Not always empirically good, but better than the bland title and awful opening sequence might lead you to suspect, ABC Will Trent quickly emerges as an above-average TV broadcast procedure – even though it’s exactly those structural pitfalls that so often undermine it.
As popular lit adaptations of middlebrow, Will Trent delivers a distinctive lead character and top-notch performances, a promising ensemble, and – based on the first two episodes – it seems easily able to appeal to the same audience that found solace in Netflix Lincoln Lawyer and that of Amazon Reach.
A broadcast drama full of promise.
Named with the same strategy that gave us Lincoln Rhyme: In Search of the Bone Collector on NBC for a few months in 2020, Will Trent is based on a long-running series of Atlanta novels by Karin Slaughter – a fact existing fans probably could still have inferred with a livelier title. The current title is surely the least lively imaginable, and it bypasses Trent himself, an endearing and bizarrely damaged special agent from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Will (Ramón Rodriguez) is one of those archetypal Holmesian investigators who simply sees the world differently. His secret gifts — observational and not in line with the book because, as we quickly learn, Will is dyslexic — were honed in a difficult childhood in Atlanta’s foster care system and various group homes.
The series, adapted by Liz Heldens and Daniel T. Thomsen, begins with Will facing the return of his role in orchestrating a major police corruption investigation. Since the GBI and APD share an office building, Will is constantly forced to come into contact with people who think he’s a rat or a snitch, which becomes even more difficult when called upon. on a major matter that requires the cooperation of the department.
The case involves a mother (Jennifer Morrison), who returns to her posh suburban home, believes she finds her teenage daughter murdered, and in a struggle kills the man she believes to be the attacker. APD decides it’s an easy fix, but Will uses his superpower—like so many Sherlockian detectives, he’s exemplified mostly by a lot of squinting—to poke holes in what seemed obvious, much to everyone’s annoyance. Soon, he’s dealing with the victim’s rude father (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), who knows Will from a shared past, a grumpy boss (Sonja Sohn’s Amanda), and a reluctant new APD partner (Iantha Richardson’s Faith), whose grudge with Will is personal.
Off to the side, but quickly interacting with the main case, are undercover Vice Detective Angie (Erika Christensen), a recovering drug addict and another piece of Will’s traumatic past; and his new partner Michael (Jake McLaughlin), who looks a bit of a dork, but apparently has a high case clearance rate, so we’re supposed to consider him a capable work in progress rather than something like a bad cop.
The overqualified presences of a raw Morrison and a deftly violent and intimidating Gosselaar create an instant investment and made me wish the first case could have spanned a full season, rather than rushing to a conclusion at the end of the second hour. That’s how the cable version of the series obviously would have gone, and I’m afraid Will Trent could shift to a case-of-the-week structure, perhaps exemplified by the totally non-committal Case B in the second hour. Giving everything more room to breathe might have alleviated some of the challenges of explaining the jurisdiction of the GBI and how it, and Will, fit into the Atlanta law enforcement scene. But at least the general portrayal of Atlanta is handled well, and spreading Will’s initial case over two episodes offers a chance for character details to emerge.
Will is just a good and interesting character, full of physical and psychological scars that inform everything he does – from his reluctant series-opening decision to adopt an adorable, abandoned chihuahua named Betty to his house being renovated in a rough quarter to his relationship with Angie, which is half booty call and half jointly necessary therapy. Although Rodriguez is solid in the lead role – a good mix of dapper and damaged, with just enough humorous overtones – Christensen, battered and dangerously nervous throughout, is the real star. I could instantly understand why the Will/Angie couple is the kind of relationship I could invest in on the page.
I could say that the first two Will Trent episodes spend too much time explaining their quirks and pathologies, but the last thing I want to do when it comes to a broadcast show is complain that the characters are too clearly and specifically driven. This extends to most of the main characters, including Faith, trying to find her place in a department dominated by her mother’s now conflicted legacy, and Amanda, still cop enough to resent Will for his role in the corruption case she made. sue him. Only Michael doesn’t quite have a hook after two hours and that, again, is far better than what shows of this type typically manage so early in their run.
Tone failures are much more familiar to the broadcast space, and they’re nearly instantaneous. The opening scene, rehashing the main crime, is eerily operatic, with slow-motion screaming and heightened violence bordering on parody – director Paul McGuigan makes one bad decision after another mistaking flashiness for emotional engagement – to instantly cut to a purely comedic scene of Will trying to get rid of his dog at a shelter. Time and time again in these two episodes, humorous beats and awkward banter undermine attempts to give gravity to Will and Angie’s backstory.
I would have liked to see one or two more episodes of Will Trent to find out how it performs from week to week, to see how the show settles in by letting its characters’ personalities drive the drama instead of using the drama to explain the characters’ personalities. Still, wanting to see more episodes is as close to praising as I’ve been able to give any drama that aired in the last year or two.