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TV Review: ‘Instinct,’ Starring Alan Cumming

The star plays CBS' first gay protagonist in this procedural about profiling murderers in New York City

With:
Alan Cumming, Bojana Novakovic, Daniel Ings, Naveen Andrews, Sharon Leal

Alan Cumming can make a fascinating performance out of watching paint dry, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the actor is a delight in the serviceable “Instinct,” debuting Sunday night on CBS.

The procedural, based on James Patterson’s “Murder Games,” follows Dylan Reinhart (Cumming), a psychology professor and author, who is drawn into working with the NYPD after a case appears to use his own book as inspiration. From then on, Dylan is drawn to the life, finding excitement and inspiration in solving crimes with his no-nonsense partner Lizzie (Bojana Novakovic); and as the two investigators make their way around Manhattan, “Instinct” both shoots the city to advantage and explores the fascinating lives of city dwellers. (In an early episode, two suspects own and operate a farm-to-table restaurant. So when Lizzie suggests lunch from a food truck, Dylan is thoroughly disgusted.)

About thirty percent of the time, “Instinct” — like a lot of network procedurals — is simply ridiculous. Dylan is a former CIA operative, which adds yet another skillset onto an already overly talented character, and in the three episodes made available to critics, the twists and turns of the mysteries stretch even the most active imaginations. But Cumming and Novakovic have great chemistry, the mysteries are buzzy and relevant without feeling splashy, and in Cumming’s Dylan Reinhart, CBS — a network that has struggled to diversify its on-screen characters — has its first gay male lead. Not only is Dylan gay, he’s married; Daniel Ings plays his husband Andy, who has misgivings about Dylan’s involvement with Lizzie and the NYPD. But unlike so many other shows, where the “work wife” female partner becomes a simmering love interest, “Instinct” from the start establishes a different paradigm.

It makes for just enough of a twist on the form that “Instinct” feels different, and Cumming’s magnetism picks up the rest of the slack. Even when the show indulges in the stranger impulses of network drama — bizarrely complex murder scenes occurring all over the place, a barely concealed terror of the urban landscape of New York City, and a heavily glossed interpretation of the NYPD’s skills and resources — there’s something fun about how “Instinct” can still be somewhat surprising.

The host of guest stars in the first few episodes includes Whoopi Goldberg as Dylan’s agent and Sarita Choudhury as the mayor of New York City; in a later episode, John Doman appears out of nowhere as a CIA officer with connections to the cast. And though the cases themselves are often convoluted beyond reason, the character stories outside the cases mesh together very well. It’s actually interesting to see how Lizzie and Dylan’s relationship might evolve, even and especially if there is no romantic undertone to it. “Instinct” isn’t exactly a reinvention of the form, but it’s solid, fun mystery storytelling.

TV Review: 'Instinct,' Starring Alan Cumming

Drama, 13 episodes (3 reviewed): CBS, Sun. Mar. 18, 8 p.m. 60 min.

Crew: Michael Rauch, Marc Webb, Alex Kurtzman, Heather Kadin, James Patterson, Bill Robinson, Leopoldo Gout, Alan Cumming

Cast: Alan Cumming, Bojana Novakovic, Daniel Ings, Naveen Andrews, Sharon Leal

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