The Fourth Wall: There’s no mystery or magic behind why some TV shows work

    The Fourth Wall

    As dozens of broadcast network shows awaited their fates this week, we turn our attention to a pair of series that were sweating out that television purgatory known as The Bubble.

    “Distinct” and “Inception” have much in common — they’re both on Sunday night, they’re both traditional mystery-procedurals, they premiered on the same night and they have the sort of generic TV names that don’t readily come to mind for even those viewers who watch them on a weekly basis.

    Case in point … “Distinct” and “Inception” actually are called “Deception” and “Instinct.”

    I think.

    Procedurals might seem easy to pull together — create a motley crew of regulars, give them a case to solve … lather, rinse, repeat — but are difficult to execute with the sort of skill and uniqueness that can lead them out of purgatory into the promised land of multiple seasons.

    Having watched each from the start, it wouldn’t be exactly a Sophie’s Choice as to which I’d want to save. Each has its fundamental flaws, which thus far have outweighed its bright spots. Although, if forced to choose, I’d pick … well, we’ll get to that.

    Neither rises to the level of the shows that have populated the “Masterpiece: Mystery!” umbrella on PBS. And neither is the best new “traditional” mystery series to hit the small screen in recent months: That would be “Killing Eve” on BBC America — which features a fresh twist on the usual tropes, compelling performances and a storyline that doesn’t distract from the cases at hand.

    The cancellation of either “Distinct” or “Inception” (or both) won’t inflict the sort of angst among procedural fans that came with ABC’s decision to end the generically-and-ironically named “Forever” after one season.

    (See what I did there?)

    Since this has been the week where such things are decided, however, what follows is more of a soup-to-nuts thought exercise on the nature of the type of bread-and-butter shows that are the meat-and-potatoes programming for the alphabet-networks.

    “Instinct” (8 p.m., Sundays, CBS) begins with a significant advantage … it’s a star vehicle; in this case, Tony-winning actor Alan Cumming, who is known to mystery fans as the interlocutor of the “Masterpiece: Mystery!” — which CBS wants you to think about immediately with theme music that bears a striking similarity to that of the PBS series.

    Cumming is such a comfortable presence that you buy him immediately as Dylan Reinhart — a former CIA agent who becomes a best-selling true-crime author who earns the nickname “Professor Psychopath” before transitioning into a consultant to Lizzie, your standard “tough as nails female detective who has a tragic death in her past,” while maintaining his same-sex marriage to Andy, a bar owner who used to practice law.

    (There’ll be a test later.)

    The setup here isn’t the problem; it’s the execution. The series premiere focused on a killer who uses scenarios in Dylan’s book “Freaks!” (I particularly love that exclamation point) … which brings Dylan into Lizzie’s world.

    Procedural series fans will recognize that immediately as the premise of the series opener of “Castle,” which sends mystery writer Richard Castle into the life of Kate, a “tough as nails female detective who has a tragic death in her past.” “Instinct” even borrows from the earlier series the minor plot point of Lizzie at first saying she never read Dylan’s book, only to be revealed as a fan of his work.

    But the “Masterpiece” theme and the “Castle” similarities weren’t the worst case of borrowing by the “Instinct” team. An early episode depicts the murder of a piano-playing young Amish man, who chooses his art over his strict father’s demands. The details of the episode proved so similar to an episode of “Bones,” that fans of that show started a cyberspace protest that led the showrunner of “Instinct” to offer an apology.

    Although I’d choose to save “Instinct,” Cumming deserves better … as does Jack Cutmore-Scott — whose name I had to look up, but who is the star of “Deception.”

    Cutmore-Scott stars as Cameron Black, a magician whose career is ruined when his big secret (he has a twin brother, named Jonathan) is revealed after Jonathan is framed for murder by a mystery woman who all involved call … wait for it … “Mystery Woman.”

    (If you’re saying to yourself that you seem to remember a series about a magician who solves mysteries, give yourself five Fonzie Cool Points. If you remember two of those series, give yourself 10 FCP. … But if you recall that “The Magician” starred Bill Bixby as a magician named Blake; and “Blacke’s Magic” starred Hal Linden as a magician named, well, Blacke … then you can join our Proceduralholics Anonymous meetings.)

    Meanwhile, Cameron Black and his rag-tag “Deception team” wind up working with a “tough as nails female FBI agent who has a tragic death in her past” to solve mysterious cases. The concept of a detective who isn’t a detective mimics not only “Castle” but reaches back to such shows as the two magician series and “Remington Steele.”

    The “mystery woman” storyline is an absolute snoozer. “Deception,” when it works, works best dealing with cases of the week, and how the team uses illusions and tricks to catch the villains.

    But the biggest problem is with the scenes devoted to Jonathan’s life in prison. They distract because Jonathan is a far more interesting character than Cameron, which makes Cutmore-Scott more interesting in the role. When the twins “share” a split-screen moment together, it’s hard not to notice that difference.

    A season finale wherein Cameron dies and Jonathan is freed to help solve the murder would make a Season 2 more compelling — even if it would mimic the second season of the James Garner series “Nichols.”

    (I get 15 Fonzie Cool Points for that.)

    Mail Tribune senior designer, who can be reached at, watches too much television.

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