'In the Dark': TV Review
The CW's new nymphomaniac blind-detective dramedy sounds like a joke, but the blend of genres is too clumsy to work.
Like an ill-fated improv game of "And Then…," The CW's new dramedy In the Dark may have started with the kernel of a good idea, only to get so larded up with embellishments and misguided genre detours that the actual show premiering Thursday night is watchable mostly with a sense of incredulity.
A story about an alcoholic, blind nymphomaniac detective and her trusted guide dog sounds like a bad series somebody would pitch in a Hollywood satire, and after watching three episodes of In the Dark, I remain, well, in the dark about how this came to be a real thing that The CW is airing in the actual TV season and not something a character from L.A. Complex was auditioning for as a gag.
To be fair, Perry Mattfeld's Murphy isn't actually a detective, at least not a licensed and bonded detective. After losing her sight in her teens, Murphy is now a disgruntled semi-employee at the guide dog training school run by her parents (Kathleen York and Derek Webster). It's a job she mostly sleeps through, having spent her nights getting drunk and picking up strangers at her favorite bar. Murphy's only friends are roommate Jess (Brooke Markham), a vet who also works at the training school, and Tyson (Thamela Mpumlwana), a teen who hangs out in the dark alley near her apartment and may be involved with dealing drugs. Murphy doesn't even especially like her dog Pretzel (Levi, blameless here), whose responsibilities are limited to the occasional walk and to watching Murphy boff her various pickups.
Then one night, Murphy is looking for Tyson and finds a body in the alley that she's convinced is her chum, though she only recognizes him because he insisted she do "the face-feeling thing" in the previous scene, just one of multiple instances of Corinne Kingsbury's pilot script clumsily introducing character details barely in the nick of time for a clumsy payoff. When the cops come to investigate, they don't find a body, making them very skeptical of the crime's lone blind, drunk witness, though one of the detectives (Rich Sommer's Dean) has a newly blind daughter (Calle Walton's Chloe) and doesn't hesitate to trade small favors for limited mentorship. But Murphy is sure of what she felt and she starts an unskilled investigation that suddenly gives her life purpose, even as it puts her in danger with Tyson's threatening cousin Darnell (Keston John) and in lust with Max (Casey Deidrick), a hunky food truck proprietor — he keeps asking people to try his hamburgers like he invented fine French cuisine — with criminal connections.
I don't know the order in which the story elements came together here, so I don't know if Kingsbury, who also created CBS' spring comedy Fam, started off with a dramedy about a sarcastic blind woman and then somebody said, "Why don't we add a murder mystery so that it has a hook?" or if the murder mystery was always there and somehow nobody looked at what was on the page or what was shot in the pilot and said, "This is bad and unnecessary, why do we need it?" There is no part of the investigation that rings true, from Murphy's amateur gumshoe fumblings to her professional interactions with the cops to the smooth-talking bundle of cliches that is Darnell. Plus, it's Max's proximity to the world of Tyson's disappearance that makes the developing romance with Murphy horribly unappealing — that plus a full episode in which she breaks his penis and he walks around wincing for 42 minutes, which comes just one episode after she has a UTI and walks around wincing for 42 minutes. Viewers will relate to all the wincing.
It's not like it's impossible to weave one storyline with life-and-death stakes around several others that are primarily frivolous. It's just very difficult and nobody here — that's even with the very capable Michael Showalter (The Big Sick) directing the pilot — is up to the challenge of blending the search for a possibly dead friend with a B-story in which Jess worries her sexy bi girlfriend (Humberly Gonzalez) might miss penises and goes in search of a good strap-on, which is only funny because the show clearly discovered very late in shooting the episode that you can't actually show a strap-on dildo on The CW. It's very bad.
A little bit better is the stuff at the training school with Murphy's parents — Webster and York are both decent — and her ultra-annoying co-worker/rival Felix (Morgan Krantz). It's not good, but it's a completely original setting for a show and a backdrop that, if properly handled, could have been funny and offered a variety of week-to-week plotlines, plus puppies.
The only part of the show that I actually liked without real reservations is the Dean/Chloe father-daughter relationship and the growing friendship between Murphy and Chloe. Walton, a newcomer discovered while producers were visiting schools for the blind in search of their Murphy, is likable and natural in a show in which nothing else feels natural. She's grounded and unforced in a show in which every other beat is sweaty with effort.
This brings me to the prickly question that needs asking: Should In the Dark have even been made at all without casting a blind lead?
A certain subset of readers will surely say, "It's called ACTING and if only blind actors can play blind characters, you'd deny the world the subtle screaming nuance of Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman."
To those people I reply thusly: There are blind actors out there. They exist and want opportunities. Hollywood is never going to cast one of them in a sighted role and the total number of blind leading characters on television is "one." That's Murphy! So if you want to take the "It's called acting!" angle here, you're basically saying that if you had your way, blind actors would never work outside of token supporting roles. This is a role that producers ultimately decided didn't require an actor with any experience and yet they still went with Mattfeld, a basically unknown sighted actor who is … fine. After this show is canceled, I assume she'll get a chance to play a sarcastic best friend on The CW or a sarcastic superhero on The CW and she'll be fine there as well. Were she Meryl Streep, it would be one conversation, but if you're casting and you're content to go with a merely OK sighted unknown, it feels to me like casting an unknown blind actress of comparable standard would have been a chance to do something progressive.
Instead, the show's entire treatment of blindness comes across as a regressive curiosity made all the more frustrating by the amount of time the show spends humiliating Murphy in the early episodes. There's an ugliness to the way the character is treated in the premiere, a mixture of her own self-hatred and gratuitous camera-gaze contempt.
I haven't even gotten to how half-heartedly Toronto is doubling for Chicago here, yet another level on which authenticity just wasn't a priority. Really, it's better to just take this show as a miss and move on.
Cast: Perry Mattfeld, Brooke Markham, Rich Sommer, Derek Webster, Kathleen York, Keston John, Casey Deidrick, Callie Walton, Levi the Dog
Creator: Corinne Kingsbury
Premieres: Thursday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (The CW)