The modest drama “Eyewitness” fits comfortably into the rural-crime subgenre that has flourished in recent years. It’s no surprise to discover that the new USA program is based on a Norwegian series: Given how masterfully a number of Scandinavian and U.K. series have explored this niche in recent years, adaptations and updates of those series have understandably proliferated.
The American version of “Eyewitness” takes place in upstate New York, where former city cop Helen (Julianne Nicholson) has a new job as a small-town sheriff and is hoping for a quiet life with her new husband and their foster son. The catch is, she’s not really yearning for peace and quiet, at least not all the time: Though she’s trying to fit in with the locals, she clearly misses the adrenaline highs of her old job.
When a triple homicide takes place in a remote cabin within her jurisdiction and she comes into contact with an elaborate FBI undercover operation, it quickly becomes clear that Helen enjoys being part of a big, complicated case; even minor turf wars with the Feds put a gleam in her eye. That said, “Eyewitness” tries to make the point that her career in law enforcement has taken a big psychological toll on her, though the drama takes a long time to deliver that backstory, and does so in a non-specific way that limits the impact of that foray into character development.
A more interesting thread in “Eyewitness” involves a gay couple that becomes unwillingly involved in various aspects of the crime depicted in the pilot. One half of the couple is deeply closeted and the other person comes out to a few trusted confidantes in the first half of the deliberately paced first season of “Eyewitness.” The time spent on this textured and sometimes turbulent relationship, which is sensitively portrayed, gives “Eyewitness” a fresh angle on its small-town crime story, which is somewhat familiar in a number of other respects. Scenes tracing the difficult course of that romance are often much more interesting than somewhat predictable scenarios depicting gang disputes and Helen’s attempts to stay connected with her spouse, a role that Gil Bellows infuses with warmth, despite the fact that his character is frustratingly underwritten.
Though it leans on a series of familiar formulas, sometimes with quite credible results, “Eyewitness” at times has trouble sustaining an air of suspense. The viewer knows who committed the murders that take place in the opening minutes of the series, and watching Helen and other cops try to play catch-up over multiple episodes can be tedious now and then. A subplot about a corrupt federal agent is more melodramatic and one-dimensional than the rest of the show, and sometimes clashes with the much more low-key and unrushed tone of much of the drama.
That said, those who enjoyed “Broadchurch,” “The Bridge” (any version), “The Killing” (the original version), “Top of the Lake,” “Fortitude,” and “Happy Valley” are likely to find things to savor in “Eyewitness.” It’s got such a washed-out and desaturated aesthetic that it makes “Mr. Robot” look like a Teletubbies reunion; almost everything on screen comes in a shade of green, brown, black, or dusty blue.
But its directors, especially Catherine Hardwicke and Scott Peters, do a fine job of depicting the emotional realities of the clandestine couple at the center of “Eyewitness.” TV isn’t often all that interested in the grittier aspects of life, death, and addiction in unexceptional small towns, and it’s even more difficult to find stories about the LGBT individuals who live in those kinds of tightly knit communities. When it focuses on those elements of its narrative, the viewpoint of “Eyewitness” becomes not just valuable but admirably precise.