Pilot-itis (pi'let IT'is) 1. A malady that afflicts the first episode of many TV shows. 2. Trying to set up years of material in one hour. 3. When what could go on to become a decent show starts with a whimper.
Fox's supernatural cop drama "New Amsterdam" has a raging case of pilot-itis, and that's too bad. The series, which premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 25, improves significantly in episode two, which will air on Thursday night. But a chunk of the potential audience will no doubt give up after the pilot, since it promises little more than a feeble crime procedural with a stapled-on sci-fi gimmick.
The gimmick is that New York homicide detective John Amsterdam has remained 30-something years old since 1642, when he saved a Native American girl from death and she granted him immortality in return. "You will not grow old, you will not die until you find the one and your souls are wed," she told John, then a Dutch soldier in the colony that would become New York City. Now, more than 360 years later, weary and reckless, he longs to find his soul mate and proceed toward a natural death. "If I find her," he says to a friend who knows his plight, "it will all have value. Time will have value."
The show is executive produced by Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom, who directed the pilot, and it stars the Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as John. It has a cool Nordic atmosphere that clearly differentiates it from the overheated, tortured emotionality of vampire shows such as "Moonlight." John isn't tormented so much as he is irritable, remote, depressed. He's a know-it-all and a difficult colleague because he's been solving murders for an extremely long time, and his new partner, Eva (Zuleikha Robinson from "Rome"), is justifiably wary of him. Having watched friends and lovers die around him for centuries, he also has a bit of an attachment disorder.
Coster-Waldau looks like Denis Leary, or a narrow Aaron Eckhart, but with a strong tinge of otherworldly elegance in his face. Tonight, he makes John so alien and distant as to be annoyingly inscrutable. But in Thursday's episode, we begin to learn more particulars about John's history, and how he maintains his secret. And that's when Coster-Waldau becomes more vivid and the show begins to rise above its silly murder-of-the-week plots.
For one thing, John is something of a Zelig, and he makes amusing references to having known famous people such as John Coltrane and Sarah Bernhardt. The mundane details of having lived for so long emerge in comic and bittersweet ways - he has named his dog "36," as in "my 36th dog," for example. And then we are given hints of earlier careers and identities, as well as children who are older than him and wives long gone. Not only do those hints entice, but they remind us that, if the series continues, John could conceivably change careers and identities once again. As TV shows such as "Lost" undergo radical change-ups, that possibility is real and real cool.
Fox is premiering both of this week's episodes after "American Idol," but then the series will move to Monday nights, where it may or may not flourish in obscurity. I'm curious enough about "New Amsterdam" to follow it to its home time slot, but I won't get too attached. Like John, who's outlived so many of his favorite things, we've all seen many a serial drama go by too soon.