'Carter': TV Review

Daffy, amiable distraction.
8/7/2018

WGN America's squeaky-clean mystery series is a throwback to a simpler time.

What if Encyclopedia Brown grew up, starred in his own TV detective series and then moved back home to solve murders with his childhood buddies? That's the essential premise of WGN America's Carter, a daffy though amiable throwback mystery series that seeks to answer what happens to the USA Network's slush pile.

Jerry O'Connell stars as Harley Carter, a goofball TV detective who retreats home to scenic Ontario after becoming tabloid fodder. (His vanilla mistake? Punching his wife's lover on the red carpet.) He soon reunites with his chosen family: his tough-cookie childhood bestie Sam (Sydney Poitier Heartsong), now a police detective; his resentful former sidekick Dave (Kristian Bruun), a recovering addict barista; and his adoptive Japanese-Canadian parents, Dot and Koji (Brenda Kamino, Denis Akiyama), a pair of aggro seniors who think little of Harley's showbiz career. Harley — naturally, annoyingly inquisitive — soon finds himself tagging along on Sam's cases as a "consulting detective," using his celebrity to charm his way through each mystery. (Think a declawed version of the short-lived Rob Lowe sitcom The Grinder.)

Carter is 1996's most medium hit. It's longing for a simpler era — a time when you could air a lukewarm crime show on CBS without a wink of grisly bloodletting or sexual innuendo. With its woodsy Canadian backdrop and palatable straight-shooter dialogue, I kept thinking back to low-budget classics like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman or Baywatch: just squeaky-clean fun. O'Connell injects unctuous allure into quippy, self-involved Harley, who would have been a womanizing rake on any other series. Here, he's all boyish bonhomie, an adult boy scout romantically hung up on Sam and desperate to make things right with Dave. His greatest attribute as a crime-solver is that he's not as dumb as he looks. Everyone constantly rails on him — his friends and family who make fun of his acting career, the townspeople who think he's a phony detective — and all he does is grin and prove them wrong time and time again. Bless his little heart.

Is this Jerry O'Connell's Matlock? His Murder, She Wrote? He seems to be having a ball. Episodes include the Case of the Burned Down Paint Factory, the Mystery of the Dead Farmhand and the Quest to Find Who Poisoned the Japanese Chicken-Elephant Mascot (not actual titles, mind you). I half-expected an episode about a haunted carnival. (Sure, they're silly MacGuffins, but I still found myself hoping they do a "spooky" Halloween-themed episode in the future.) Despite Chechen mobsters, strapped bombs and innumerable shootings, the plots still feel light and low stakes, as though most of the action were taking place offscreen. (It's not.) Amazing how this small Canadian town can attract such big-ticket crime!

Carter loads a surprising amount of backstory into a painless murder-of-the-week series. The conceit is a sort of art-imitates-life-imitates-art ouroboros: As children, Harley and his friends solved his mother's murder, her death becoming his raison d'être. (The writing is unsubtle about this. In one episode, he literally tells a suspect, "My mom — she disappeared. It's the only reason I want to solve crimes.") Despite its digestibility, the series is humorously self-aware and consciously uses mystery-story tropes to navigate the crimes. Seemingly once an episode, Sam will say something akin to "Stuff like that only happens on TV, Harley!" Strangely enough, however, for a series about a TV star solving crime, earnest Harley rarely uses acting techniques or other Hollywood trickery to get the job done. You think that would be his niche!

Forget the harebrained plots: Carter's strength is in its relationships. O'Connell and Poitier Heartsong share a natural ease despite a well-worn will-they-or-won't-they dynamic, and Bruun shines as skeptical Dave, still smarting after being cast aside when his former BFFLs moved on to more glamorous lives. The best moments, though, are when the younger folks connect with barbed Dot and stoic Koji, the couple who raised Harley after his mom's disappearance. (Carter also hosts a surprisingly diverse cast: Out of the six main roles, four are played by people of color.)

Carter works as the perfect palate cleanser, a spritely intermezzo in between your leaden sadcom and feminist torture porn drama. In a flooded "top that!" Peak TV market where networks try to compete for who can create the most emotionally cratering, sexually arousing dystopian universe that will win tons of Emmys, Carter exists to merely pleasantly distract. And I believe this landscape, does, in fact, have room for airy and nostalgic B-list entertainment that goes down smooth. Sometimes you just need a fun(ctionable) background show to get through your chores.

Cast: Jerry O'Connell, Sydney Poitier Heartsong, Kristian Bruun, Brenda Kamino, Denis Akiyama, Varun Saranga
Creator: Garry Campbell
Premieres: Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (WGN America)