Don’t get it twisted: just because ABC’s Motive tells the audience who the killer is before they even show you the victim doesn’t mean everything about the show isn’t a procedural. Sure, there’s just enough of a gimmick with this one to trick audiences into thinking they’re getting a fresh new take on typical tales of crime, but when you strip the series and its non-linear, multiple narrator style down, it’s the same ole, same old.
The formula of Motive is this: start on an innocuous scene with some random individual who will, at the end of said scene, have the words “The Killer” stamped over his or her (usually his) head before cutting to a scene identical in tone and purpose but for the words “The Victim” to be stamped over the new person’s head. From there, the show cuts to the crime scene as Detective Flynn (Kristin Lehman) is brought in to investigate the homicide. The rest of the episode flips back and forth from the three perspectives: killer, victim, and Flynn to let the story play out. Unfortunately this means the audience is always way ahead of Flynn and the way the show struggles to catch her up is through some magical “instinct” and mother-bear type level of caring she has to not rest just because a suspect is in custody, even though all of the evidence actually points to said suspect. Instead, she digs a little deeper, always so concerned with the titular “motive” and convinced she hasn’t gotten the right guy yet.
The main problem with that, though, is that motive doesn’t matter to anyone but the television audience, and only then because countless procedurals before this one trained us to expect some kind of final act, expositional monologue from the guilty party admitting everything just to tie the story up in a neat bow. Life isn’t like that. Criminals aren’t like that. Sociopaths aren’t like that. And Motive deals with all of the above but still treats it with TV kid gloves, which sadly lowers the stakes tremendously.
Don’t get me wrong, I truly enjoyed Lehman’s take on this super cop who somehow manages to retain her sense of humor, despite her grizzly line of work. She’s one of the most well adjusted characters on television, let alone cops on television, and there is something new, refreshing, and exciting in that. Lehman relaxes into the role in a way that makes her look like a different person than the buttoned-up pain-in-the-ass we remember from The Killing. But she has the unfortunate job of always having to string the story along with a “I just don’t know; I’m not feeling this guy; I think the real killer’s still out there” resolve. It makes her sound way more idealistic than her job should allow, in an extremely loony way.
What would make Motive so much more interesting and unique would be to watch Flynn and her detective pals follow the evidence they do have (however limited it may be, as is often the case) only to actually lock up the wrong person—or not getting anyone at all, leaving an open case– showing us through the other two POVs that the true guilty party is still free to potentially commit more crimes. The truth is, that happens more times than most law enforcement agents want to admit, and yes, it’s a much more upsetting outcome, but its implications sit with you long after the end credits run. As it is right now, everything other than Lehman’s performance is completely forgettable the minute the episodes end. We’ve seen all these stories before, even if not quite in this way, which can’t help but beg the question ‘Who cares!?’ at this repetition.
Motive premieres on ABC on May 20 2013 at 10 p.m.
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