David E. Kelley’s Disappointing Law & Order Riff
Dec 22, 2022
Home TV Reviews ‘The Calling’ Review: David E. Kelley Riffs on ‘Law & Order’ to Disappointing Results
The greatest crime in The Calling is how derivative it all is.
Image via Peacock
Several times throughout The Calling, the second lackluster crime drama from David E. Kelley this year, we hear characters reference another show: Law & Order. Specifically, Janine Harris (Juliana Canfield) explains to her partner Avraham Avraham (Jeff Wilbusch) that she actually joined the NYPD because of her love of the show. This mostly odd statement feels like a throwaway joke that the two will occasionally reference, but it ends up becoming particularly telling when the show itself just begins to seem like it, too, wants to be like Law & Order. The only difference is that The Calling takes the mold of that show and attempts to stretch it, creating an experience centered around a potentially compelling character study that becomes saddled by two primary cases which lack the intrigue to justify its length.
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Based on the series of novels by Dror A. Mishani, The Calling centers on the aforementioned Avraham, a devout man of faith who seems almost spiritually connected to the cases he works on, he has a troubled past of his own that informs much of how he approaches detective work. An early scene sees him interrogating a man dressed in a hot dog costume who had been selling sausages on the street though got into an altercation that ended in violence. Playing upon the man’s fears and anxieties, Avraham is able to successfully break him down while his admiring colleagues watch from behind the glass. The explanation he gives to Janine about this approach is that “the Talmud teaches us to see a single human being as the whole world” and “that each person is entitled to infinite respect and concern.” This guiding philosophy is what will supposedly govern how Avraham approaches a handful of cases, from a disappearance to a bomb threat. Unfortunately, both the investigations as well the character leading them are far too superficial and straightforward to ever draw you in.
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Image via Peacock
The most interesting part of the show is how it toes the line between Avraham just being particularly apt at reading people to having near-superhuman clairvoyance. At moments, it’s almost akin to some of the sequences from Hannibal where Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham was able to transcend time and space through the power of his analysis. Alas, the investigation sequences never feel as visually or thematically compelling as that, and this element of the character soon fades into the background. As for the rest of who he is, there are only brief glimpses of that via flashbacks that are made secondary to the mechanisms of the plot that it goes through the motions of. While it is clear that Avraham is very driven by his faith, the actual depiction doesn’t feel interested in examining how this may conflict with some of the cases he takes on. Where a strong show like Under the Banner of Heaven made the character’s reflections on faith and the evolution of his own beliefs central to the experience, The Calling remains content to just skim the surface, keeping the plot moving and throwing in some tepid twists to disguise how little what is happening even matters.
There also is just a general sense of ugliness that the show doesn’t have a handle on. This isn’t in reference to the visual quality, though that is an issue when the same uninterestingly shot rooms are cycled back to over and over again, but is rather about the prevailing ideas behind the show itself. In this world, and that of many crime shows, police work is portrayed in a way that misrepresents reality to the point of being more of a fantasy than a drama. The lines about Law & Order establish that the characters, as well as Kelley, have completely and utterly bought into this fantasy. The many coercive interrogations Avraham leads are portrayed as being not just necessities but admirable, with others in the department giddily watching him at work. He is almost mythical in their eyes, even as his biggest trick is just lying to suspects to draw out confessions. Every time this happens, it is portrayed as being a brash yet necessary part of the job in order to bring all these criminals in. If a character being interrogated has the audacity to assert their rights by asking for a lawyer, the detectives moan and groan at how they can’t just keep rattling the cage. It distorts one of the fundamental protections everyone has into an obstacle to justice and spoiling of fun as opposed to a necessary check on potential police overreach. While Avraham is often made to be the moral authority in the department, even he will frequently throw his hands up at the slightest suggestion of looking inward at how they may be failing people or making situations worse. No matter how bad things get, the world of The Calling is a woefully simple one that ensures these detectives remain unrestrained in order to fix it.
For those who don’t particularly care about what the show says about modern policing or the current landscape of the criminal justice system, it should also be made clear that the issues of its framing make it quite boring. Any complexity to be found in the dragged-out cases becomes practically nonexistent when it’s clear how this is all going to be wrapped up. There are darker moments in the story that indicate how there are much greater societal failings at play, but the series just breezes past them to get to a resolution devoid of deeper drama. It then takes quite a while to get there with mundane misdirects prolonging cases without ever adding any earned emotional layers in the process. More feeling comes from the score by Hans Zimmer than anything else actually playing out before us. Even as the actors do try to instill some scenes with a bit of emotional heft, they just get left stranded in a vast narrative ocean where there is nothing to head towards. When we finally arrive at the conclusion of The Calling after a belabored journey that never finds its footing, a forced setup for another season falls flat on its face one final time with nothing substantial to hold it up.
All eight episodes of The Calling are available starting November 10 on Peacock.
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