‘Rosewood’ on Fox TV: Mixed bag of chirpy pathology tricks premieres

Despite decent acting by its leads, Fox’s new light-comedy/detective series stumbles on sitcom style format and poorly thought out lesbian subplot.

Morris Chestnut.
Morris Chestnut stars as "Rosewood," debuting September 23, 2015 on Fox. (Fox PR image)

WASHINGTON, Sept. 22, 2015 – Our TV topic today is Fox’s brand new more-or-less forensic detective drama, “Rosewood.” After catching an early review version of tonight’s debut episode of this show, I began to think that, in a way, new TV shows are like new works in classical music or opera. Stay with me here.

First of all, symphony and opera goers have been so disappointed with so many new works for so many years that it’s tough to get them to buy a ticket unless the symphony or show is vetted ahead of time. Even then, given the law of averages, they know that most of these new works won’t stay around very long after the world or local premieres are over. That’s just the way it is in the entertainment world.

These days, you’re stuck with a similar problem in TV. Most new shows are heavily hyped and advertised prior to the new fall season. But how many viewers are likely to switch off their old favorite program to try out a new prime time entry? Not many. Like the classical music fans, they know they’re safer sticking with NCIS or some other favorite program. So why should they try something new, since it’s, well, likely to suck? They need to be really tempted.

Enter Fox’s new TV series, “Rosewood.” Let’s see. We start out with a quirky, likeable, bankable, attractively hunky star in the title role. Fox has hired Morris Chestnut to play the new show’s lead character, Dr. Beaumont Rosewood, aka “Rosey.” He’s known as Miami’s “Beethoven of pathologists,” at least according to his advertising billboards around town. Quirky, likeable, bankable, hunky. (Check.) A brainy forensic pathologist. (Check CSI box.) Oh, and black. (Check EEO box.)

Better yet, Rosey is flawed. No, not spiritually flawed or psychologically flawed, that “Wound and Bow” thing that’s become fashionable in some cop and detective dramas. But we learn that Rosey—hunky, physically fit Rosey—has any number of life-threatening conditions that could make him go toes-up at any moment, thus adding a carpe diem frisson to his frantic, do-gooder life. Flawed main character box. (Check.)

Next, since this is at least sort of a detective show and we need an unusual twist to pull that new audience in and away from their favorite Wednesday prime time shows, we add in that unusual, guaranteed-to-intrigue human element. How about let’s have a police detective buddy who’s the lead character’s polar opposite. Sort of like “Starsky and Hutch.” Or “Hawaii 5-0’s” McGarrett and Danno. Or “Dragnet’s” Joe Friday and… whomever. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Next, how about making her (her, of course!) a young, slinky, hyper-aggressive but still very attractive and (of course) young New York City detective named Annalise Villa (pronounced “Veeya,” as in Pancho) to more easily attract that 18-49 demographic which, as we all know, is the only demographic that watches TV and buys stuff. She’s played by Jaina Lee Ortiz.

This tried-and-true odd couple-style combo has worked from time immemorial, as in “The Odd Couple.” “Bones.” “The Mentalist.” “Castle.” Even though partnering a cop with a non-cop is simply not gonna happen on any U.S. police force, unless it’s one on TV.

On the other hand, except maybe for the unusual pairing of Felix and Oscar, this weird, only-in-La-La-Land non-law-enforcement partner-of-the-opposite-sex thing always works, right? So why take a risk on something else and maybe lose your job? Weird partner, opposite sex box. (Check.) Extra-added attraction. Detective Villa is clearly Hispanic. Rising demographic? (Check.) And (Check EEO box #2.) Smokin’ hot.

Plus, we might later look forward to some romance here, and maybe even some kinky prime-time sex. That’ll draw ‘em in. (Check.)

Since new series debuts are still a struggle, let’s also make absolutely sure we cover all our bases. Yes, we need to tick even more of those checkboxes. So let’s add in foxy Gabrielle Dennis as Rosey’s peppy younger sister and chief lab assistant, Pippy. (As in Longstocking? Where in hell do Hollywood writers come up with these loopy names?) Second minority and second female character. (Check.) And just for fun and fashion, let’s add in her assistant, Tara Milly Isikoff (Seriously?), played by Anna Konkle.

Why fun and fashion? Easy. Pippy just happens to be a black lesbian, while Tara is a white lesbian. It’s all so chirpy, chirpy and ever so normal, so what’s the fuss anyway? Even better, Pippy and Tara are affianced, i.e., about to get married, despite all that likely incoming opposition from those outraged Neanderthals who still go to church.

Biracial lesbian couple. (Double Check, plus a double-bonus EEO check.) Piss off outraged Neanderthal Christians who need to grow up anyway. (Check.) Possibility of drawing some free publicity-rich minor religious boycott threats to drive more viewer interest? (Check.)

Just for fun, let’s throw into our cast a humorless white police captain infelicitously named Ira Hornstock (Really?). He’s hyper-sourly portrayed by Domenick Lombardozzi, who comes across like a guy who skins live cats for a hobby.

