In the all-around classic How I Met Your Mother episode “Slap Bet,” Robin postulates that the ‘80s didn’t get to Canada until the ‘90s. While at the time, this just seemed like a way for the show’s producers to make cultural references relevant to them also relevant to the series’ slightly younger characters, it has now been revealed to be, apparently, true. That is, it’s true if The Listener, which debuted tonight on NBC, is any indication.
The Listener is the latest in a string of crime dramas picked up by U.S. networks from Canadian producers and tossed into problematic timeslots (Friday nights, the summer, etc.), seemingly at random, just so the network can fill the timeslot for minimal expense and most likely garner pretty good ratings. CBS’ Flashpoint, the first example of this new wave of Canadian content (Cancon to all our friends up north), actually performed pretty well for the network, but, then, it perfectly fit their brand and wasn’t a terrible show, just agreeably mediocre. There’s a whole wave of these kinds of shows coming next season (ABC has picked up at least two), but there’s one central problem with them that the fairly handsome Flashpoint avoided – they look kind of cheap.
In fact, The Listener looks like a holdover ‘90s drama in a lot of ways, like something you might stumble across on the Hallmark Channel in the middle of the afternoon while doing laundry. Indeed, for all the world, with its soulful lead and its generic shooting style and its Insert-Metropolis-Here location scouting, The Listener reminds me most of Early Edition, of all things, the sort of light, inoffensive pabulum networks used to slot on Saturdays before scheduling became a grueling death match with cable.
The Listener’s biggest problem outside of its overall generic nature is that it’s a show about a telepathic paramedic who decides (over the course of the first episode) that it’s about time he starts fighting crime like a good superpowered paramedic would, but his powers are so ill-defined that you spend most of the time watching the series thinking of ways you would fight crime more handily with psychic powers. Since a telepath would be the very best kind of detective (for fairly obvious reasons), a show like this needs to balance out the hero’s powers.
Here, he can seemingly only hear people’s thoughts (or, occasionally and confusingly, see them) if the person involved is thinking those thoughts really, really hard. It’s an inefficient system, and it seems like one that contradicts the episode’s opening moments, when our paramedic hero (whom we may as well give the name of – Toby) closes his eyes as the many, many voices of the city wash over him. Had the show pursued this direction – the psychic whose unlimited power means he has trouble zeroing in on the thoughts he wants to hear – it would have been something that had been done before, to be sure, but it also would have been more believable as a limitation.
In our first episode, Toby helps out at a car wreck, and he comes to realize that the woman he rescued from the car has seen her son be kidnapped. This is an OK set-up for getting a mere paramedic into the world of crime fighting, but it quickly devolves into a story you might notice from any CBS crime procedural. It’s a yawn, and the way the climax is shot makes it extremely hard to figure out what’s happening or why (a minor spoiler: a fairly major character seems to pretty much just walk off a cliff by choice). If you’ve ever seen a cop drama, almost all of this will seem rote.
All of this just plays up exactly why shows where it seems like it would make just as much sense to make the hero superpowered, like The Mentalist or Psych, choose not to go that route. Any time you give the hero powers, you have to figure out a way to believably limit them, and believable limitations on something like all-encompassing telepathic abilities are hard to come by. That The Listener makes The Mentalist look like a nicely deft little show is saying something. This is the kind of show where the hero’s powers don’t really work until it’s most convenient for them to spell out exactly where he needs to go to catch the bad guys.
As far as the acting goes, the show has a decent cast. Star Craig Olejnik will probably turn up in the ensemble cast of a TNT drama a few years from now and make good money. He’s good-looking in a bland sort of way, and he has some amount of screen presence. Mylene Dinh-Robic and Lisa Marcos are both all right as vaguely generic love interests for our hero, while Ennis Esmer does his best as Toby’s wacky partner who just isn’t wacky enough. Colm Feore turns up in a guest star part, doing his best to illuminate Toby’s dark past and to play one of those “professors who believe in supernatural phenomena” that only appear in genre shows or on Coast to Coast AM, but like everyone else in the cast, he just doesn’t have the material to play.
Like so many other summer burn-off series, The Listener isn’t actively bad. It’s just something designed to lull you into watching it while you’re doing other things or thinking about how you should really be outside or reading a book or planning your vacation. Because it features an attractive lead and because it has the bare bones of a mythology and because it has genre elements, The Listener will probably develop a cult audience of fans it doesn’t really deserve (see also: Moonlight), and here’s hoping the show’s a success for their sake and the sake of comments sections on every TV blog across the Internet. For the rest of us, though, The Listener will likely have to be a pass.