Considering the plethora of cop shows that come and go over the many various networks, these days there is something oddly ironic in the way that Jeremy Renner’s Detective Walsh holds aloft his dead partner’s badge at the conclusion of The Unusual’s pilot and details its significance. As each cop retires the badge is handed down to a graduating recruit until someone dies, explains Walsh, “And then they hang it on a wall.” With that in mind ABC’s latest rookie hoping to make the force is the oddly monikered The Unusuals. A quirkily offbeat procedural that’s character driven and much in the vain of iconic dramady M*A*S*H employs a high-tension backdrop against which it looks to explore the absurdity and humanity of people constantly exposed to extreme situations. And damn if it isn’t a breath of fresh air.

As a fledgling series with designs of retooling a genre that’s beyond played out at this point it opens almost playful nodding to convention as events kick off with Terry Kinney’s grizzled homicide sergeant glumly hollering the news: “Walsh, somebody killed Kawolski!” Breaking in new partner Casey Schrager (Amber Tamblyn), transferred in from Vice by Kinney to secretly pursue the suspicions he has about his homicide team, Walsh sets about solving his partner’s murder with the rest of the precinct lock step behind.

Scrager’s in fact a high-society girl on the lam from her Park Avenue parents, with a mother (who addresses her using her middle name) regularly interrupting her crime scene antics with comically pointless phone calls about the importance of proper nutrition and the like. Back at the precinct, partners Banks (Harold Perrineau), who is obsessed with his own mortality and sleeps in Kevlar, and Delahoy (Adam Goldberg), who becomes reckless in the face of news he has a brain tumor, play out a good-natured if somewhat morbid mutation of the odd couple. Det. Cole (Joshua Close) is a little too cartoonish as the bible thumper with a secret past as a petty criminal, and the fact that he’s gifted lines like, “God opened my eyes just as the third stick of dynamite blew the truck into the quarry” doesn’t help his case. Most fun of all is Kai Lennox as Det. Eddie Alvarez, an egotistical doofus, who refers to himself in the third person and dresses like he’s just stepped off the set of Hill Street Blues. Tying it off wonderfully is the unseen but truly anarchic dispatch officer, broadcasting alerts for officers to be on the look out for “a man in a hotdog costume… who may or may not be wielding a samurai sword.”

The idea behind the show obviously derives from the notion that being up to your ears in human scum for eighteen hours requires a certain kind of crazy that over the course of career will grow into a full blown mania of sorts. Perhaps a bit desperate to ensure we get the point, it’s occasionally a little on the nose. At one point Kinney declares: “Every cop has a story. Why they do what they do. What that story is determines what kind of police they become,” just in case anyone was still wondering. The Unusuals also has intermittent difficultly nailing the transitions between the comedy and the drama. A subplot about Banks and Delahoy enticing a confession from a rogue cat killer with a photocopier they convince him is a lie detector before spraying him with fish oil and locking him in a car filled with his nemeses jars uncomfortably with the hunt, however quirky, for a cop killer.

Yet in spite of what hopefully amounts to a few teething problems, the veteran cast are immensely likable and ably paper over the early cracks. Creator Noah Hawley, a veteran of Fox’s will-they-won’t-they forensics series Bones, knows how to hone in on the humanism through the sea of eccentricity. While these guys are clearly as mad as a bag of walnuts, the characters never veer off into the realm of caricature, making this a series with potential the like of which we haven’t witnessed in some time.

Starring: Amber Tamlyn, Jeremy Renner, Harold Perrineau, Kai Lennox, Terry Kinney, Adam Goldberg, Joshua Close, Monique Gabriela Curnen

Created By: Noah Hawley

Network: ABC

Original Air Date: 08/04/2009

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