ABC‘s new spin on crime drama, Forever, has a bit of sci-fi element to it. As the introductory trailer explains, Dr. Henry Morgan (Ioan Gruffudd) just can’t seem to die. He’s been alive for 200 years now, and the more accurate statement would be that he can’t stay dead. He dies relatively frequently actually, but he always comes back, in water, and naked. He apparently just teleports away, and is back in business.
For now, he’s a New York Medical Examiner, and in his free time he searches for a “cure” for his unique situation.
As we enter the show, Henry finds himself very closely connected to a crime, and because of that connection, Detective Jo Martinez (Alana De La Garza) has a few questions for him. When it doesn’t look like Henry is a viable suspect, he still tags along to help figure out who did it, all the better to completely clear himself. This, along with the first few moments of the show, let us in on the idea that being around for a couple hundred years will perhaps lead anyone toward Sherlock Holmesian abilities of observation. This obviously comes in pretty handy for a detective, but isn’t a bad trick for a medical examiner either, and as Henry’s assistant, Lucas (Joel David Moore, who conveniently has his years on Bones to draw from), points out, he can often deduce most of the pertinent information before even cutting a body open.
The connection Henry makes with Jo (which is one of the better shoving together efforts in the last few years) leads us into the subsequent episodic content, as Henry decides not to run yet again. Being constantly 35, Henry has had to change lives with some regularity over the years. Of course, it isn’t just Henry who finally isn’t moving again, because there is one person who knows his secret. Abe (Judd Hirsch) is Henry’s constant companion, and the pair own an antique business which serves to provide cover for Henry’s experiments.
The show has elements, obvious by the Holmes reference, that connect it to Elementary, and the best of those are the complexity of the lead, and the overall writing. Because we get a lot of flashbacks to Henry’s previous life, there’s also a kind of old world charm that somehow makes its way into the mix, despite the fact that we’re watching a lot more death than your average crime show. Not only do we have our victim/s each week, but Henry is doing M.E. work at you, and he’s probably going to have to die himself at least once an episode.
Naturally, the shtick is going to lead to its own plot necessities and twists, with Henry bound to have all manner of knowledge unavailable to most, and the intrigues involved with his relationship with Abe. The series kicks off with a long arc opening as Henry is contacted by a mystery figure who seems to know too much about him. These notes are handled well, and it makes for an interesting spin on the establishment needs of a series. Instead of trying to open a character up for the audience, Forever just gives us some pointed narration by that character which basically lets us in on the idea that there is too much to know to ever get anywhere, and it works surprisingly well. Being in on Henry’s insane secret puts us in the position of being “in on the secret,” and since he’s overflowing with charisma as well, we’re happy to join in.
The shtick only gets you so far though, and since the direction the show seems to be aiming is toward a true episodic plot base, we need good cases. Without going into detail, these are fun crimes so far, even if the show is trying to keep a lot of balls in the air, which means that the episodic investigation can only get so much time and detail. The danger there is that if the crimes are carried out in ways that are too complex, in order to make them cool enough, but we don’t spend enough time developing the investigation of that complexity, then it all turns a bit hokey, and starts to feel like Scooby Doo. We aren’t there yet, but we can see it from here, and the show needs to be careful to rein that in once we can slow down a bit.
Another potential hurdle for the show is that there is so much focus on bringing Henry, Abe, and Jo together, and fleshing them out as the people you just have to watch again next week, that anyone else on the screen is painted in broad strokes, and often have lines that are just stage directions. Already the other cops feel like characters without names in the credits, though Joel David Moore can suck you in no matter how small his role.
Still, a lot of the negatives are only ways that things may go wrong. Except for Lorraine Toussaint, who plays Jo’s boss. Fresh from Orange is the New Black, where she was also unconvincing and largely an irritant, Toussaint is given a boring placeholder of a character to play, and one that has had decades of incarnations without a writer showing up who was interested in doing so. Here, the best advice I can give is to close your eyes whenever she shows up, because she’ll pull you out of the whole affair.
These things aside, they don’t, as yet, distract that much from the overall effort. The flashback scenes are engaging and cleverly worked, despite the fact that by all rights they ought to seem pretty stupid. It works to keep things moving, and Gruffudd is surprisingly adept at keeping this character in check, while also letting him work his magic on you. He plays off of Hirsch as though they really had been friends for decades, and that’s saying something, because it’s trickier than you might think to deliver a depth of honesty while in the same scene with Hirsch.
Most importantly, the unique balancing act going on here makes for this year’s winner of the show that will make you most anxious to get to the next episode. It’s just plain fun, and magical death or not, it isn’t going to stoop to mindless drama, or compromise the intelligence it wants to work toward in order to get an audience.
Unfortunately, though a lot of people may come away from the pilot with the excitement they had for things like Elementary, or The Mentalist, those fans know that for every show they fall in love with that they get to watch for several seasons, there are ten more that don’t make it past a several episodes. This is the show to try to help along, mostly in the utterly selfish sense that you want to pre-order the season three Blu-Ray now.
*As of this writing, the pilot can be viewed early online on ABC’s website.