To lead with the positive, USA Network’s new drama Eyewitness tries to do a few interesting and distinctive little things within the glutted genre of crime TV, offering a small-town setting and several character relationships meant to distinguish it.
That Eyewitness, premiering on Sunday night, does most of those little things poorly led me to stop my screener viewing after five of the first season’s 10 episodes.
Adapted from a Norwegian format whose name requires special characters I prefer not to seek out, Eyewitness begins with a straightforward premise and then adds layer upon layer of complication, usually precipitated by characters acting in the dumbest way possible at the worst time possible. Philip (Tyler Young), newly relocated to a small town outside of New York City to receive foster care away from his addict mother, and motocross star Lukas (James Paxton) are in the throes of early romance when their intimacies at Lukas’ father’s cabin are interrupted by the arrival of a small group of criminals. Philip and Lukas hide and are witnesses to a multihomicide. They escape, but the lone surviving killer is out there and wants to tie up loose ends, and admitting what they saw would involve admitting their relationship (which it shouldn’t need to, but this is the one time in the show nobody lies, in the dumbest way possible).
The crime briefly falls into the jurisdiction of local sheriff Helen Torrance (Julianne Nicholson), who used to be a hotshot detective in Buffalo, something we know because another character sagely observes, “She used to be some sort of hotshot homicide detective up in Buffalo,” which is the way Eyewitness handles exposition. Now Helen is content to just handle small-town crimes, concentrating on her relationship with local vet Gabe (Gil Bellows) and figuring out how to be a better foster mother to Philip — skills she hopes to acquire by listening to a book on tape in which the lessons helpfully align to things happening in each episode, which is the way Eyewitness handles theme. The murders are taken off Helen’s plate because they apparently relate to an FBI investigation into a Turkish drug ring in the area, but Helen and her eager-beaver deputy (Matt Murray) are still curious. She was, after all, formerly a hotshot detective in Buffalo, with the mysterious moving boxes marked “Buffalo” to prove it.
Adapted by Adi Hasak (Shades of Blue) and directed in early episodes by Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight), Eyewitness is a somber affair. The rural setting, with Ontario standing in with limited effectiveness for Tivoli, N.Y., offers the opportunity for local color, but almost all of that color is muted and washed out. Steely grays and blues predominate, and warm colors are almost wholly absent. Compositionally, this works well. Hardwicke and subsequent directors embrace the serene lakes and roaring rivers and also give some character to the town, which looks like a pleasantly generic, albeit washed out, place to live.
Tonally, though, the palette points to a show that is fairly suffocating. In adapting Scandinavian shows, American writers tend to lose the often droll humor that runs through the best of the genre. [I haven’t seen Øyevitne and can’t say if Eyewitness is an accurate transfer.] Eyewitness has the elements of quirk, without the awareness of their quirkiness, including Helen’s prescient book on tape. The show’s only real levity comes from the enthusiasm of Murray’s Deputy Tony, and, as a result, his was the character and performance I most appreciated.
The relationship between Philip and Lukas is probably built as Eyewitness‘ most original hook, a halting teenage gay romance that’s jeopardized by personal insecurities more than any cliched small-town prejudices or even that crime they witness. Intentionally or unintentionally, the courtship is almost impressionistic in its formlessness, as the characters move around with little connection to geography or temporality, such that an interest in drugs can go from curiosity to criminality in the space of two or three scenes, driven by whiplash teenage emotions and hormones more than narrative logic. This is the kind of thing you can get away with if you’re a Gus Van Sant movie or if the entire show around you is bound by similar logic, but Philip and Lukas’ love story lurches in and out of a crime drama that aspires to realism. You can also get away with it if the performances are compelling enough to ground the looseness, but while Young is very good, Paxton never feels natural (the other teen performances are also all wooden).
A lot of the supporting performances hit similar false notes and undermine the realistic aspirations. Small-town opioid addiction is a national epidemic, and there are plenty of conspiracy theories about how those drugs find their ways into communities. The conclusion drawn by Eyewitness appears to be “Cartoonish Europeans,” as the Turkish crime syndicate is depicted with a lack of nuance that suggests its next move probably will be kidnapping Liam Neeson’s daughter or incurring the wrath of Rocky and/or Bullwinkle. The FBI agents who are given names aren’t much better.
There’s a version of Eyewitness that could honor the still-edgy-for-TV romance and also honor the central crime in a way that suggests the circumstances behind suburban drug trade, both actual and in terms of perception. That version would probably be an installment of John Ridley’s American Crime, which also probably would delve into racial and economic undertones that Eyewitness ignores, and it would actually give the location specificity, rather than “small New York town filmed in Canada.” Eyewitness and American Crime do share an occasionally desperate “You think you’ve seen the real crime that the story is about, but here comes another” twistiness and, at least when it comes to Julianne Nicholson, a desire to give lead roles to chronically underutilized character actors.
Nicholson has been a TV regular before — if Sundance TV’s The Red Road had been a hit, she probably would have been its main beneficiary — but she’s still better known for stealing scenes in prestige dramas like Masters of Sex and Boardwalk Empire. Clearly at the top of the call sheet here, Nicholson makes an effectively strained and pained anchor for the drama. You see the life she wants to live, but also the scars of the life she lived when she was a hotshot detective in Buffalo. Bellows has no character to speak of, but he’s there to convey welcome affection for Helen, since the show’s aesthetic accentuates a coldness that’s sometimes Nicholson’s weakness.
The second-chance-at-love chemistry between Bellows and Nicholson and the first-chance-at-love Philip-Lukas pairing are just a couple of the things Eyewitness has to set it apart, but angles it doesn’t handle well enough to make up for icky, one-dimensional villains, a humdrum crime story and a tone that defies engagement.
Studio: Universal Cable Productions
Cast: Julianne Nicholson, Tyler Young, James Paxton, Gil Bellows, Warren Christie
Creator: Based on the format Øyevitne, created by Jarl Emsell Larsen
Showrunner: Adi Hasak
Airs Sundays at 10 p.m., ET/PT on USA Network.