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When charting the course of a procedural hybrid — those tricky shows in which a case of the week and a bigger, ongoing narrative arc go hand-in-hand — it’s helpful to be able to point to a show like Paramount+’s Evil (or CBS’ old Person of Interest, if that’s more your flavor) as an example of how to do it right.
Each standalone plot has to be satisfying, while the bigger storyline has to be advanced. Ideally, neither undermines the momentum of the other and, even more ideally, themes in one will inform and enhance those in the other.
Perhaps it’s equally helpful to be able to point to a show that illustrates time and time again how to do a hybrid procedural poorly — a cautionary template.
Credit to Fox, then, for the altruism of releasing Alert: Missing Persons Unit. The new drama isn’t offensive or necessarily outrageous in its badness. I’m not angry at it. It’s just inept, and were it not for the presence of Jamie Foxx as co-creator, I have a hard time imagining the show ever would have made it to air.
Co-created by John Eisendrath, an Alias and The Blacklist veteran who very much knows what a good version of this sort of show looks like, Alert stars Scott Caan as Jason, a Philly police officer turned military mercenary whose son was abducted during Jason’s last tenure in Afghanistan. He’s sad. His wife Nikki (Dania Ramirez) is sad. Six years later, Nikki is working as part of Philadelphia’s Missing Persons Unit.
Nikki establishes the lay of the land for Jason, who’s one of those pesky TV husbands who just refuses to sign those darned divorce papers.
“We have been separated for three years. I have been with Mike for two, OK? You and June run a private security service. You have been to at least three fertility clinics trying to have a baby,” she says, apropos of basically nothing.
It should be noted: When this line is uttered, Mike (Ryan Brussard) hasn’t appeared yet, June (Bre Blair) hasn’t appeared and will not appear in the pilot (though she’s in the second episode), and Jason has not been seen doing anything in private security. In fact, he isn’t seen doing a single bit of private security work in either episode sent to critics. She’s just telling Jason things he already knows in case the audience happens to be listening. It’s one of several steaming piles of exposition bogging down the first 43 minutes of this show.
But don’t worry about that last part of Nikki’s exposition dump being irrelevant. Jason and his trips to the fertility clinic are extremely important to Alert. In fact, the thing that Alert is best at is grinding the momentum of a missing persons investigation to a halt for absurd conversations about sperm motility and whether or not men can fake orgasms.
Jason and Nikki’s son has been gone for six years, but suddenly, right in the middle of the different child abduction case at the center of the pilot, they get information suggesting that Keith (their son) might still be alive. Jason is initially hopeful. Nikki, who has poured her energies into a career helping other people find their kids, initially refuses to be similarly optimistic. That doesn’t stop them from getting on a plane, flying to Las Vegas, bursting down the door of a hotel room and flying back to Philadelphia in what appears to be an afternoon — all right in the middle of the case of the week, even though the Philly MPU department appears to be five people.
This is just a hint for writers: If your case of the week is going to have a ticking clock — and it inconsistently does here — but the characters entrusted with pursuing the case feel so little urgency about it that they’re willing to set it aside for a temporally unrealistic piece of personal travel, there is no chance that viewers will think that there are stakes. Doesn’t do much for the characters and their judgment, either.
Neither episode I’ve seen had a case of the week — there’s a missing girl who was jeopardized by her father’s job and then a kidnapped drug dealer — interesting enough for even minor investment, so it’s maybe fitting that the show’s treatment of the MPU is equally flimsy. The team includes Mike — yes, Nikki’s aforementioned boyfriend Mike — who proposes in the middle of the missing persons precinct, mid-workday; “C” (Petey Gibson), who proves technical acumen by photoshopping a kitten onto a picture of Jason’s head; and, most annoying of all, Kemi (Adeola Role). It’s not Role’s fault at all, but Kemi is constantly going through the offices doing purifying ceremonies and rambling about famous men she slept with, and her skillset is “whatever random thing moves the case to the next scene.”
It’s such an unrealistic and unprofessional workplace that I almost didn’t bat an eye when, in the first episode, Jason wanders into an interrogation room and starts questioning a suspect despite having nothing to do with the case and no professional capacity with the department — and, despite that rather clear breach of ethics, Nikki is hiring him one episode later.
So it’s two episodes with barely-there cases and then the ongoing storyline with Jason and Nikki’s missing son, who isn’t so missing at all. Or is he?!? It’s very hard to care. The splintered family also features a teenage daughter played by Atypical favorite Fivel Stewart, forced to regress back to high school here after getting to play a grownup in Netflix’s recent The Recruit.
All this could probably be mitigated if Alert had any visual flair, but the first episode has one incoherent fight scene in an elevator and a risible sequence in which Nikki jumps off a balcony and into a pool and then opens fire on a suspect because, you know, that’s what cops do. The second episode is wholly forgettable.
Were Alert intended to be the same sort of out-of-control crazy show as the 911 franchise (maybe the pool-jump is close), there wouldn’t be any problem at all with bursting out laughing at random points. But when Nikki tells worried parents “We will get your baby back” and the desire to sing the Chili’s song proved irresistible…I felt bad, but mostly bad that I wasn’t watching something better.
Caan and Ramirez are both fine.
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