NBC is trying a fresh approach to drama in the new series The Mysteries of Laura (Wednesdays, 8 p.m. EDT): following the lead of the highly successful cable channel USA Network (which, incidentally is a sister company to NBC). Like the best USA series, The Mysteries of Laura (based on a Spanish TV series) blends drama and comedy, presents quirky but largely likable central characters, and gives the protagonist(s) difficult tasks each week while providing subsidiary characters whose efforts to help often create additional complications, and take place in interesting locations.
It’s a proven formula that has worked superbly for the USA Network, making it the third-highest-rated cable channel in the prime-time hours. It has also resulted in some very enjoyable TV shows, such as Monk, Psych, Burn Notice, and Necessary Roughness. I hope that the formula results in success for other TV drama providers, as that will give audiences more good choices.
Unfortunately, in the case of The Mysteries of Laura it doesn’t quite work, at least in the pilot episode.
Some of the key elements are there, and they make the show relatively interesting. Debra Messing stars as Laura Diamond, a New York City homicide detective, and she brings proven comedy skills to the program. Her situation is made more complicated by the fact that she is divorcing her husband, a homicide detective in another precinct who no longer lives with her and her twin preschool-age sons. Her superior on the force is a sympathetic character (played well by Enrico Colantoni), and her detective partner is competent and sympathetic. A fellow female detective, younger than Laura, is somewhat antagonistic toward her, though we are not told why.
Thus the pieces are in place. However, the producers’ every attempt to vary the formula backfires, making the show far less interesting and enjoyable than it should be. Laura’s ex-husband, for example, is a stock character in such shows: the annoying ex-spouse, but the producers put all the responsibility for the breakup on the husband, as a result of his infidelities. They may have intended that as a way of making Laura more sympathetic, but it makes her soon-to-be-ex-husband exceedingly unlikable. In addition, he has no notable personality characteristics other than a lack of punctuality and a refusal to discipline the children. Having Laura married to such a person makes her less sympathetic, not more so, because one must question her judgment for getting married to such a creep in the first place.
The twin boys present a similar problem: they are incorrigible pranksters, preternaturally disobedient, and generally a couple of psychos. Unfortunately, they take after their father in not having any discernible personalities; they are conceived and presented as mere forces of nature, problems for Laura to solve. Laura’s detective partner and antagonistic fellow female detective are likely given approximately zero personality.
Her sons’ big scene takes place in a park, in which they are caught urinating on each other. Presumably that is meant to be amusing, but it just makes Laura look bad. Surely it’s not reasonable to blame the boys for their feral condition—they’re only preschoolers, after all—and it’s not plausible to attribute their lack of disciple solely to the father’s indulgence. Indeed, we see more than a few indicators that Laura has failed to give the children proper attention. Hence, although one can sympathize with Laura’s continually harried condition, it’s relatively hard to sympathize with her, given her evident responsibility for her problems.
Thus the show, in attempting to ramp up the humor and difficulties for its main character, makes both her and the other characters unsympathetic. That is not a formula for a group of people that audiences will want to invite into their homes week after week.
There are several other obvious problems with the show: the New York City location is decidedly not interesting for television and hasn’t been for at least a decade, the central mystery is a cliched rich-family-members-who-hate-each-other scenario, and the intended shock ending is anything but a surprise, given that it’s now 14 years since it was first done (by CSI: Crime Scene Investigation) and it has been repeated by numerous other series in the years since. In addition, the ending takes away the only truly likable character in the show.
Obviously the producers and NBC ruined the USA Network formula by tampering with it too much, and The Mysteries of Laura does not look like a winner at this point. The good news for the show is that its pilot episode handily won its time slot, grabbing a healthy 10.19 million viewers, almost double what the runner-up drew. The bad news is that all those people saw a show that largely failed to deliver on a very promising concept with a popular and appealing lead actress. The producers may find a way out of that rut, but they’d better do so soon, because it seems unlikely that large numbers of people will want to spend much time around these currently unappealing characters.