In March of 2018 two network dramas premiered that immediately caught my attention. One was called Instinct on ABC, and the other was Deception on CBS. Both are police procedural dramas. More to the point, they are both members of the subgenre ‘experienced female detective teams ups with a quirky male civilian’, joining shows like Castle, The Mentalist, Lucifer, Taxi Brooklyn, and Forever. That is the most…weirdly specific subgenre I can think of. It sounds like a parody subgenre, something The Big Bang Theory would come up with to make fun of nerds. Still, I do enjoy these types of shows, to varying degrees (The Mentalist was…iffy).
Deception caught my attention for the pure and simple reason that it was about a stage magician helping the FBI. Think Now You See Me but with the magicians solving crimes, not committing them. I like the Now You See Me movies so of course this got me interested.
Instinct was a bit more interesting at first brush though, because, well, its star was Alan Cumming and his character (Dr. Dylan Reinhardt, a psychologist who used to work for the CIA) was the first gay male lead in a network drama. That is something I was very much happy to see. And Alan Cumming is an excellent actor, an absolute delight…most of the time.
See, as I watched these shows, something interesting happened. Deception, the show that I was watching primarily in hopes of seeing some cool tricks, revealed interesting characters, an interesting plot, and was all around enjoyable. Instinct, the show that I was watching with high expectations, proved to have none of those things. I can’t even recommend this on the grounds of Alan Cumming fandom (weirdly enough, Whoopi Goldberg fans will get some enjoyment from her, since she plays Alan’s publishing agent, but she’s only in three of the ten episodes that have aired thus far).
Yes, it’s with heavy heart that I declare that the first network drama with a gay male lead is…mediocre at best. I hesitate to call it bad because nothing in it is inherently harmful, and there’s only one truly offensive moment (that I noticed at the very least, feel free to comment if you found others). I wanted it to be good, the community deserved for it to be good, but it frankly isn’t. And since Instinct had the luck (?) to come out the same week as another network drama in the same subgenre, with a main character who is remarkably similar, I thought we’d do some compare and contrasting here.
Alright, so neither of these shows are super heavy on explicitly dealing with social issues. Neither has a ‘Very Special Episode’ so far. Instinct does take note that those dealing with mental conditions are not inherently or universally violent, which is a very good thing. There is an episode in which a young veteran with schizophrenia is the main suspect, but in a nice change he is not the murderer, nor is he violent.
Weirdly enough, for the first network drama about a gay man, there are no noticeable instances of Dylan encountering homophobia (again, that I noticed, feel free to mention in the comments if there were some). On the one hand, it’s nice to not have a gay character’s conflicts revolve around homophobia. On the other hand, he is a famous and openly gay person living in New York City and working with the police, it feels like he should encounter some level of harassment purely for realism’s sake.
Deception, by comparison, doesn’t openly address any social issues. Which is weird, because the female lead of the show, the detective, is Agent Kay Daniels (played by Ilfenesh Hadera) a black woman. You’d think at some point they’d address racism and/or sexism. You don’t have to make a whole episode about it, not even a whole subplot, but a scene or two showcasing that she faces issues, as any real-world black female agent would in her situation, would have been nice.
At the same time however, I give Deception points for having a relatively diverse cast. Yes, the main lead is a straight white guy—and as far as I can tell all the characters in Deception are straight, though I like to follow the rule of ‘pan until proven otherwise’. However, of the main cast, meaning any character with multiple speaking scenes in every episode, only three are white, and two of those three are identical twins, and thus played by the same actor. Of the remaining, three are black characters, two women and one man, and one is an East Asian man.
Instinct by comparison…well, if we follow the rule that to be part of the main cast you have to have multiple speaking scenes in every episode, Instinct has a main cast of two, both of whom are white. If we lower the bar to one speaking scene in every episode, we get one person of color, a man of Indian descent. If we lower it even further, to just having multiple speaking scenes in the season, we can add two black women.
