You don’t have to be crazy, but it helps.

“It’s the NYPD.  If you’re not a little confused, you’re not paying attention.”
–Detective Jason Walsh to his new partner, Detective Casey Shraeger

Face it, certain jobs lead to stress.  Stress leads to coping mechanisms, both deliberate and unintended, and those mechanisms can be seen from the outside as something akin to crazy, when they’re actually the exact opposite.  In fact, strange actions and behavior can be explained as quite normal if looked at from a slightly different point of view, especially actions resulting from times of anxiety and pressure.  If you put a whole workplace of those “crazy” people and behaviors together, you end up with something unusual.

Actually, you end up with The Unusuals.

In the summer of 2009, ABC aired a series about the strangest cops you ever met.  They were New York City’s (occasionally) finest, the men and women of the Second Precinct, Homicide Division.  ABC advertised The Unusuals as being something of an Animal House with cops, a collection of the quirkiest officers you ever saw… and the crooks were crazy too.  Some of that was correct, but if the show had been truly advertised accurately, the comparison wouldn’t have been with Animal House.  Follow along this oddball path and I’ll tell you what great show from the past it was really like….

Walsh and Straeger

We enter the world of the Second Precinct through their newest member, Casey Shraeger (Amber Tamblyn).  Uncertain why she’s been transferred suddenly to the Second, her new boss Sergeant Harvey Brown (Terry Kinney) privately explains that he’s afraid of possible corruption in his unit and needs a pair of “outside eyes” to see what might be going on.  Casey is assigned to partner with Jason Walsh (Jeremy Renner), whose previous partner has been killed… and Casey’s first duty as Walsh’s new partner becomes (illegally) breaking into the deceased man’s locker and cleaning out all the stuff Walsh doesn’t want his widow and friends discovering about the guy.  While some might see this as devious behavior on Walsh’s part, he simply explains that no one is perfect, that we all have something to hide, and he’s taking care of his partner’s legacy… until they both find that the legacy might just include the hidden pasts of many of their fellow officers, and evidence that might lead to some of the (suspected) possible corruption.

Walsh:  “Here’s the difference between you and me.  You think people shouldn’t keep secrets.  I think that we are our secrets.”

Shraeger:  “I have secrets.”

Walsh:  “The vibrator on your bedside table is not a secret.  You know what a cop is to most people? A garbage man.  Go through people’s trash, look for clues, clean up their mess.  That’s the job, right?  Kills our marriages, kids hate us, we start drinking more…. But our secrets — that’s what keeps us sane.”
–From the pilot episode

Sane?  Really?  Perhaps, but not from the outside looking in….

Delahoy and Banks

Other cops in the division include Detectives Delahoy and Banks (Adam Goldberg and Harold Perrineau).  Banks has just turned 42, and it scares him so much that he wears a bulletproof vest 24/7.  Even when he goes to bed.  His father died at 42, his uncle died at 42, and he’s afraid that now it’s his turn.  So his strange behavior is odd, but nothing to compare with his partner Delahoy, who (unbeknownst to his fellow officers) has just been diagnosed with a brain tumor, and really might be dying.  So standing in the path of an oncoming subway train might be seen as crazy, or as some kind of death wish… but maybe its a better way to go than a brain tumor.  Who knows?  Lunatic behavior isn’t always that way if you understand why….

Beaumont and Cole

Then we have partners Allison Beaumont and Henry Cole (Monique Gabriela Curnen and Joshua Close).  Beaumont’s initial secret is that she’s having a clandestine relationship with Walsh, but she later has to admit that she’s completely broke, and loses one of Walsh’s most treasured possessions during a Pawn Shop robbery.  But that’s not like losing your soul, which might be the fate of Cole.  His secret is coming back to haunt him as, before he found religion and turned his life around, he was involved in an armored car robbery back in Texas.   His old accomplice has found him in New York and is starting to blackmail him into helping continue a life of crime.  Cole’s choices are, like the old saying, “between the devil and the deep blue sea”, and the question becomes how long he will be used before he takes a stand that may be just as troublesome and difficult as his previous life had become.

