It’s already available to stream on NBC.com and Hulu, but this Friday night, NBC unveils the first episode of Lincoln Rhyme: Hunt for the Bone Collector, which seemingly defies categorization. Is this a series where Lincoln and his trusted partner Amelia Sachs hunt a single killer over the course of an entire season, as crime fans have grown somewhat accustomed to thanks to a recent flood of limited series, or a weekly serial that will find them catching different bad guys each week? The truth lies somewhere in the middle. See, Lincoln Rhyme is designed as an ongoing series, but each season will, in theory, find Lincoln hunting a different serial killer or master criminal. Which means that next season — provided this one is successful and NBC brings the show back — could follow a different primary case and wind up being called Lincoln Rhyme: Hunt for the Coffin Dancer or whatever. So keep that in mind right off the bat. I’ve only seen one episode, but from what I gather, there will be other criminals to catch each week besides ol’ Boney.
Of course, the character of Lincoln Rhyme doesn’t have quite the same name recognition among fans of mainstream crime fiction as, say, James Patterson‘s Alex Cross, but the quadriplegic criminalist is right up there, and is likely best known as the protagonist of the 1999 movie The Bone Collector starring Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie. Now, I’ve spent birthday wishes on a sequel to that movie, but Rhyme’s general lack of Cross-level clout may explain why NBC changed the name of this series from plain ol’ Lincoln, and added The Bone Collector to the title, since that’s what people ultimately remember given the title of the original film.
Before we get into my actual review of the series, I have to present my credentials. As you might’ve guessed by now, I am a Lincoln Rhyme superfan. I have read all 14 books in Jeffery Deaver‘s masterful series, and I have interviewed the author twice. I’d like to think that I know his characters as well as anyone besides Deaver and his editor. So it was with both great excitement and trepidation that I read NBC had snagged the Rhyme rights and was developing a series about the criminalist character. Lincoln has been solving page-turning crimes since 1997, so there is certainly enough source material to support a multi-season show.
Unfortunately, broadcast networks haven’t had the best track record of late, and that’s ultimately what hamstrings this latest adaptation. In a world of gritty streaming series that cater to crime aficionados, Lincoln Rhyme: Hunt for the Bone Collector is simply too tame. You either need to shock people these days, or create three-dimensional characters that actors can really sink their teeth into, and unfortunately, this NBC series doesn’t do either. It feels so generic and safe, and I know that’s unfair to say based on a pilot, most of which don’t do their shows justice, but I am THE target audience for this one, and in the end, I was left with a shrug. My girlfriend didn’t understand why I made her watch it with me. That special thing that has kept me reading this series for 20+ years just hasn’t made the leap to the small screen.
Let’s start with the casting, since that may be the most important thing in terms of a TV series, since we’re inviting these people into our homes each week. Russell Hornsby is a solid actor who has really stood out in recent years in films like Fences and The Hate U Give, as well as the Netflix series Seven Seconds. His take on Lincoln Rhyme emphasizes the character’s arrogance — his need to be the smartest person in the room. It’s a character flaw that is part of Rhyme’s DNA, and I’m glad that writers-showrunners Mark Bianculli and VJ Boyd didn’t try to make his Lincoln too likable. This guy has a chip on his shoulder, and he’s determined to prove why he’s the best investigator in New York, independent or otherwise, and even from the confines of his bed.
Another thing this series adaptation gets right is the secret to Lincoln’s brilliance, which is his familiarity with his surroundings. Every corner of the city tells a story, much like evidence. The sand and gravel at a crime scene can tell you a lot, if you’re ready to listen. You know how you can always tell when you’re getting sick, even when a doctor might tell you not to worry about it? That’s because you know your body better than anyone. Well, before Lincoln’s tragic accident, which is dispensed with in the very first scene, he took the time to get to know his city — its past, present and future — better than anyone, and because of that, he can read between the lines of certain evidence and interpret what those clues are really saying better than the NYPD’s own experts. In Rhyme’s world, eyewitnesses are not to be trusted, only forensics, and on that front, the NBC series succeeds… though Locard’s principle isn’t mentioned in the pilot and Deaver’s readers know that it absolutely should be. But I digress…
When NYPD officer Amelia Sachs (Arielle Kebbel) shows good instincts on the job by throwing herself in front of an oncoming subway train to preserve a crime scene, Rhyme is impressed with her respect for evidence. He promptly enlists her to be his eyes and ears out on the street. He can’t walk these crime scenes himself, after all, so he needs her to do it for him. The two of them make quite a team.