It seems that Ira’s main raison d’être in this show is to rain on everybody’s parade. But he also fills the fashionable contemporary TV role as the sub-normal, incredibly stupid token white guy, a useless, clueless throwback to the apes, who deserves neither his job nor his salary. (Stupid middle-aged white guy: Check.)

And lest we forget, there’s also Rosey’s she-who-must-be-obeyed mom, Donna, played for all it’s worth by Lorraine Toussaint. (Guy with mom. Check.) Perhaps both Donna and hyper-dumb Ira are in this show as a sop to the random over-49 bracket that never buys stuff even though they have the money. (Check and check.) Both actors give it a pretty good go, however.

Fold these ingredients together in your TV mixing bowl, and voilà! You’ve put together the ideal female-centric, racially and politically correct TV family with mysteries and jokes for all. Now, all you have to do is rake in the bucks as your network opposition folds, right? Well, maybe not. There’s always that small matter of the writers.

The pilot episode of “Rosewood” could actually have worked a lot better if its writers had been informed in advance that this new show was at its heart still a detective show and not a sitcom. Clearly, they didn’t get that message.

As a result, detective show that it may be, “Rosewood” in many ways has the feel if not the look of a joke-filled new sitcom fishing for laughs. You can often feel the players forcing themselves to toss out that straight line, then pulling back to await that guaranteed snappy punchline comin’ back at ‘em. One hopes this series has a bunch of decent, writerly bench sitters ready to come in and save the show at a moment’s notice. The first stringers have already encountered a writing slump on opening night of the series.

Oh, and speaking of the writers. That contrived lesbian underplot just doesn’t work here, either. Jump on me if you must, social justice warriors, but happy-go-lucky gay relationships are simply not a normal situation in the lives of most TV-Land denizens in flyover country no matter how much über-PC Hollywood tries to proselytize.

I think they’re starting to get sick of the way you’re lathering the PC stuff on, dudes and dudettes, but don’t mind me. I think you’ll only begin to understand this when those très negative Nielsens start trickling in causing panic in the executive suite. Keep those resumés warm, eh?

Last night’s debut of “Scream Queens,” also on Fox, featured a butch lesbian sorority pledge, BTW. But that role, too, was poorly concocted and poorly portrayed. In both instances, this twist seems to have been layered on as an afterthought, perhaps to demonstrate the proper bonafides of the series’ writers and creators. Or maybe to distance the TV side from the more conservative Fox News desks. It’s anybody’s guess.

Worse, “Rosewood’s” lesbian couple doesn’t even feel authentic, even to this unfashionably het critic. Earth to Hollywood: if you’re going to insist on pushing the gay life on every single prime time TV show in America, you could at least be real about portraying it for the complex thing that it is.

So, am I heading toward saying that “Rosewood” has no redeeming social value whatsoever? Surprisingly, no.

Most initial/pilot episodes of new TV shows these days pour on the action and the charm (and the PC) a bit too thickly before they settle down. They pull out all the stops to grab onto that elusive new audience that might never come back for episode 2 unless they’re mightily entertained by their overstuffed pilot episodes. Sometimes the frantic pandering works. Often, it doesn’t. (See last year’s dismal TV casualty list.)

It’s clear that the two hard-working principals in this new Fox series, Morris Chestnut and Jaina Lee Ortiz, are giving it a go and have every intention of pleasing their potential audience, not to mention making their respective characters deeper and more complex.

But giving their characters less surface glitz and hype and more depth in successive episodes is the way to go if this new series is to gain any traction. As we’ve seen in shows ranging from “Gunsmoke” to the original “Star Trek,” and especially to CBS’ perpetual hit, “NCIS,” sympathetic characters working together with something of a family feel are the real key to successful TV shows.

Audiences come back for the characters as much as they do for compelling story lines. Episode 1 of “Rosewood” takes a decent stab at this, adding in at least a few key dollops of character development just when you think the actors are about to be buried under an avalanche of pitiful one-liners.

In short, “Rosewood” could work, something not readily obvious, at least for us, in tonight’s initial episode. We like Rosey and Villa, and we even like Pippy and Tara even though we know in our hearts that they’re not really for-real lesbians. Even Mama is okay. We all have one, and they always get what they want, right?

So what’s not to like? The frantic sitcom one-liners. The ridiculously fast pace and sloppy plot. The absolutely unbelievable partnering between cop and non-cop for the purposes of crime solving. And all the above, just for starters.

If “Rosewood” moves ahead and focuses more on detective with light comic relief while doing away with the vaudeville-era humor, it would actually have the potential to develop a loyal audience.

Like Placido Domingo one told me in an interview, it’s a relatively easy matter to mount the premiere of an opera. Or a show for that matter. It’s getting to the second, third and fourth performances that stops most entertainment endeavors dead in their tracks.

Maybe “Rosewood” will actually live up to its advance hype. But we’ll need to get past a few more episodes to find out.

Here’s the trailer. We report. You decide.

“Rosewood” premieres tonight, Sept. 23, 2015, at 8 p.m. EDT, 7 Central, on most Fox TV affiliates.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17