Roger Ebert Home

Peacock's The Calling Clumsily Adds Faith to the Cop Drama

"The Calling" brings God to a New York City crime scene, thanks to the immense Jewish faith of Detective Avraham Avraham. Played with almost too soft and monotone of a voice by Jeff Wilbusch, Det. Avraham (known by his colleagues as Avi) walks into a missing persons case with a certain confidence because of his faith, and therefore some sort of supernatural understanding of humanity (more on that later). It's fair to say that Avi is a more sensitive cop than we normally see in stories that paint cops as everyman action heroes, and he's certainly more openly faithful. He'll pray quietly at crime scenes, or when a mother's child goes missing in the season's first big plotline, he holds her hand and it gives him a type of Spidey-sense breakthrough. He's chastised for that latter behavior later, but the mother affirms it to him, and to us: "You're a good detective who feels my son." 

Because this is nonetheless a cop show, "The Calling" is content to pad Avi's work life with hallowed tropes. Yes, he has a boss, Karen Robinson's Captain Kathleen Davies, who barks at him when he goes out of line ("You are not here to save humankind, I just need you to solve crimes!") but also helps sum up whatever just happened for the viewer; he also has a comic relief sidekick (Michael Mosley), and another, Juliana Canfield's Janine Harris, who becomes his partner while also observing his faith and admiring him for it. (She is a mouthpiece for this show's strange preoccupation with mentioning the show "Law & Order," as if "The Calling" were delusional to think it was much different.) Each supporting character is played with enough charisma, despite the show's progressively dull tone and visual palette that turns Barry Levinson's initial two episodes into generic work. 

Adapted from the Avraham Avraham books by D.A. Mishani, this Peacock Original by creator David E. Kelley at least boasts plotting that garners enough curiosity to see its reveals; it knows how to open a big juicy question and let the suspects make its possibilities weirder. Where did young Vincent disappear to? Does it have to do with his parents, the bickering married couple upstairs, the kids at school? The stories about this missing child, and later bomb threat, take on their own junky charm. But the revealed schemes show just how contrived its crimes need to be, as "The Calling" tries to say something about the scary depths of everyday humanity but uses melodramatic shorthand to do so; what should be devastating here is just gossip magazine-salacious. And it's telling that the mystery doesn't need a focal character of faith to make them specifically more interesting.

Which brings us to how this series tries to be special in that Avi's stance as a man of faith is actually one of its wonkier parts. In some passages, it's almost played like he has a supernatural gift for people thanks to his faith, the way he can imagine more details to a crime by holding someone's hand or getting into a trance while drawing. But that itself is only roughly sketched, and it struggles to create a sound emotional core. Later when Avi offers his reflections about a crime using his beliefs, it's out-of-place, if not goofy. He'll casually say something like, "A famous rabbi once said, 'The truth will set you free.' That rabbi was Jesus Christ." It has little meaning to the case, or the people around him, just him and the series propping him up. It's easy to image characters from other crime stories, ones that are less sentimental at their core than "The Calling," laughing in his face. 

In this portrayal, Avi's faith is treated as just another way to fulfill how on-screen cops follow some type of intuition that makes them powerful, sometimes at the means of breaking protocol. Avi might swear less than his fictional cop brethren, but he's built from the same tired ideology of an exceptional badged hero, the kind that has created the term "copaganda." In one of "The Calling" 's silliest moments, he waltzes into a hostage crisis in an early episode, even though he's not supposed to do that. But he has an intuition that ultimately makes it OK, that proves it's a good idea. In rapid-fire, jarring close-up shots, Wilbusch (or his stuntman) then disarms the criminal and breaks his arm, so we can understand that Avi is a faithful cop, but with an inner classic bad-ass because he's still a TV cop. 

As Avi says, "The hardest part about being a police officer is being a human being." That's an eye-roll of a statement, as part of a little subplot that tries to acknowledge excessive force as a problem that even cops like Avi have to face. Though it's aware of them, "The Calling" does very little to push back against these cop tropes that have created a long-flagging fantasy of police as self-righteous heroes who are driven by their gut. There's a brief discussion in a later episode about what makes "a good cop," and the answer isn't nuanced so much as met with a shoulder-shrug. "The Calling" amounts to little more than watchable gruel and holier-than-thou lip service, even if the latter is from a presence as gentle as Avi's. 

All eight episodes of season one screened for review. "The Calling" is now playing on Peacock.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

Tantura
Emancipation
A Wounded Fawn
White Noise
The Eternal Daughter

Comments

comments powered by Disqus