Once upon a time, there was Law & Order, a police drama with a streamlined approach that no one could imitate. That is, except for series creator Dick Wolf, who, knowing no shame, expanded the franchise to include Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: Trial by Jury, Law & Order: LA, and Law & Order: My Living Room. Between the first and second spinoff, though, came CSI: Crime Scene Investigation by producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who figured out a new formula to make cop shows hipper, dumber, and strangely appealing to CBS executives. He’s been using it ever since, but then so has everyone else.
The Bruckheimer recipe features five essential ingredients, the first of which is the gimmick. In Numb3rs, for example, Charlie employs theoretical math to solve crime. Unforgettable uses eidetic memory as its hook. Former detective Carrie Wells (Poppy Montgomery) can recall every element of a crime scene, every testimony, and every obscure fact that comes her way. This doesn’t really affect the story when you think about it. Detectives on television always remember the details of their investigation because, at forty-four minutes per case, the writers can’t afford to spend time on exposition that won’t pay off.
However, the notion does provide a visually appealing way to recap important information, which leads us to the second ingredient: the flourish. Remember those melancholic flashbacks in Cold Case with the grainy film and retro soundtrack? It’s all about presenting the evidence in a slick, sexy way. Unforgettable replays key scenes from Carrie’s shifting point of view, giving us a chance to spot the clue a fraction of a second before she does. I like this device, but I worry it might get repetitive after a while.
The third ingredient consists of the oddball protagonist. This applies more to male sleuths, but Carrie has enough quirks for it to bear mentioning. When the hero has sex appeal, the idiosyncrasies are limited to exaggerated mannerisms. Think Horatio from CSI: Miami. However, crime busters who rely on their mad skills are more often portrayed as dysfunctional recluses because viewers find smart people threatening. Poppy Montgomery is a fine-looking woman, but she’s got weird calves, so her character’s got both issues relating to her disorder (she has trouble forgiving) and a childhood trauma.
This brings us to essential ingredient number four: the quest. Cops on television never do it for the paycheck, and they have the hardest time striking a balance between their immediate duties and personal ambitions. For example, Annabeth from Close to Home personalises every case, working extra hard to keep her community safe. Like a number of recent cop dramas, Unforgettable takes the idea more literally, making its heroine obsessed with solving her sister’s 25-year-old murder. I admit to having zero interest in the subplot. I’d rather see how Cassie supplements her income, since she’s not officially on the force yet. My favourite scene shows her counting cards at an illegal casino.
The final ingredient pertains to the supporting cast. Our dedicated protagonist must join a team of vaguely defined archetypes such as the caring ex (Dylan Walsh), the young smart mouth (Kevin Rankin), the aggressive female cop (Daya Vaidya), and the rough-around-the-edges veteran (Michael Gaston). All have to be moderately charismatic but ultimately expendable. There’s a reason CSI: Crime Scene Investigation has been limping since Grissom’s departure but no one cared when Sarah Sidle left.
As for the episode’s actual plot, well, you know, it exists. With over half a dozen police procedurals broadcast every week, I find it difficult to get excited about suspect number three turning out the killer instead of suspect number two. After a while, these murder investigations all start to look the same, as do the shows featuring them. I should stress that Unforgettable is, in fact, not a Jerry Bruckheimer production. Who could have guessed?