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Theoretically, what sets Peacock’s The Calling apart from the gazillions of other cop dramas already in existence is that its protagonist, Avi (Jeff Wilbusch), is not only deeply religious, but guided by his Jewish faith in his work as a detective. When a greener colleague, Janine (Juliana Canfield), comments in the premiere on his knack for drawing out a suspect by expressing compassion, Avi rejects the notion that it’s merely a professional “trick.”
“The Talmud teaches us to see a single human being as the whole world, that each person is entitled to infinite respect and concern. Everyone is precious,” he loftily informs her, and he means it.
Cast: Jeff Wilbusch, Juliana Canfield, Karen Robinson, Michael Mosley
Creator: David E. Kelley
But The Calling, from David E. Kelley, seems only so interested in exploring the nuanced relationship between Avi’s beliefs and Avi’s job, or for that matter in ethical or emotional complications of any sort. Where a shrewder series might have dug deeper, eventually hitting on a distinctive identity of its own, The Calling only grows shallower and duller as its eight-episode series progresses.
The Calling‘s descent into mediocrity is made only more disappointing by the glimmers of potential it shows early on. Even among a TV landscape lousy with quirky, prickly genius male detectives, Avi’s religiosity makes him undeniably unusual (though somewhat less so in a year that also brought us the far superior Under the Banner of Heaven). Wilbusch emphasizes Avi’s uniqueness by playing him as the sort of understated oddball who can’t help but stand out even when he’s not doing much of anything at all — it’s in the deliberateness of his movements, the steadiness of his gaze, the unexpected gentleness in his voice.
Despite his professed love of humanity, Avi is not especially interested in the company of others. When police captain Davies (Karen Robinson) assigns Janine to work with him, he grumbles that he prefers to go it alone. But in predictable fashion, the pairing proves beneficial to both partners as well as to the show itself. Canfield counters Wilbusch’s reserve with moxie and a touch of dry humor, as Janine turns the tables on her stoic mentor by quoting the Talmud back at him, or wryly points out that she’d do well with some positive reinforcement.
From the start, there’s a gap between how special The Calling insists Avi is, and how special it actually manages to make him look. The drama indulges in many shots of Avi citing religious texts, attending shul and praying in Hebrew over dead bodies. But it rarely bothers showing us the inner workings of his mind. To take one particularly bizarre example, we’re meant to just take for granted that the fishes he keeps doodling somehow lead him to epiphanies that crack wide open the case of a missing teen (Charlie Besso). Avi might attribute these mysterious developments as divine intervention or human intuition — the state of “knowing without knowing,” as he puts it — but for those of us watching from home, they merely register as too-convenient plot shortcuts.
Moreover, for all the talk among Avi and his colleagues about the importance of empathy in crime-solving, The Calling largely regards the people he’s serving or investigating as puzzles to solve, obstacles to overcome, symbols to be protected, rather than as actual humans worthy of our emotional investment. Each hour devotes at least some of its running time to scenes set among the civilians involved in each case — there’s a whole multi-episode subplot about one suspicious dude (Noel Fisher) trying and failing to prove his chops as a novelist. Without any insight into who’s guilty of what, though, the non-cop characters remain fundamentally unknowable. Their scenes are more effective at dishing out red herrings than eliciting our sympathies.
Nor does The Calling demonstrate any real interest in complicating the hero cops that comprise its core cast. When one police officer questions whether a colleague’s conduct during an arrest constituted excessive use of force, Avi takes offense, deeming it “slander” to ask at all. To The Calling‘s very slight credit, it does not dismiss the issue out of hand, and for a moment it seems the series might, finally, be heading toward a more layered portrayal of its characters. By the end of the season, however, it’s quietly dropped the issue altogether, burying it under a sea of ever more dramatic investigative reveals.
It’s a missed opportunity to examine close up the contents of Avi’s soul, or those of his nearest and dearest coworkers, yet it’s par for the course. Early in the season, Janine mentions a longstanding affection for Law & Order — apparently The Calling‘s way of pointing out that Law & Order may be fine comfort food, but that what The Calling is serving is more ambitious. The series does spend more time telling its stories, covering just two cases in its first season. And it certainly devotes more of its running time to florid monologues about God, faith and the sanctity of life than your average L&O spinoff. But underneath all those fancy prestige trappings, what it actually delivers is just another generic, forgettable thriller in an endless sea of them.
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