Yeah, Instinct has a race problem. And it’s best demonstrated by the one really offensive moment (that I noticed), which is in the second episode. The murderer in that episode is taking trouble to pose their victims. A great deal of time is spent dealing with the way that the first victim, a white man, was posed and accessorized in the style of a Franciscan Monk. The second victim, a black woman, is found stripped naked, forced into a kneeling position, and in shackles. This is never addressed. The murderer, a white woman, went for very specific slavery imagery and nobody comments on it. And that after spending a good five minutes discussing the imagery of the white dude’s death. It’s…not good.
So, neither show is perfect on the social issues front. Instinct gets some points for at least discussing one topic openly but loses some points for having an overall lack of diversity in the main cast and that scene I just mentioned.
Let’s tackle plot next. Not the quality of the writing necessarily, both shows do fine on that front. I’m not suggesting Emmy nominations for either show, but nothing cringe worthy. What I mean is…ugh, this is hard to articulate. Okay, so you know how certain crime procedurals, like Rizzoli & Isles, are more interested in the characters than the crimes committed, so much so that the crime solving feels somewhat secondary? Instinct is sort of the opposite of that.
Certainly, there are subplots to episodes of Instinct. But they aren’t really anything to write home about for two reasons. One, is that only one of the leads gets a subplot to them per episode. Sometimes it’s Dylan and sometimes it’s Lizzie (the female detective of the pair, played by Bojana Novakovic), but never both. One might advise the other on how to handle their subplot but will rarely interact with it. And given how small the recurring cast of Instinct is, you can imagine that none of them get subplots.
The second issue though, and arguably a bigger one, is that the subplots don’t change anything. Instinct has no character development. Now, when you read that, you might have been thinking that I was being hyperbolic. Of course the show has some degree of character development, right? No. I am not exaggerating. The characters are the same in episode ten, the most recent episode to come out at the time of writing, as they were in the pilot. Their positions in life may have changed—Dylan spends the first two episodes as a professor before becoming a consultant, for example—but their personalities and attitudes have not. This doesn’t hurt Lizzie so much provided that you don’t hate her and aren’t banking on her changing, but it does hurt Dylan, which we’ll get to in the next segment.
Compare this to Deception, where character arcs actually exist. I can legitimately say that multiple characters, not just the male lead, are different in the finale then they were in the pilot. Some of that change is positive and some of it is negative, but it is change. And not all of that change is a result of the main storyline either, or of the caper of the week. Some of it is in the subplots.
Oh yeah, that’s the other thing. Deception has a main storyline. Not every episode’s main plot focuses on the mystery—the main character’s twin was framed for murder by a Moriarty-esque criminal mastermind who’s looking for a mysterious treasure—but if the main plot doesn’t, a subplot will further it. And sometimes the subplot won’t even focus on our main duo, but on the side characters of the main cast. This really helps in the development part, because by having a need for the status quo to change from episode to episode, character change is inevitable.
Instinct doesn’t have that. No plot lines have carried over from one episode to the next. Granted, the eleventh and twelfth episodes might change that, but they might not. There is no overarching plot, nothing to force and encourage change. And while no, a crime procedural isn’t required to have an overarching plot, and that’s fine if not having one is your cup of tea, the fact remains that once you get past the second episode you can pretty much hit shuffle and watch episodes three through ten in any order you want and not lose anything. And while not having an overarching plot isn’t inherently a problem, not having any character growth is. Which leads us to the third and final subject.
Aside from subgenre and premiere week, another area where Instinct and Deception are similar are in their leads. Both are white men who are considered the best in their fields, psychology and stage magic respectively, and as such are arrogant and cocky. Because these are American shows and we naturally assume that if you excel, you must be a jerk. At least if you’re a white dude. And yeah, it would be easy to just toss them in the same pile and wash our hands of them, but I’m not prepared to do that. Because while the way that a character is written is important, the way that they are portrayed can be equally important.
It’s good for a character to be flawed. It’s very hard to make a character interesting if they’re perfect. Just look at anybody who’s never read a Superman comic’s complaints about Superman as a character. But the way that a work of media depicts those character’s flaws matters. Two characters that are very similar can end up feeling worlds apart just based on how their writers handle their flaws.
