Friday, November 7, 2014

Death Becomes Him: ABC's Forever

Ioan Gruffudd stars in Forever, on ABC

This review contains minor spoilers for the first episode of Forever
The premise of Forever, starring Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd and Alana de la Garza (Law & Order), and airing this fall on ABC, is outlandishly fun to describe (it is the story of "an immortal medical examiner" who consults for the NYPD). It is also oddly familiar – reminding attentive TV viewers of FOX's (ironically) short-lived New Amsterdam (2008), about an immortal New York City homicide detective (and starred Nikolaj Coster-Waldau long before Game of Thrones was a twinkle in HBO's eye), and  Canada’s Forever Knight, the tale of a 800-year-old Toronto police detective/vampire that aired on CTV and CBS back in the 90s. There are a lot of things about Forever that are familiar in fact. It falls firmly into the "consulting detective" genre, which pairs up a by-the-book cop with an idiosyncratic outsider who boasts unorthodox methods and surprising abilities of detection. This list should always begin with Sherlock Holmes – and his two current incarnations, BBC's Sherlock and CBS's Elementary – but really has almost uncountable variations on American TV: from Monk, to The Mentalist, to Numb3rs, to Castle, and beyond. They often share a sense of fun, as the police officer (or FBI agent) balances the frustrations that comes from having an untrained advisor – with all of their emotional and interpersonal quirks – with the undeniable fact that cases keep getting solved with their help. For all its metaphysical conceits, Forever is probably more appealing on these terms to fans of Elementary or Castle, than say Supernatural or Sleepy Hollow. But if you are like me, and a fan of both light crime procedurals and fantasy, you might want to check out Forever, because it's doing a lot right.

Forever is not a perfect show. We watch Henry die three times in the first hour (four times, if you include his first death). The writers are thankfully more restrained in later episodes, although his ability to survive gunshots plays a role in his generally, seemingly reckless behaviour. And even as the show often successfully mobilizes familiar genre formulas to entertaining effect, there are still often moments when its appeal to television tropes feel tired. Scenes where Morgan is watching an interrogation through the one-way mirror and bangs suddenly on the glass, just to storm in and ask "one last question," or when he confidently declares that the apparently guilty suspect is telling the truth when he or she protests their innocence against all evidence, and we are simply supposed to take his word on the truth of it, feel clich├ęd. The relationship with de la Garza's Detective Martinez is also still a work in progress. There is a refreshing lack of sexual tension between them, and they have a comfortable banter that never reaches screwball heights. Nonetheless, the show has warmth, and a deeply human heart. (The show's title, for example, is clearly meant to evoke the undying love Henry still feels for his now-departed wife Abigail as much as it references his cursed inability to die.) And Morgan's exhibition of Holmesian traits – not only Sherlock's uncanny capacity of observation and deduction, but also some of his social quirks – have grown to feel more earned with every passing episode. The more the series convinces us of his internal age, the less distracting his detecting skills become – after all, Morgan has been a scientist for over two centuries. And he has more excuse than most for his bluntness and seeming social maladroitness: I know that I am far more honest now than I was twenty years ago – multiply that by 8 and perhaps I'd too appear to be a bit pokey in social situations. Once you suspend your disbelief, flip that switch, and allow that Henry is essentially a very old man in a young man's body, his terse and sometimes rude behaviour become that much more fun! (Even so, some of his character seems entirely his own; I suspect he was as much of a pedant in his first lifetime as in the current one.)

Ioan Gruffudd and Judd Hirsch in Forever
There is also something importantly non-arbitrary about the means by which Morgan acquires his immortality. That scene, revealed in flashback in the premiere episode, shows Henry intervening in a (failed) attempt to save the life of a slave, and getting himself shot and thrown overboard of a ship 200 years ago. This was his first life, his first death, and his first rebirth – and as the show reveals, henceforth his every death is followed by a miraculous return, where he reappears, fully healed, in the nearest body of water. (Since he currently lives in Manhattan, that means that he often finds himself naked in the glorious waters of the Hudson River.) But this feature – that his blessing/curse of immortality comes not from vampirism, or Native American magicks, or a 'Gypsy curse' but rather inadvertently by his own hand – brings some actual weight to the show's metaphysical conceit. It has the welcome effect of making his immortality organic to his character, bringing insight into who Henry is, both before and after his transformation. That he apparently conquered death by overcoming the fear of death, or better, by fearing another's death more than his own, is a powerful claim – and not unrelated to a lifetime (or lifetimes) devoted to medicine and science. Henry is perhaps long-lived, but he remains a decidedly human character.

