Fox leads better than it follows, which is perhaps why this drama about San Francisco’s Deviant Crimes Unit seems so lifeless and uninspired — an hour that might as well be called “Law & Order: DCU” or “CSI: San Francisco.” Gravelly voiced Johnny Messner comes across like Jack Webb with better upper-body development, and the producers jettison the pilot’s leading lady five minutes into the second hour, though her replacement doesn’t really improve things. Barring an unexpected twist, the evidence points to another Friday-night casualty.
In the dubious accomplishments dept., “Killer Instinct” does manage to up the ante on gruesome deaths, with murderous tarantulas and a wholesale bug bath in the premiere, followed by some reasonably graphic vivisection in the next episode.
Det. Jack Hale (Messner) returns to the force after a mysterious six-month hiatus, with hints of a dark past that’s somehow related to the death of his partner. As such, he’s wary of his new colleague, as well he should be, since Marguerite Moreau’s motorcycle-riding babe was replaced after the pilot — a switch the producers dispatch with a fleeting reference to her in episode two. Although it’s understandable why they wouldn’t want to reshoot, the awkward, half-assed transition doesn’t exhibit much respect for the audience.
So the second hour ushers in Kristin Lehman (most recently seen in ESPN’s “Tilt”) as Hale’s partner, a former forensic lab tech making the jump to the field. The two also have a gruff boss played by former “Boston Public” star Chi McBride, who clearly deserves more to do than this window-dressing role.
In the premiere, Hale identifies a string of deaths involving young women as the work of a bug-savvy psycho. Not to be outdone, the next hour centers on an organ-harvesting serial killer who brings new meaning to leaving one’s heart (and eyes and liver) in San Francisco.
Series creator Josh Berman comes from the “CSI” franchise and has the formula down pat, including terse police jargon like “Body dump. Young female.” Yet merely ratcheting up the gross-out factor alone can’t breathe much life into these characters, and Messner’s impassive performance doesn’t yield much heat, even when he’s roughing up a suspect.
Other than the Bay Area locales (albeit by way of less expensive Vancouver), then, the show feels like another by-the-numbers serial-killer drama, as Fox continues its frustrating quest to establish a procedural crimeshow — even as CBS, for whatever reason, keeps mining that lucrative terrain, including its similarly themed and equally grim newcomer “Criminal Minds.”
Fox might have launched “The X-Files” in this hour, but “Killer Instinct” doesn’t appear distinctive enough to track down the same kind of following. If the series wants to endure past the November sweeps, in fact, its foremost instinct should be centered on survival.