Thursday, March 06, 2008
Stevesees: New Amsterdam
We return to Stevesees just briefly, to take approving notice of the new Fox series "New Amsterdam," an offbeat New York crime drama featuring the main character John Amsterdam, who's three hundred years old, gifted (or cursed) with physical immortality by long-vanished Native Americans, who stipulated that time would find him when he found the one true love of his life.
We meet him centuries later, when he's a homicide detective in Manhattan (death, he says, intrigues him - "it's always playing hard to get"). In the first episode, he's somewhat predictably saddled with a sharp-tongued sassy new female partner and a fairly pro-forma crime to solve procedurally. And there's some interest in that, mainly as the viewers get more and more hints about the full dimensions of Amsterdam's long life - presumably he's been a detective for some many years, and thanks to the just slightly off-kilter physical movements and the can't-quite-place-it accent of lead Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, it all comes off as believably just a stitch away from placeably mundane.
He's seen so many partners come and go that he can't take her seriously. She's smart, sharp, and sensitive, but she faces an unbeatable edge of accumulated experience in her new partner, who's a little slow to acknowledge that she can even tell him anything, much less teach him anything.
Instead, he laconically taunts her with lines that are complete nonsequiturs to anybody who doesn't know his unbelievable past, like telling her he knows a bar was once a speak-easy in the 30s because he used to drink there, or that she reminds him of his last 609 girlfriends.
He's slightly sloppier elsewhere in his life, when he's confronting a young murder suspect on a subway platform and allows himself to be shot (he first calmly tells his young attacker what it felt like to be shot by the old style unjacketed bullet - that it felt like 'fire dropped in your veins' - as anybody unfortunate to be shot before 1921 could attest, if any such were still alive). As he's collapsing on the subway platform, he has the indistinct but immovable sensation that after all these centuries, he's come an armsbreadth away at last from the woman who can create inside him his much-dreamt-of mortality (as problem-prone modern day TV would have it, the subway platform security cameras - which he later scrutinizes - show an unhelpful plethora of beautiful young women flocking to his aid), and so the series gets its giddy-yap: at the thought that now, after all this time, his wait may be over.
His old (literally and figuratively - indeed, the two can't help but be the same, in this series) friend Omar, played pitch-perfectly by always-welcome character actor Stephen Henderson, can sarcastically comment all he likes "You meet your true love and the die? Doesn't sound too romantic to me," but Omar is less tolerant of the friend he's known so long that he can't help but be privy to Amsterdam's central secret. And when he hears about this subway encounter, he warns, "When you don't find her, you're gonna go crazy. And the last time you went crazy ... it was a long damn ten years."
Actually, in the first episode, the dynamic between these two is the best thing in the show (the dynamic between Amsterdam and his new partner gets much, much better in the next few episodes), comfortably handling the scam they've got going on the side: Amsterdam builds ornate desks that Omar then sells as 'antiques' done a century ago by a revered master - who was, naturally, Amsterdam.
His sloppiness on that subway platform - allowing himself to get shot, subsequently getting carted to the morgue and needing to sneak out unseen - sets in motion the show's other ongoing plotline, the suspicions of the doctor on call when he's brought in (she even notices that his blood type is " Rz/Rz," which was common among certain Native American tribes but is now extinct), a doctor who may be the very life-love he's seeking.
But sweetest aspect of the show is the nice ear the writers have for time. Time winds its way through this series like another character, and it's handled better and more sensitively than most TV shows usually do (the show's obvious ancestor, "Highlander," was so caught up in the hurly-burly of sword-fights and decapitations that it hardly ever paused to mine this very obvious aspect of its main character - the show did so only once to our recollection, with Duncan MacCleod comforting an old woman in her hospital bed who had once been his beautiful young lover)("New Amsterdam" nods in "Highlander"s direction, when in a future episode a kid asks Amsterdam if he's ever had his head cut off and he gamely says he hasn't).
Living forever and finding your one true love: mankind's two longest-running dreams, fused into one TV show. The Native American woman who gifts Amsterdam with immortality solemnly intones, "In all of time, there is only one person we are meant to be with," and the series buys into this idea completely, preferring not to face a much starker possibility: that an immortal would find the love of his life not once but a few times, and lose that love every time. The pilot comes close, when Amsterdam tells a grieving mother that he knows the pain she's going through: "He was six, my son - almost six. It's pain without end."
Obviously, a weekly TV show with any hopes for success can't take 'pain without end' as its tagline, but still: at times, there's a very appealing sadness to Coster-Waldau's portrayal of Amsterdam.
But it's a dogged optimism that wins the day and brings the first episode to its stunning 20-second last shot: we see Amsterdam hundreds of years ago, as he wakes up on the first morning of his new life. He's disheveled and bearded, and around him under a clear sky is a pristine wilderness. And as the camera pans, his appearance neatens - and the wilderness changes: villages appear grow and disappear, muddy streets appear and widen and become paved, buildings appear and grown and wildly multiply, cars appear, and people, and more people, in one sweeping arc that brings us back to the present, to Amsterdam walking his dog in the place where he was born all those centuries ago: Times Square. It's a bravura visual feature that's over ironically fast, and a great deal of historical care went into its construction - we noticed building facades and adornments that really did once exist, their recreations here flickering into and then back out of existence in an instant. If "New Amsterdam" can give its viewers even one such thrilling moment every episode, the show will amply justify its existence.