In the end it is Gruffudd's portrayal of the centuries-old Henry Morgan that carries the show's heart. Often immortal characters (usually vampires, admittedly) are characterized as stalled adolescents: reckless, self-involved, and generally indifferent to the suffering of the mere mortals around them. Henry is precisely not that. His long life experience and his medical calling have made him deeply empathetic to all of life's pains, mundane and otherwise. He has experienced death from both sides, and there is little doubt that he knows that surviving the deaths of others is far more painful than his own, multiple and varied, deaths. He also, to the actor's and the writers' credit, carries his invisible age perceptively. Henry Morgan, despite his perennial mid-30s appearance, actually feels like an old man. This is all aided by the show's third regular character, Henry's oldest living associate and sole confidant, Abe – portrayed with grace and humour by Judd Hirsch. His relationship with Abe is the strongest and most touching element of the series, owing to Hirsch's talents. Initially, it seemed that Hirsch would be playing the same role in the narrative that he played in Numb3rs – where he was "heart" to the Eppes brothers "mind" and "body", respectively. But once the details of Henry's true relation to Abe are revealed, and we see them interact as grown father and son, their scenes have a surprising depth and authenticity. Hirsch pulls off the challenge of being the elderly child of a 30-something-year-old brilliantly – ""How the hell should I know? I'm only 70 years old!" he protests to Henry at one point – and deceptively simple moments, where Abe prepares dinner for Henry or when the two of them play chess, become powerfully affecting.

At its core, Forever is a crime procedural with a twist and, like all procedurals with a supernatural conceit (like Lifetime's Drop Dead Diva, which is essentially a light lawyer drama, with some metaphysical logistics thrown in), the fanciful elements at their best, and least distracting, need to serve the weekly plots, rather than the other way around. There is a particular poignancy that ever episode begins with a death, in light of the fact that Henry feels cursed by life. Thankfully, it isn't that Henry wishes, finally, to die -- a suicidal protagonist would likely make for a dark and unwatchable series -- but rather it's that he's tired of playing outside the rules of life, and being forced to stand by and watch his lovers and friends age and die, or be a  parent to a child who now appears to be decades his senior. Henry just wants to live, to know that he is a part of the world around him, as it grows and ages and changes. 

Alana de la Garza and Ioan Gruffudd in Forever
There is one nagging point that I still can't quite get over. The metaphysics of Henry's death and rebirth have been established fairly clearly: he dies, his body disappears, and he finds himself reborn in water. That much I can accept. But all his clothes disappear as well! I understand how (plot-wise) this fact solves a number of issues – if his clothes and DNA were left behind with every death, his secret would have been revealed long ago, and Henry and Abe would spend half of every episode running around Manhattan with mops and bleach – but even on fantastic terms, it gallingly refuses to make sense. (And where in on Heaven or Earth do his clothes go? I keep waiting for that scene when a particular death is made so much more irritating by the tragic loss of a favourite scarf or pair of shoes!)

Metaphysico-sartorial conundrums notwithstanding, Forever has grown into one of my favourite new one-hour shows of the season. And even better, it fills the Castle-sized hole in my heart, ironically much better than Castle currently does. (Rant mode on: on a personal note, Castle has been a reliable mainstay in my house since it premiered six years ago, but of the late the show has become almost unrecognizable. Let's not even talk about the not-a-wedding cliff-hanger from last year – I will send everyone in Hollywood a muffin basket if I ever get to see characters plan a wedding and have it actually happen as it is planned, or even to see a female character actually wear the wedding dress we watched her agonize over for an entire episode – but I simply can't make sense of this new season. The Castle universe no longer seems have any rules, often bordering on science fiction – see memory-erasing tech, and invisibility suits?!? It's almost as if Richard Castle is writing episodes of Castle now, which needless to say undermines the very premise of the show. Okay, rant over. I'm good.) Albeit with an edge of darkness that  Castle never had, and without Nathan Fillion, Forever is a great deal of fun, and its fantastical conceit so far has been a foil for the very worldly and realistic cases that Henry encounters, rather than overtaking them. 

Forever is still working out its kinks, and to some extent it faces the immediate question of whether Henry will reveal his secret to Detective Martinez: if he does, it will make that secret even more in danger of overwhelming the show, and if he doesn’t, it is going to limit the extent to which their relationship can evolve beyond its current state. But it is a good show, and one that could potentially get better and better – definitely worth giving a chance.

Forever airs on Tuesdays on ABC, and on Mondays on CTV in Canada. Earlier this week, ABC gave the series a full season order.

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

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