So. Utterly. Meta.
It went something like this: Four minutes into the pilot of Carter, I was thinking, “Hell no.” The characters seemed ridiculous. The production values, dubious. The structure absurdly formulaic. Nothing about the premise was remotely convincing. OK, so this guy named Harley Carter (Jerry O’Connell) is an actor. Jerry O’Connell is an actor who plays an actor who has a TV cop drama where he plays a detective named Charlie Carter and he solves various crimes and mysteries. He loses it over his wife stepping out on him and goes back to his home in small-town Canada, where he reconnects with Sam Shaw (Sydney Poitier Heartsong), who is a real-life, actual cop. You guys are never going to guess what happens.
Oh, unless you guessed that Harley would immediately become peripherally involved in a murder investigation and that he would use his TV-investigator chops to solve the mystery, at which the mayor would invite him to stay in his small hometown as a consultant to the police department, to the dismay of all the real cops. If you guessed that, you’re on track. Throw in an obvious near-miss love thing between Harley and Sam that no one talks about, a “sidekick” buddy, Dave Leigh (Kristian Bruun), who has a coffee truck and isn’t too pleased about his doppel-sidekick on his old buddy’s show, and Dot (Brenda Kamino), Harley’s housekeeper-kinda-foster-mom-markswoman-extraordinaire, and you’ve just got… a lot to deal with.
Plot twist: Somewhere around the second episode, I don’t know, maybe it was all the catnip I smoked or that “keto flu” thing everyone’s talking about, but I found myself cracking up laughing. Not at the show. With it. As it got cheesier and crazier and more absurd, it stopped bothering me that everyone accepted ludicrous scenarios or that the police didn’t feel “authentic,” or any of that stuff—because it had become utterly hilarious the way this bumbling yet charismatic actor could tell a crime scene was “staged” because he’d studied how crime scenes are literally staged, or how he knew if they just lined up all the suspects one would crack and reveal the truth because it works in Agatha Christie stories and turned out to be right. And funny enough, when it’s revealed that the reason behind Harley’s obsession with crime drama and his narcissistically eponymous characters isn’t just self-obsessed celebrity but unfinished business (he, Sam and Dave had helped to solve the murder of Harley’s own mother when they were kids), the strangest thing happens: You start caring about the characters.
Go ahead, tell me I’ve gone soft. Tell me it’s time to turn the TV off and spend more time outdoors. You could be right. But something about Carter’s absurdist-meta vibe completely seduced me. Every time a hokey ending played out exactly like it has on a million cop shows, I saw less of a hokey ending and more of a dissertation on cop shows (and occasionally a dissertation on why humans need to solve puzzles). Every ridiculous coincidence that piled up started to seem like a clever comment on the use of coincidence in formulaic programs. Even moments where the acting wasn’t that good seemed like they might have been deliberate, to pull you out of the real-time story and think about how story begets story and how we’re all bad actors in someone’s freaking script.
Keto flu? I mean, I know it’s apparently going around and can be virulent, but I am tempted to think it might actually be that Carter is really smart. It’s not gritty and hard-hitting, so if that’s your detective drama jam, walk on. This show is cheeky, sardonic, and emotionally forward, with strong relationships between characters who generally have a humorous angle and tend to be pretty well-developed. Production sensibilities are… laid-back. But it’ll sneak up on you, especially if you are a fan of meta-fiction or if you are someone who loves the pure weirdness of the past’s constant presence in the present.
Carter premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on WGN America.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.