So, on the one hand, we have Cameron Black (played by Jack Cutmore-Scott), Deception’s main character. A famous and talented magician who knows it, so much so that he occasionally refers to himself as “the world-famous Cameron Black.” Cameron is cocky and self-assured to the extent that his introduction to the FBI is not them seeking him out for his aid but him just showing up at a crime scene and showing off (he literally reveals how a criminal faked his death with a “ta-da!”). He goes ahead with his own plans, occasionally disregarding the law and the advice of his FBI friends.
On the other hand, we have Dr. Dylan Reinhardt, a less flashy celebrity in that he’s a professor who wrote an admittedly bestselling book, not a performer, but no less self-assured. Like Cameron, he has a tendency to ignore commands to hang back or stay away by his trained friends. Though unlike Cameron, he is not only convinced of his skill but of his intelligence. His snobbish and self-confident nature are called out repeatedly. And to be fair to Dylan, he is a retired but trained CIA agent (not a field agent mind you), with some skill in the situations he finds himself in.
So, we have two white guys, both cocky, both the top of their fields. Do they have differences between them beyond their sexuality? Well, yes. And as you might have guessed from the earlier parts of this section, the biggest difference is in the way that their respective shows handle their cockiness.
Cameron goes off on his own more than once, especially in the first two episodes, but also in a later episode, which sees him separated from the group and under the control of the mastermind. In all these instances he tries to do his own thing, ignoring both his friends and the law. And in all these instances, Cameron is promptly smacked down for his arrogance. His privileges with the FBI are revoked, his relationships are damaged, and these consequences last until he makes amends. And those amends aren’t made from single or simple apologies, but with actual work and effort on his part. It helps that Cameron’s choices are in the name of saving his wrongfully imprisoned brother and not his own self-aggrandizement.
Dylan though…more than once, he also goes into dangerous situations on his own, against the orders of his police partner. He even inserts himself into a hostage situation, ignoring instructions to wait for a trained negotiator. And he frequently uses his former CIA hacker friend to obtain evidence illegally. Somehow this evidence is used by the police, despite being obtained illegally, but we won’t delve into that, I’m not a legal expert and I’m likely missing some nuance in that department. Still, Dylan behaves in ways that are both dangerous and arrogant, but unlike Cameron, he is never punished for them beyond a scolding. He is always proven right, and circumventing procedures is always the best choice.
And frankly, that is my most consistent issue with Instinct, and the reason I can’t recommend it even on the grounds of Alan Cumming. Dylan’s arrogance is never treated as a flaw to be overcome, merely a character feature. There are rarely consequences for his behavior, and due to the nature of Instinct and its methods of handling plot, they even more rarely carry over into other episodes. Yes, Cameron is more loud and brash with his arrogance, but at the same time, he is made to pay the price for his actions. His arrogance is treated as a flaw, one with serious consequences. Cameron is still a loud and brash man at the end of the finale, but he is one that has learned the importance of listening to others, of involving them and not just following his impulses. He apologizes, and he means it. Dylan doesn’t. Not ever.
So, those are my thoughts on Instinct and Deception. Frankly, both of these upset me. Admittedly, my frustration with Deception is that the show was canceled and ended on a major cliffhanger, likely in a bid to save the series. Deception was not remotely the best show on television, but it was fun and had a good heart.
My frustration with Instinct is that it is the first network drama with a gay main character. Yes, I am judging it more harshly because of its landmark status. And frankly, the LGBT+ community deserves better. If nothing else, gay men deserve better than a mediocre show. Instinct has been confirmed to get a second season (insert long beleaguered sigh here) and I can only hope it gets better. And maybe it will, it could still pull a Parks & Rec, who knows. But frankly, unless you’ve literally emptied out your Netflix list (and your Hulu and Amazon lists) give it a pass for now.
Did you see either of these shows? If you did, tell me what you thought in the comments, especially if you disagree with me!