Review: Forever, Pilot Episode

Title card for Forever.Forever is ABC’s new urban fantasy crime procedural drama, starring Ioan Gruffudd, Alana de la Garza, and Judd Hirsch.

Plot

The premise is at once right up my alley and groan-worthily tiresome.  It’s no inconsiderable credit that the show’s charm manages to overcome its less attractive elements. Dr Henry Morgan (Gruffudd) is a medical examiner who can’t die. Or rather. He has died, repeatedly, but his body always vanishes shortly afterwards, and he finds himself resurrected, always in water. As a medical examiner, this affords him a unique perspective on the myriad of ways a person can die, making his post-mortem examinations unusually accurate and effective.

This unique talent puts him in the path of Det. Jo Martinez (de la Garza) when he concludes that a train crash was not caused by the train driver’s unfortunate heart attack, but was, in fact, murder. A conclusion further complicated by the fact that Martinez discovers that Morgan himself had been on that train. At the same time, a mysterious caller lets Morgan know that he knows Morgan’s secret, and begins sending him cryptic notes. Was Morgan’s cryptic caller involved in the train crash, or is something else going on as well?

The good, the bad, the I-actually-rather-enjoyed this

Let’s start with the bad. This show is right out of the handbook for what I have previous dubbed White Male Mavericks. I wrote a whole article (‘On Being Scully‘) on what exactly is wrong with this whole sub-genre of crime shows for Hub, back in 2010. The genre is not without entertainment value, and individual shows can be quite fun, but as a deeply pervasive pattern, it’s pretty sexist, and often racist. The marks of the White Male Maverick are these: he performs some sort of investigative role, although usually he’s not a policeman himself, he:

  • is a consultant, a psychic, a doctor, a medical examiner, a forensics analyst
  • is gifted quite beyond the norm in some capacity that just makes him better at solving whatever it is he solves that anyone else
  • which is fortunate, because his methods are unconventional, and anyone who didn’t get the results he did would have been fired, disowned by his friends, and quite possibly would be in jail
  • speaking of his ‘friends’, he doesn’t have many, but those he does have are unquestioningly loyal, despite the fact that he’s socially awkward, and/or arrogant to the point of insulting everyone around him constantly – he’s a loner, but lots of people seem to hang around with him anyway
  • he has a female superior or partner, whom he is always undermining, and for some reason she lets him get away with this
  • women are attracted to him, they just are
  • oh, yeah, and he’s white, he’s male, he’s straight, he’s cis-gendered, he’s middle-class and/or independently wealthy

It’s basically a distillation of the Euro-American white male fantasy of intellectual supremacy, financial independence, and complete freedom from the strictures and responsibilities of society. Of being different and special but still loved and admired. Dr Henry Morgan fits all of these. What’s more, we find that the very first time he ‘died’ is was protecting a black man on a slaver ship. And you may be thinking ‘Surely that’s a good thing? That’s a nice thing to do, right?’ But this misses the point. The White Male Maverick is frequently cast as liberal – it’s part of his intellectual superiority – and if he does say something racist or sexist it’s presented as him speaking ‘hard truths’ because he’s so ‘rational’. But having your character’s origin story be that of him taking the role of ‘white saviour‘ is just another way of setting him up in a position of power, from which we should be grateful he is so benevolent. Just opening with your hero saving a woman from sexual assault is not so much about showing him as being against sexual assault as it is about establishing that he has the power to save people from those things from which they cannot protect themselves – he is powerful where people of colour and/or women are weak.

So, why didn’t I just turn off and vow never to watch this again? Well, some of it’s personal. The ‘can’t die/secret identity angst’ thing is right up my alley. It just pushes my buttons. But a lot of credit is due to the supporting cast and the more subtle aspects of the plotting.

Judd Hirsh is (as he always is) wonderful as Abe, Morgan’s adopted son (who now appears much older than him). And the way that relationship is explored has a relaxed charm and subtle poignance that we see all too rarely on TV. So often father-son relationships are full of conflict and resentment. It’s lovely to see one affectionate and touching, despite its unconventionality.

Alana de la Garza is also excellent as the detective who semi-relies on, semi-mistrusts Morgan. She feels somewhat more in control than women in this role (e.g. Teresa Lisbon, Lisa Cuddy) are usually allowed to be, although time will tell on that one. It’s also nice to see a woman of colour in this role, and to see that her superior officer, Lt Joanna Reese (Lorraine Toussaint), is a woman of colour also.

I also have tonnes of time for Joel David Moore as Morgan’s assistant, Lucas Wan.

In fact, it’s rather a shame that, with such a stellar supporting cast, the lead actor, Ioan Gruffudd, comes across so wooden and unconvincing. Part of it is the writing – where other characters actually speak from a sense of natural personhood, Morgan incessantly and awkwardly info-dumps about his improbable past – but I also feel that Grufford struggles a bit with the role. Nevertheless, I have hopes that this will improve. Grufford’s scenes with Hirsch stand out as more relaxed, and the odd tender moments of the unlikely father-son relationship they portray give me hope.

I can’t say that this is greatly challenging the tropes of its genre – I would much rather have a supernaturally interesting Woman of Colour Maverick procedural show! – but if you like this sort of thing, Forever is entertaining and charming and largely inoffensive.

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