We've seen - and heard - it all before
Granted, nearly everything on TV is a formula these days, from reality contests (three judges; at least one is obnoxious!) to docudramas (the people, they will bicker). Why should crime-solving procedurals be different? Take an attractive leading character with some special ability - face-reading, book writing - and a mysterious past. Add a symbiotic relationship with a conventional law-enforcement agent. Toss in a comic-relief sidekick and, for bonus points, a sexy female character with a man's name.
Put it together, and you have NBC's "The Listener" a show so stunningly derivative that it feels a little bit insulting: They really think we have the bandwidth for another one of these? In this case, the main character is Toby Logan (Craig Olejnik), who grew up telepathic and works as a paramedic. He has spent most of his life trying to suppress other people's thoughts, but suddenly finds that they're intruding anyway. From his ambulance, he can hear psychic distress calls from a few blocks away.
So he drags his goofy sidekick, Oz (Ennis Esmer), to the scene of a crime or accident, then brings the cases to a sexy female detective named Charlie (Lisa Marcos), then embarks on his own renegade effort to solve convoluted crimes. It helps that he can hear what witnesses are thinking along the way - and that they always think in clear, concise sentences. And, conveniently, his job gives him a master key to apartments and trunks of cars.
What the show misses in originality it tries to make up for in tone; everything is dirty and dark, while an otherworldly light floods in from windows and doors. Toby gets flashes of memories about a mother who was telepathic, too, and occasional advice from a professor who says ominous things like, "Be careful, Toby. No one can know about you." The show tries to suggest that Toby faces a moral dilemma each time he acts on his "gift;" in one upcoming episode involving a troubled street boy, he wonders whether getting involved has made the kid's life worse.
That doesn't create much suspense, given that we know Toby will keep up with his crime-solving ways. What might help more is a firm sense of place. Toby lives in some every-city, brings cases to a generic hospital, and visits the "Metropolitan Police Department." It makes you pine for the '70s New York of ABC's late "Life on Mars" or even the California of CBS's "The Mentalist."
Instead, the entire experience rests on the character of Toby and the charisma of Olejnik, who is best known, if at all, for a role in the CW series "Runaway." He's handsome enough for prime time, but hardly dynamic enough to command the screen. Maybe he's playing a slacker-telepath a little too literally; he wanders through scenes looking distracted, and speaks in a gravelly monotone. He's sweet but impossibly bland. And if he could read my thoughts, he'd hear me thinking "Deja vu."
Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.