Eddie Alvarez, getting along with his fellow cops

Finally, there’s Detective Eddie Alvarez (Kai Lennox), a stickler for rules, and a loner that is so much of an individual that he refers to himself in the third person.  Always.  Eddie Alvarez has few friends, and yet one of Eddie Alvarez’s most unlikely allies is the aforementioned Walsh, the only guy willing to be the kind of friend who will honestly tell Alvarez how badly he screws up and still buy him a drink afterwards.  In the cop brotherhood, rules are sometimes made to be broken, hopefully for the best of reasons, but that distinction totally escapes Alvarez, as does the ability to get along with his co-workers.  Oh, yeah, he also speaks multiple languages fluently… but no one (other than Walsh) wants to talk to him in the first place.

“We’re all freaks, aren’t we?  That’s a good thing.  To stand out, to be different.  Makes us good at what we do.  You just have to understand that there are more important things than rules.”
–Walsh to Alvarez, just before buying him that drink.

So, no crazy people here, just cops dealing with a plethora of personal situations and decisions, not to mention muggers, thieves, and a murder or two.  It’s enough to make anyone act a bit off-the-wall.  But the cops aren’t crazy.  Some of the crooks, on the other hand….

“Sometimes the writers ask me, ‘Are these stories too unusual?’  I tell them that they can write things as strange as they want, because anything is possible out there.”
–Jim Nuciforo, former policeman and advisor to the series.

Welcome to The Murder Store

This is like giving TV writers carte blanche to go crazy themselves.  And the writers of The Unusuals took full advantage.  Delahoy and Banks discover a hidden store that sells items people can use to murder other people, and decide to set up a sting operation to find the kinds of people who might try to do so.  Like the guy who wants to know if the cleansing agent will get brains out of tire treads.  Of course, the problem is that while they’re dealing with this particular crazy, a battered wife comes in and steals all the poison necessary to kill her abusive husband, and now a moral dilemma develops over what to do about the wife, who believes her only recourse is to get rid of her tormentor.

Then there’s the inept crime family that goes on a robbery spree… a few dozen brothers, cousins, and even an in-law or two, at the same time, all across the city… but why is it happening now?  The officers are also on the lookout for a guy dressed up in a hot dog suit who “may or may not be wielding a samurai sword”.  Or they’re bringing in a clown in full circus makeup accosting passersby, telling them that laughter is a better choice than immorality.  How about catching the crook who’s stealing the identities of people… including those of the cops who are on the case!  All this is accented by occasional commentary from the unseen dispatcher in a voice-over, like a Greek chorus with punch lines….

They even catch a serial cat killer… who confessed once he was locked in a squad car full of felines.  Not until after a few scratches and bites, of course… well, maybe just before, but hey, cats have issues too….

These aren’t your ordinary burglaries and murders, and probably not the kind of stories that CSI is going to be taking on.  But they were entertaining, funny, dramatic, and showed how truly screwed up life can be… and how “crazy” coping with it can become.

“There are a lot of good shows that in some aspects are close to reality.  But this show captures what I think is the most important aspect of the job, which is that police work is very serious but you don’t have to always be serious. For this type of work, you need to have a sense of humor.”
–Jim Nuciforo, on why The Unusuals isn’t really so unusual.

I have both an uncle and a friend who are former cops, and they tell the most outrageous stories about their experiences.  Everything from really dumb criminals that tried to convince the officer that, after they were searched,  “the weed was mine, but the heroin wasn’t”; to going undercover infiltrating the Klan in Alabama and being threatened with a noose ready for his neck.  (And don’t even get started on what happened with the chickens.)  Every day we hear about the idiot burglar who robbed a bank and drove away in a car with his name on the vanity license plates, or the person who robs a restaurant after eating a meal, and paid for the meal with his credit card that is linked to his home address.  These are the crazy ones.  Crazy stupid.

And yet, what about the brave people (like my uncle and my friend) who, day after day, go out and protect each and every one of us from these “geniuses”?  Stupid criminals can be just as deadly, even more so, than intelligent ones.  And my uncle, my friend, and their fellow cops put themselves on the line, again and again, to make our world safe.  They don’t get enough praise, or enough thanks.  So, a public thanks to my uncle Frank, my friend Larry, and to all the others like them who do what they do, even if it makes them a little “crazy” at times just to cope with it all, so the rest of us don’t have to deal with it.  They deserve our gratitude and respect.

