'Interrogation': TV Review

An experimental mystery that's more gimmick than innovation.

CBS All Access has said the episodes of its genre-stretching true-crime drama, starring Peter Sarsgaard and Kyle Gallner, can be watched in any order.

Resolution is the usual point of mysteries. We are offered a question — "Who killed Laura Palmer?" — and, eventually, an answer. But TV storytellers have also resisted answering those questions at least as far back as Twin Peaks, the central mystery of which co-creator David Lynch "never really wanted" to solve. The new crime procedural Interrogation is pitched toward viewers who grok the idea that the journey of a mystery is more compelling than its destination. Unfortunately, the series falls far short of its genre-stretching ambitions.

Unlike many other CBS All Access shows, all 10 episodes of Interrogation will be released at once, with the promise that the installments can be watched in any order. Based on the real-life case of a 17-year-old burnout named Eric Fisher (Kyle Gallner) accused of violently killing his mother — Mary Fisher (Joanna Going) is found stabbed, strangled and bludgeoned in her home — the series jumps around a two-decade span. In that time, the original detective (Peter Sarsgaard), a smirking lout who initially boasts that he'll get the teenage suspect's confession by dinnertime, is himself scrutinized by an Internal Affairs investigator (Vincent D'Onofrio). Soon declared guilty of matricide, Eric — along with his starchy father (David Strathairn), who convinces himself of his son's innocence — strives to overturn the conviction.

Each episode is named after a character, but there's no guarantee that we'll learn much about a title's namesake. (In fact, characterization is paper-thin across the board, especially for the female roles.) What nearly every installment of Interrogation does offer is a different lens into the case. From one angle, the show is a family drama about an abusive mother who practically drove her adopted son to drug use. From another, it's a cautionary tale about a softie screwup with zero street smarts taken advantage of by hardened dealers with whom he had the bad luck to get tangled up. From yet another, it's an outraged illustration of the systemic failures of the criminal-justice system, in which ordinary people — even extraordinarily privileged ones like Eric — hardly stand a chance against crooked cops, bureaucratic inertia and the staggering costs of legal defense.

These genre switcheroos supply the bulk of the surprises in Interrogation, which is otherwise chock-full of stock characters, pedestrian atmospherics and uninspired performances, even from generally reliable actors like Gallner and Strathairn. And because the deceased Mary is presented as a one-dimensional monster, there's little urgency in the quest to bring her killer to justice. If anyone at all cares about the injustice of her sudden and painful demise, we never see them. Sarsgaard's softspoken, sleepy-eyed, possibly fiendish Detective Dave Russell goes most against type, but his overall arc, as an arrogant young hotshot settling into a domestically chaotic middle age, also feels the most slapdash.

Interrogation is set in the affluent Los Angeles suburb of Sherman Oaks, and Dave Russell is supposed to exemplify — or be a convenient scapegoat for — the corruption of the LAPD of the 1980s and 1990s, which is recalled by the Rodney King beating and the Rampart scandal. (Longtime Angelenos will remember that, following the Rampart scandal, the department was deemed in need of federal oversight — a state of affairs that lasted a dozen years.) Eric's real-life counterpart may well have been railroaded by the LAPD, but the series doesn't make a strong enough case that its allusions to King and Rampart — controversies over racial and class disparities in policing involving less advantaged people on the other side of the city — are all that applicable to a story about a white kid from the suburbs.

But the most disappointing aspect of Interrogation may be the writers' reluctance to peddle uncertainty. The 10th episode — which I watched midway through my viewing, since I jumped around the installments as suggested — provides an extremely compelling (if ultimately unprovable) answer to the show's central mystery, which deflated the remaining storylines. Interrogation was meant to argue for the excitement of the journey, but it offers too little to see along the way.

Cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Kyle Gallner, David Strathairn, Kodi Smit-McPhee

Creators: Anders Weidemann, John Mankiewicz

Premieres Thursday, Feb. 6 (CBS All Access)