All Filler, No Killer: NBC's 'Lincoln Rhyme' Is DOA

NBC cop show ‘Lincoln Rhyme’ generates the kind of tension normally seen only in Hallmark Christmas movies

Arielle Kebbel in "Lincoln Rhyme."
Virginia Sherwood/NBC/Yes

I’ve been thinking a lot about serial killers this week – and it’s partly my dog’s fault. She was recently diagnosed with a chronic disease and needs to take steroids for the rest of her life. The biggest difference post-diagnosis is that she now behaves like a demented bloodhound whenever she passes the wasteland near our home, sniffing out god only knows what. Honestly, I’m counting the days until I become that person you always hear about in newscasts: “The badly decomposed body was found this morning by a man walking his dog…”

The other reason I’m thinking about serial killers and their handiwork is the new NBC show “Lincoln Rhyme: Hunt for the Bone Collector” (Yes Action, Thursdays at 22:45). It’s based on the best-selling series of novels by Jeffery Deaver – has any author of books about serial killers ever sounded more like a serial killer himself than that? – and is the latest in a long line of shows presenting us with a super sleuth whose genius allows him to effortlessly solve crimes the way the rest of us work out “five across” in the easy crossword.

“I wanted to create a present-day crime novel protagonist who solved crimes not with guns, martial arts, and quips, but with his mind. Thus was born Lincoln Rhymes, a forensic detective whose physical condition (quadriplegia) leaves him with only his rational thinking as a weapon,” Deaver explained in a later edition of “The Bone Collector” – the first in what is now a 14-book series.

Based on the first episode, I’ll be amazed if this new NBC show makes it past 14 episodes. Sure, it could be worse. It could, for example, have asked Andrew Lloyd Webber to add some music and get the cast to dress up as cats. But it remains a bit of a, well, dog.

Where the books create atmosphere through smart plotting, twist ending-after-twist ending and, most importantly, a couple of memorable protagonists, the TV show offers instead a plodding would-be thriller that takes the barest of bones from the source material and generates the kind of tension normally seen only in Hallmark Christmas movies.

I wouldn’t normally write about such a generic show, but there was one thing about it that caught my eye: It’s the latest series to be co-produced by Israeli television powerhouse Keshet through its West Coast-based studio. (Just to clarify – when I say West Coast, I mean LA, not TA.)

“Lincoln Rhyme” follows Keshet’s previous forays into mainstream U.S. television with shows like the military thriller “The Brave” (also NBC) and high-tech thriller “Wisdom of the Crowd” (CBS) – neither of which made it past the first season, and neither of which attracted any critical acclaim. I see a trend developing here…

I can only assume a gig like “Lincoln Rhyme” (and, no, the title doesn’t get any better the more times you say it) pays a lot of bills for Keshet and allows it to fund vastly superior shows like “Our Boys” back home in Israel, and also its ambitious plans to make English-language movies. I hope so, anyway, because there’s a distinct lack of merit – artistic or commercial – in the American shows it has created thus far. Sure, some of its upcoming offerings do sound more promising – including one in development about Hollywood’s top stuntwoman in the 1970s – but for now it’s stuck producing fare so bland it could be playing in elevators.

Barbara Nitke/NBC/Yes

I’ve never been a huge fan of mainstream cop shows about serial killers (although I must admit to being intrigued by the just-announced new CBS show “Clarice,” following the eponymous FBI agent a year after the events of “The Silence of the Lambs”). If you’re going to explore such a theme, you have to be prepared to show the true horrors – as in shows like HBO’s “True Detective” and Netflix’s “Mindhunter.”

A show like “Lincoln Rhyme” is serial killer-trite, trading in horrible crimes but never wanting to be anything other than a standard procedural in a family-friendly time slot (in America, at least). Give me a more sordid show like “Sharp Objects” over this PG-13 rendition of bloodless, painless murders.

Fans of the books will find little to entertain them in the TV adaptation, which is the second time Deaver’s detective has been brought to the screen. The first was in 1999, with Phillip Noyce’s “The Bone Collector,” when Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie starred as Lincoln Rhyme and his feisty female sidekick Amelia Sachs (although the film renamed her “Donaghy” for reasons best known to itself).

Glutton for punishment

I rewatched Noyce’s thriller after viewing the first episode of the show, and I have good news for filmmakers who made poorly received thrillers in the past: Just wait 20 years and your version will look like a stonewall classic in comparison to the limp serialized TV show that follows. (Peter Jackson, you only have 10 more years to wait till someone makes a cack-handed TV version of “The Lovely Bones” to offer you some form of redemption as well.)

Glutton for punishment that I am, I then rewatched the first episode of “Lincoln Rhyme” to see if I could deduce where the show had gone so badly wrong. As well as wanting to be a procedural that just uses a serial killer as window dressing, the format is also fatal. Cramming three murders/attempted murders into 43 minutes makes the series feel like a sketch show, where knotty clues are unraveled at a ferocious pace. The drama has no room to breathe or for atmosphere to be built, and characters are never given more than a few seconds to make any kind of impression. Indeed, several of them appear to exist merely to provide reaction shots when a piece of deduction takes place and we must be reminded we are in the presence of A Great Detective.

The lead is played by Russell Hornsby, who must surely be the only actor in the world to have appeared in two shows featuring the word “Lincoln” in the title (this and “Lincoln Heights” over a decade ago). He’s playing a New York detective who is great, we are told, because like Sherlock Holmes before him he dedicated himself to understanding every single aspect of his metropolis – every book, every map, every pigeon (yes, this is actually said with a straight face) – which is great, but must really limit his effectiveness when crimes are committed in New Jersey.

Like in the book and film, Rhyme has spent the past few years lying paralyzed after his archnemesis, The Bone Collector, got the better of him on a crime scene. Help again arrives in the photogenic form of rookie police officer Amelia Sachs – played by Arielle Kebbel, who is the only actor to make any kind of impression as the show hurtles from murder scene to murder hunt. Rhyme kindly explains to us several times that it’s “always threes with the Bone Collector – three victims, three pieces of evidence at each scene.” By coincidence, I lost the will to live at least three times while watching the show.

If Keshet really wants to make a mark in American television and not be just another studio turning out brain-stultifying eye candy, it is going to have to do better than shows like “Lincoln Rhyme.” It would be criminal not to aim a little higher, no?