From the network that brought the world CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CSI: Miami, CSI: New York, NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, Hawaii Five-0, The Mentalist and Criminal Minds comes yet another crime show: Unforgettable. CBS’s new show is a lot like those other ones in many respects. There is the lead, an emotionally damaged, curvy redhead who looks good in a cocktail dress but can also beat up bad guys (Poppy Montgomery) and a group of NYPD police officers who each could be found on any of the shows mentioned previously (the stoic do-gooder, the comic relief, the bald guy, etc.). But Unforgettable differs from the rest of the pack in that it was based off of a short story written by Cornell professor, J. Robert Lennon.
Lennon’s story, The Rememberer, tells of the life of a woman who remembers everything. The Rememberer, who remains unnamed throughout the story, uses her talents to become a detective and quickly rises through the ranks of the FBI until the backlash from a romantic entanglement at work causes her to quit. She contemplates a life of crime but instead uses her incredible memory to listen to the stories of the elderly. One day she falls into a coma, is taken home and dies, all her memories dying with her.
Despite the fact that Lennon’s name is listed on the show’s IMDb page as a writer, the show features very little of his original story. “It didn’t really feel like something I had anything to do with,” Lennon says. “They made it clear they were just using the character.” It came as a complete surprise to Lennon that his story was going to be made into a television show. “It’s funny because I spent about four hours writing it,” he says, “Some short stories, or any kind of art really, you bang your head against the wall and it takes forever to do and it never works. Then it pays off at some other time and you can knock something out real fast that you’re happy with; that’s the case with this story.”
Lennon even forgot to tell his literary agent that he had written the story at all, which he wrote for an anthology about modern day superheroes. So when someone from Sony Pictures read it, they were both taken aback. “It was totally unexpected, and certainly bizarre to see my name on the show.”
In the show, The Rememberer is named Carrie Wells. The show opens with Carrie in a retirement home using her superb memory to coerce an old man into taking his medication. Over the course of the pilot, we learn that Carrie used to be a cop in Syracuse who quit because she couldn’t bear her inability to solve her sister’s murder. She is determined to remain a volunteer at the retirement home (making the rent by card counting at blackjack on the weekends) and never to return to her life of crime solving. All that changes when a murder takes place at her apartment complex and the lead detective happens to be Carrie’s old partner from Syracuse and her ex-boyfriend. She is coerced into helping the NYPD solve the murder and agrees to be a consultant on the force.
The storyline was understandably rushed; the writers of a pilot have the difficult task of establishing relationships between characters, informing the audience of the backstory and attempting to intrigue viewers enough so that they will tune in the following week. Lennon acknowledges the tough job the creators of Unforgettable had: “They had to figure out a way to make the memory thing make her good at actually solving crime.” He adds, “In my story, I don’t actually address that because the story is very conceptual — it’s the story of her whole life into ten pages, whereas they’re forced to execute every single week indefinitely.”
But even though little of the plot comes from his story, Lennon thinks that Poppy Montgomery did an outstanding job of capturing The Rememberer’s character. He said, “My characters tend to be much more unsympathetic than your average TV character, but I thought she did a good job of pushing back- she’s really kind of a hard ass, and I do think she got that from the story. I thought she played that part of her personality really well.” This is not Montgomery’s first time playing the emotionally hardened detective. On Without a Trace, she played Samantha Spade, who had essentially the same personality as Carrie Wells except that she was blonde.
Wells is supposed to have hyperthymesia which means that she has an autobiographical memory; she can be asked about a specific date and can recall what she ate for breakfast that day and what she wore. Actress Marilu Henner, of Taxi, who has hyperthymesia, consults on the show and it is evident that the creators have done their research. Carrie’s ability to quote back words that people have said to her and describe the weather of a date years past are both things that those with hyperthymesia can do. Unforgettable does a good job of making Carrie’s journeys through her own past accessible to viewers. When she remembers something in her past, she literally walks through her memories, seeing herself from a distance.
Unforgettable definitely has the potential to become a quality crime show. The concept, while not completely distinct from others on the air such as The Mentalist or Psych, differs enough that it could go in an entirely opposite direction. The actors are well cast, and the couple of lines that were not devoted to catching the audience up on Wells’ past were clever and funny. Though Professor Lennon sees little of his work in the show, he says that he will absolutely continue to watch.