The Forgotten debuts at 10 p.m. EDT tonight on ABC.
I like everything about The Forgotten except for the actual show. The cast assembled here is a pretty solid one for a crime procedural (i.e. any show where the process of solving a crime is more important than the people solving it or the crime’s victims). The premise here is a great one for a crime procedural, maybe the best since Cold Case. The direction, from the dependable Danny Cannon, is appropriately brooding and CBS-ish (perhaps because it comes from producer Jerry Bruckheimer, inventor of the CBS house style). And the storyline of the pilot, while a little clichéd, is the sort of thing you can see working on a show like this. But at every turn, the show falls down at the execution level, choosing to do the easy thing instead of making this the fascinating, character-based procedural it could be. To that end, it’ll probably be a huge hit, even if it is on ABC, which is not known for its crime procedural ways.
The best thing about The Forgotten is its premise. A volunteer group of armchair detectives is dedicated to figuring out the true identities of John and Jane Doe crime victims once the police give up on trying to figure it out. Once they learn the identity, they can contact the victim’s family to let them know what’s happened, give the information to the police to let them solve the crime proper and pat themselves on the back for doing good for society. By reducing the case down to one, tiny element – the identity of a victim – the series could allow itself more room for hyper-specificity on the crime-solving techniques or character interplay or whatever it wants. It also allows the series to orient itself more fully within the grimy underworld of Chicago (though the victim in the first episode is a goth girl – always the go-to crime victims in a Bruckheimer production), a world where it’s all too easy to be forgotten.
There are other nice touches in the series’ conception. Having the unknown victim of the crime narrate the story, as though even she does not know who she was, is a little twee, but it fits in so nicely with the ABC network house style and is done in such a non-twee manner that it feels like it could work as an ongoing device. The cast is also full of good actors, journeyman character players whose faces you will recognize, even if you can’t place names to them immediately. Christian Slater proves surprisingly adept as the lead of this kind of show, his inherent twitchiness suggesting a passion for crime-solving here that it couldn’t suggest in last year’s abysmal My Own Worst Enemy. His Alex Donovan has all of the traits of your typical Bruckheimer hero (right down to the tragic past), but Slater gives them a nicely jittery edge. And that central device of people who have day jobs but spend their spare time solving crimes is a really solid one that would allow for some deftly written characters.
So, yeah, when I describe all of that, hopefully you can see where this could pretty easily be a fairly good show, at least as good as the better CBS procedurals out there (like the early seasons of CSI or Without a Trace). Unfortunately, The Forgotten falls apart at pretty much every level of its execution. Let’s start with just one of the easiest to pick out examples: the narration. To work for the narration of a dead girl who’s seemingly forgotten who she is, the narration would need more of an ethereal quality to it. Instead, she’s mostly there to narrate recaps of the crime as it happened, which gives the whole thing a prosaic quality that sucks the life out of the device.
It’s that way with nearly everything on the show. A promising idea gets all of the life sucked out of it by bland execution. Cannon, for example, is a fine director, but the style he inflicts on his shows – all bleak alleyways and mood lighting – is not quite the style The Forgotten needs. To play up its most interesting elements, The Forgotten might be served better by more carefully playing off the darkness of the crimes at its center with the everyday nature of the lives of the people trying to find the victims’ identities. It really seems as though The Forgotten is pressing hard to be a series about identity, how you attempt to find one in other people and subcultures much of the time, and it might do even better to contrast the utter loss of identity in its victims with the identity clash in its protagonists, who literally cannot decide if they are their day jobs or their secret passion.
That failure of nerve on a character basis is what most disappoints about The Forgotten. When the show starts, it seems like it’s going to be an easily recognizable crime procedural, sure, but it also looks as though it’s going to provide generous hints about its characters, the better to fit in with ABC’s character-driven M.O. Instead, it introduces the fact that all of these characters have different day jobs and then just mostly forgets it in favor of pursuing the crime story through the painfully obvious beats. The killer is easily predictable, the way it all went down is easily predictable, and it’s almost too easy to predict who the girl was and where she was from. (Well, you won’t be able to predict exactly what town she was from, but her overall arc is the sort of thing you’ve seen a million times before.)
That brings up the show’s other biggest failure of nerve. Rather than just focusing on reuniting the dead body with her identity, the armchair detectives (led by an ex-cop, but still) actually take a whirl at solving the case proper. I can see where this would become necessary every so often – the detectives stumble upon a lead as to who the victim really is while researching his or her identity – but for it to come up in the pilot episode suggests, depressingly, that this is going to happen from week to week, straining the credulity of the show. If a bunch of amateur sleuths are doing a better job of solving crimes than the Chicago police department, then we’re in Murder, She Wrote territory, and the tone shouldn’t be quite so brooding. It also robs the show of the interest it has in the small steps in solving a crime, of the importance of knowing who someone is before you can begin to puzzle out why they might have been killed.
I don’t suspect that at any point in the development of this show ABC and Bruckheimer had anyone involved come up to them and say, “We want to do a show about the importance and fluidity of identity and how that can be a problem when trying to solve crimes,” without either the network or producer telling them to just make another show that feels just like CSI. And that’s too bad. There are some rough edges here that could have made for a very good show, and they needn’t have been as eggheaded and ponce-y as the above makes them sound. The Forgotten is not terrible, exactly, but it’s disappointing because it could have been so much better.