Unfortunately, it’s the specifics that get lost in translation, at least in the first episode. I was excited to see Lincoln teach Amelia how to “walk the grid,” or to see his team use a gas spectrometer to analyze evidence, but we don’t get any of those things early on. I understand that’s the nature of TV, but it’s Deaver’s attention to detail that keeps his books so riveting. After all, Lincoln doesn’t really have a family like Alex Cross (who deserves his own series, ahem), and his complicated, unlikely romance with Sachs takes a while to blossom — if it ever does, in this series. Regardless, without those elements, there’s more weight on the investigation. Director Seth Gordon does a decent enough job with the show’s procedural elements, but nothing on his comedy-heavy resume suggests he was the guy to turn to for this series, which may have flourished under the direction of someone with experience directing crime shows or genre movies.
Arielle Kebbel co-stars as Sachs, and with all due respect, I’m just not sure she’s up to the task. While I can see what the producers were going for, she lacks the kind of edge a young Angelina Jolie brought to the role. Of course, she and Hornsby have giant, A-list sized shoes to fill, though he acquits himself better than her in that regard. Again, it’s just one introductory episode, but I wanted to see Sachs working on her muscle car, reminiscing about her father.
And I’ll tell you something else I wanted see — red hair! As written on the page, Amelia has fiery red hair, and while Kebbel’s hair may qualify as reddish, I was looking for something more in the vein of Jessica Chastain or Amy Adams. It’s the character’s defining physical attribute, so if Lee Child fans can be upset about Tom Cruise‘s height with regard to the casting of Jack Reacher, I’m allowed to be disappointed about Amelia Sachs’ hair here.
Perhaps Kebbel could’ve made something out of an original cop character on another show, but here, as Sachs, she comes up short. The writing certainly doesn’t help. Amelia isn’t exactly Rachel McAdams in Season Two of True Detective, or even Holly Hunter in Copycat. The show gives Amelia a sister (maybe she had one in the books, I don’t remember), and the writers waste no time putting her in grave danger. Like, maybe wait a few episodes to resort to that old move? Or just dispense with it immediately, since the audience surely knows it’s coming from the moment she’s first introduced.
Speaking of which, the supporting cast of The Bone Collector is a mixture of forgettable performers who shall go unnamed and gifted character actors, as The Sopranos star Michael Imperioli plays Lincoln’s high-ranking NYPD contact, and Brian F. O’Byrne plays the Bone Collector — a blessing and a curse, since it takes the fun out of guessing who the killer is, but also allows us to get to know the villain a bit better than if the show had to constantly keep him in the shadows.
As a fan, I felt the series was missing a few key character details, like Lincoln’s appreciation for a good single-malt Scotch, and his interplay with his aide, Thom, who has been reimagined here as a caregiver named Claire, but now I’m starting to get nit-picky. The truth is, I’m certainly down to give Lincoln Rhyme a few more episodes, since it’s always hard to judge a series by its pilot and I owe the character that much, but based on one episode, my fears were confirmed. Broadcast television is dead. I’ll still tune into Law & Order: Special Victims Unit each week to watch the great Olivia Benson stop The Rapist of the Week, and I’ll still watch The Goldbergs to see what kind of hilarious hijinx that family gets into, but beyond the comfortability and charm of those two shows, the network formula is just too tired. You can smell a network series from a mile away, and their inability to adapt kind of blows my mind. It’s like the Big Four are afraid of greatness, because to achieve it would be too great a risk.
Going forward, the Lincoln showrunners may want to look at The Vanished Man, which finds Lincoln matching wits with a dangerous illusionist, as well as The Broken Window (which explores the perils of data mining), The Burning Wire (which involves NYC’s electrical grid) and The Cold Moon, which introduces a diabolical criminal knows as the Watchmaker. I understand why they had to do The Bone Collector first, but what’s the point of dramatizing the one Lincoln Rhyme story that Hollywood has already tackled, and dramatizing it in a clearly inferior way that could never hope to live up to the original — not that the 1999 movie is some kind of sacred text, but still… why not try to tell a fresh story? It doesn’t take a brilliant detective to deduce that this NBC series is lazy and generic, and frankly, to this fan, there’s no worse a crime than to be bland and boring. A perfectly average grade is the appropriate conclusion.