her new partner is the cagey Jason Walsh (Renner), whose loyalty to his previous partner may or may not include complicity in Kowalski’s suspected corruption. Most of the exposition is delivered crisply and lightly, via the precinct’s reactions to Kowalski’s death: Walsh cleans out his locker, ostensibly to spare Mrs.

Kowalski any nasty surprises in her late husband’s personal effects. Henry Cole (Close) tries to lead a prayer just after a deadpan Allison Beaumont (Curnen) returns from canvassing the crime scene for witnesses. Eric Delahoy (Goldberg) and Leo Banks (Perrineau) squabble, preoccupied with their own mortality: the former quietly (ignoring his doctor’s increasingly urgent calls) and the latter neurotically, convinced that the untimely deaths that carried off his grandfather, father, and uncle at age 42 will come for him this year. Chronic third person self-referrer and shameless climber Eddie Alvarez (Lennox) demands control of the investigation, and Brown just wants to set his house in order – by any means necessary.

These means include subterfuge, and the ensuing cat-and-mouse tension between Brown and Walsh drives the show’s exploration of the nature and limits of trust. Cops need to know each other and themselves to do the job, but they also – as Walsh pointedly tells Shraeger – need secrets to keep their sanity. They keep these secrets from their partners, their sergeant, their suspects, and even from themselves. The irony that people who suss out others’ motives for a living don’t always recognize their own is a pretty neat metaphor for the human condition, and the show nails the high stakes of secrecy in a job whose occupational hazards can range from peevish sniping to actual gunfire.

That’s not to say the show ever gets stuffy or bogged down. Like Fargo, The Unusuals is terrifically entertaining but also rewards close attention. Its character and plot arcs stand on their own and as object lessons in all the warmth and conflict and absurdity of human connection. Hawley has great fun exploring how our relationships tend to provide us with more information than we’d like and still somehow less than we need, our “reads” of people muddied or sharpened by the stories we tell ourselves. The Second Squad’s intimacy is both essential and incomplete, and its partners test the limits of each other’s knowledge and patience in moments rich with comedy and poignancy.

Banks and Delahoy demonstrate their state of the art lie detector
Banks and Delahoy demonstrate their state of the art lie detector

All of this is tied together by a stunning soundtrack compiled by Jeff Russo, the mastermind behind the arresting selections that accompanied both seasons of Fargo. Many of the more upbeat songs are used to great comic effect during chase scenes and alongside establishing shots that capture New York’s frenetic energy. (These shots also include one of my favorite recurring gags in any show, as a jaded dispatcher alerts responding units to samurai swords, hot dog costumes, and their failure to include her in the nightly dinner run.) Some intrepid Internet soul has compiled a song list; you can check out the songs currently available on Spotify at this playlist.

I’m a sucker for stories about the human condition, especially when they are as sharply written, performed, and scored as The Unusuals. The cast, soundtrack, and story for this forerunner to Fargo will leave a deep and satisfying impression. Check it out. Come on – what were you planning to do until Game of Thrones comes back, anyway?

HOW TO WATCH: When I started this piece the show was available for free on Crackle, but it was recently pulled. It’s currently available on DVD (on Netflix and Amazon) and via Amazon streaming.

MUST WATCH: If you only watch one episode, The Circle Line (Ep. 6) showcases partner dynamics and great police work and features a touching/wrenching guest appearance by Corey Stoll.

FAVORITE LINES: “It’s the NYPD, detective. If you’re not a little confused, you’re not paying attention.”

 “In what universe do you expect me to spend another minute in a murder store?”

“Don’t I get a phone call?”
“Who you gonna call, the Hamburgler?”

“Paperwork is a part of the job.”
“You know who did a lot of paperwork? Nazis.”

“We’ve been partners a week. You thinking about me dying?”
“What, is it too early?”

“Man, you saved an old lady today.”
“Screw that old lady. We’re partners. I’d push an old lady of a roof for you.”

PAIR WITH: Chinese takeout and a lager or a glass of whiskey on the rocks.

WATCH OUT FOR: The Unusuals showcases early, if brief, appearances by Susan Park and Cristin Milioti, who went on to deliver memorable performances in Seasons 1 and 2 of Fargo, respectively. Other notables include Adam Driver (Kylo Ren’s first TV appearance!), Hamilton Clancy (Burn After Reading and Orange Is The New Black), Ryan O’Nan, and Chris Sarandon (Prince Humperdinck in The Princess Bride).

AFTERWARDS: Watch (or rewatch) Fargo. It’s the only show I can think of that unites such memorable dialogue and characters with plausible detective work. FX has also tapped Hawley for to write for and produce its adaptations of the Marvel comic book character Legion and the Vonnegut novel Cat’s Cradle.

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