AMBER TAMBLYN (Casey Shraeger) did six years on General Hospital before landing the starring role in the short-lived (but critically acclaimed) Joan of Arcadia.  She’s currently seen on the medical drama House, and has also published two books of her original poetry.  She’s a heroine to this blog with the comment, “I’d rather be on a good show that only runs two years than on a dumb show that’s a hit for eight years, which is usually the case these days.”

TERRY KINNEY (Harvey Brown) has an extensive theatre career (including a Tony nomination), and is one of the founding members of Chicago’s famous Steppenwolf Theatre Company.  His television career includes a featured role on Canterbury’s Law, and a recurring role last season as a foil for Simon Baker’s The Mentalist.

JEREMY RENNER (Jason Walsh) is an Oscar nominee for his lead role in the 2010 Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker.  Upcoming roles include Hawkeye in the super-hero flick The Avengers and a featured role in the next Mission:  Impossible installment, subtitled Ghost Protocol.  When not busy acting, his hobby is restoring old Hollywood homes, and he has also been a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador.  And the man has a singing career on the side as well… we should all be so talented!

HAROLD PERRINEAU (Leo Banks) was one of the castaways on Lost for its first two seasons, also making appearances later (earlier?) in that time-hopping show.  He was also a regular on the HBO series Oz, and currently is concentrating on a singing career in Los Angeles (can you imagine what a musical episode of The Unusuals would have been like, with all these legitimate singers?)

ADAM GOLDBERG (Eric Delahoy) had a featured role in another Best Picture winner, Saving Private Ryan, and has done parts as varied as voices for numerous cartoons (and Babe:  Pig in the City), to producing and writing the independent documentary Running with the Bulls.  Another accomplished singer, he currently plays with a group called LANDy and has released both rock and jazz albums on his own.

MONIQUE GABRIELA CURNEN (Allison Beaumont) was first noticed in the independent movie Half-Nelson, but her big break came as a rookie cop in the mega-blockbuster film The Dark Knight.  She is currently seen as a regular on the FOX TV series Lie to Me, joining the cast at the end of the second season.

JOSHUA CLOSE (Henry Cole) grew up in Ontario, Canada, and has performed in numerous Canadian television shows.  He was featured in Steven Spielberg’s sprawling epic mini-series The Pacific, and has done guest shots on The Glades, Life as We Know It, and Law & Order: LA.

KAI LENNOX (Eddie Alvarez) has bounced between movies and television, with roles on such series as NCIS, Bones, and American Dreams.  His movies have included parts in Jim Carrey’s Yes Man, 40 Days and 40 Nights, and He’s Just Not That Into You.

All 10 episodes are available on DVD as an Amazon exclusive for purchase, so don’t try to find them at your local store, you’ll have to go there if you want to own them.  The episodes are available for streaming on both Crackle and Hulu, so you can catch up on the entire series there, or discover it for the first time.  I actually missed it myself during its network run, and kick myself for doing so, simply because the original ad campaign by ABC was a bit misleading to me.  If I’d realized the amount of good drama that was there, instead of just the comedy elements ABC emphasized in their promotion, I probably would have been there immediately from the beginning.  The best part of the promotion?  A twitter feed from the unseen “voice” of the dispatcher, promoting the show and giving pithy speeches in character.  A “making of” blog with many interviews and pictures is also available.

The Second Precinct, working for all of us.

Oh, and the other show that The Unusuals should really be compared to?  M*A*S*H… especially in its later years.  In both shows, we see people who are brilliant at what they do (even if they are flawed as human beings) dealing with things and environments that would make weaker people fail or quit completely.  And yet, day after day, they survive, do their jobs, and (just to blow off a little steam) become crazier than a three-dollar bill.  And then they go back and do it again, saving lives, helping people, and finding some kind of humor along the way.  Pressure and circumstance can make the most sane individual crazy, and yet sometimes that environment helps those who can find their own brand of crazy stay just a little bit more sane.

Vital Stats

10 aired episodes — none unaired
ABC Network
First aired episode:  April 8, 2009
Final aired episode:  June 17, 2009
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  All but one episode aired on Wednesday nights at 10/9 Central, and the adult sensitivity of the show wouldn’t have allowed it earlier.  But it did allow some of the most creative and “crazy” plots around, and was more than worth the effort.

Comments and suggestions encouraged, as always.

–Tim R.

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