In NBC’s “First to Die,” the hunt for a serial killer is treated like a Nancy Drew mystery. Genre elements are firmly in place, but the methods by which a noble detective uncovers a series of grisly murders is so outrageous — the climax even more so — that it’s hard to take any of it seriously. Since gruesome crime pays, it’s easy to understand why “Kiss the Girls” and “Along Came a Spider” author James Patterson’s pages are often adapted, but his success seems to be rooted in cheap thrills and incredulous plotting.
The Peacock hopes to draw auds with the promise of brutal attacks and Tracy Pollan’s return to television. But the pacing of this three-hour telepic and the overbaked action evolve into a giant jumble that makes little sense when dissected. And the final “twist” is one hell of a stretch; it’s a silly ending any Hollywood hack could devise in order to fit a made-up backstory.
Pollan is Lindsay Boxer, a Seattle homicide investigator who’s called in to probe a recent spate of newlywed murders (the book takes place in San Francisco). Partnered with one-time one-night stand Chris Raleigh (Gil Bellows), she eventually bonds with three other professional femmes who have their own theories and exclusive info. The so-called Women’s Murder Club includes wily medical examiner Claire Washburn (Pam Grier); assistant DA Jill Bernhardt (Megan Gallagher); and Cindy Thomas (Clara Pope), a determined reporter who just started writing hard news for a daily paper.
Aside from the pressures of coffee klatches and love affairs gone bad, Lindsay is also waging a battle against a fatal illness, a plot ingredient that virtually disappears as “First” unfurls and therefore does absolutely nothing to advance the narrative.
As the case develops, a major suspect turns out to be Nicholas Jenks (Robert Patrick), a successful author with a statuesque wife (Angie Everhart) and a vindictive ex (Sean Young). Having made a lucrative career out of fictionalized violence, he becomes the primary question mark after a forgotten manuscript shows up, and Lindsay delves inside his violent past to see if he’s really capable of such evil deeds.
Up to a certain point, “First to Die” is a serviceable whodunit with the requisite “wrong person accused” factor playing out in regular fashion. But when it shifts over to the chatty sessions, with the four women speculating and sipping tea, everything deflates rather quickly. The other sidebars are no better: Neither Lindsay’s deteriorating health nor her relationship with Chris are played out with any emotional intensity — a real let-down, considering director Russell Mulcahy (“Highlander”) and writer Michael O’Hara had an extra hour in which to maneuver.
Performancewise, Pollan is over her head; she’s lovely but hardly complex. It looks like she just graduated from the police academy, and the goal, presumably, was to make her a tough-as-nails Clarice Starling type with a personal vendetta against a much-publicized sicko. Instead, it all feels second-rate, with her lack of streetwise attitude undercutting any sense of urgency.
Supporting cast is attractive but flat, with only Patrick giving a creepshow jolt. Bellows is dull, while Everhart and Young as the potential wildcards are simple caricatures; Grier, Gallagher and Pope are sufficient, but their characters, supposedly armed with plenty of experience, are drawn awfully thin.
Tech credits are fine, with Vancouver once again the stand-in of choice.