I love the television procedural. It’s a stalwart of the medium, a type of storytelling that understands TV’s inherent episodic structure and fills it keenly. It’s comfort food of the sturdiest order. When a good chef prepares it, as they did in shows like “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “Law & Order,” “The X-Files” and “Poker Face,” it’s good for the gut, head and heart. And as our examples of “prestige television” lean more into ultra-serialization and movie-sized stories stretched into limited series, I yearn for the procedural’s self-contained taste.
I came into “Found” ready to love. But you can’t serve me burnt leftovers and expect me to compliment the chef.
The premise of the NBC drama is simple, as it should be. Gabi Mosely (Shanola Hampton) leads an independent team of crisis managers/investigators/vigilantes with an intently focused goal: finding missing people. Her crack squad has archetypes like a “Mentalist”-esque observer and deducer of human behavior (Kelli Williams), and she butts up against archetypical members of the system, like the brooding detective/ex-lover (Brett Dalton).
Gabi’s relentless drive stems from personal trauma; she was a victim of kidnapping herself, having been held captive in her teenage years by the pretentiously evil Sir (Mark-Paul Gosselaar, flailing). But this past trauma keeps poking its way through the present, thanks to what some might call a “twist,” others might call “the premise of the show,” and everyone would call “a rip-off of ‘The Silence of the Lambs.’” Can Gabi save those she needs to while harboring her personal demons and devilish decisions?
Well, in the first five episodes available for review, the answer is unequivocally “yes.” Unlike the glory days of “L&O,” “Found” is not interested in complication beyond the surface. This is a show about superheroes saving the day, and it will sacrifice any sense of suspense or surprise to sprint toward that foregone conclusion. Comforting? In the most technical definition of the word, sure. Interesting? Never!
Evoking the tropes of superhero storytelling wasn’t hyperbole, I promise. Gabi isn’t the only member of the team with a traumatic backstory that neatly makes her the only champion up for the job. In fact, literally every member of the team has dealt with abduction and captivity in their past, an aggressively contrived, unfortunately foundational decision that results in countless gooey revelations, all of which are dulled by the fact that they’re all going through it like dominos on an assembly line. It’s a flattening of trauma into digestible motivation and toxic positivity. Couple that with the show’s predilection for Joss Whedon-esque quips and stabs at action choreography (I told you it was a superhero story!), and “Found” stumbles into tasteless exploitation enough to cause ironic detachment and discomfort.
All of this reminds me of the later, worse seasons of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” Eschewing its flagship show’s emphasis on grounded-feeling casework over heightened character motivation, “SVU” has become a soapy mess, foregrounding its detectives’ baggage at every moment, turning its so-called “special victims” into generic fodder for the more important motivations and decisions of its real heroes. “Found” seems to have grabbed the ball from this era of “SVU,” and I can only tremble in fear as it rushes toward whatever end zone that leads to.
Bright spots are few, but let’s highlight them anyhow. The aforementioned Williams works through her clichéd character (who is textually referred to by her teammates as a “superhero” with “superpowers”!) to find emotion behind the eyes, layers to sift through, and authenticity in the face of broadly phony story moves. And Arlen Escarpeta runs away with the soul of the show. As an agoraphobic techie who is, by necessity of the show, forced to Zoom into more than half of his scenes, Escarpeta is given many hurdles. But he leaps over them effortlessly, playing the role with a welcome sense of ease, offering the chance for audiences to open up to him rather than shoving his choices in our face.
While it’s shamelessly didactic, I applaud show creator Nkechi Okoro Carroll’s (“All American”) spotlighting and humanizing of marginalized individuals. From queer Black folks to sex workers to undocumented immigrants, “Found” demands its characters and viewers accept the type of people society often wants to paint as unacceptable – not to mention its feisty jabs at the police-industrial complex. Do I wish these points were made in ways other than scenes of heroes standing around a conference table spouting statistics and talking points? Perhaps. But one of network TV’s most underrated powers is to offer social progression in the candy of mass-marketed entertainment, and I’m genuinely comforted to see “Found” continue that tradition.
If you need a laundry-folding show, “Found” — with its subtext-free dialogue, attention-forcing tone shifts and hamfistedly telegraphing music choices — is functional. It will do all the work for you, giving you ample room to let your mind wander to the creases of your slacks, never needing to worry that you didn’t juice all you could from an episode.
But I think that every type of art form, even a workhorse like the network TV crime procedural, deserves more effort and more respect for its audience than what this show is willing to offer. There’s still gold in them hills, they just didn’t care to look for it.
“Found” premieres Tuesday, Oct. 3, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.