Instinct - Season 1
“Instinct’s refusal to discuss real issues renders it exactly what Alan Cumming said he wanted to avoid: remarkable only for having gay lead.”
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creator: Michael Rauch 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Michael Rauch 👨🏼🇺🇸 (4 eps), Carol Flint 👩🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), Constance M. Burge 👩🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), and various
Reviewed by Dana 👩🏼🇺🇸
Alan Cumming is spectacular. Let’s just get that out there. That he plays the first gay lead of a primetime network drama is a testament to his prowess as an actor and his capacity to delight audiences. That said, not even he can save Instinct from its exhaustingly bad execution.
It pains me to say that, both because I want this step towards inclusion to thrive and because I really want to be best friends with Alan Cumming, which I fear will never happen now (because the only thing keeping that from happening is definitely this review). But Instinct flops right from the outset: The premise—a wunderkind civilian joins forces with a cop to give brilliant insight into crimes—has been done to death, as have the weekly cases by the million or so procedurals before it.
Michael Raunch’s show employs every trope in the procedural handbook. Professor Dylan Reinhart (Alan Cumming) finds himself drawn into the orbit of NYPD detective Lizzie Bennet (Bojana Novakovic), who tracks a serial killer leaving clues that tie back to Dylan’s book about abnormal psychology. It doesn’t take long to learn that Dylan is actually a former CIA agent, which explains how he can solve crimes in less time than it takes to get a pizza delivered. Lizzie, for her part, gets the age-old “lost love” backstory: Her former partner and fiancé was killed in an undercover op, and she hasn’t been able to work with anyone since.
The cases they tackle are neither compelling nor realistic. In thirteen episodes, they manage to come across three different instances of serial killers framing someone else, two serial killers speaking directly to Dylan, and several suspected terrorist plots. The silliness of the whole thing might be salvaged with sharper writing, but the dialogue feels hopelessly clumsy, violating the fundamental tenet of “show, don’t tell.” And while Cumming generally sells it, he’s a world-renowned dramatist with enough experience to make it work. The relative unknowns, and even the seasoned Naveen Andrews as Julian, Dylan’s CIA pal-slash-tech whiz, generally fall short.
That Instinct has even middling ratings on IMDB (6.5) and Rotten Tomatoes (56%) is a testament to how much critics (myself included) love Alan Cumming, and perhaps to the show’s technically adequate cinematography. I suspect that a program dedicated to Cumming painting a mailbox would have similar ratings. But as brilliant as he is, I cannot pretend that Instinct presents anything but a lost opportunity. The first network drama to be centered on a gay character—played by an out, queer actor—should be brilliant. Instead, it’s a sign of equality in its most unfortunate form: the right to be unwatchable.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES, but less than half the time (6 out of 13 episodes)
Detective Bennet follows a longstanding trend of presenting a female cop as pseudo-empowered without threatening any established gender roles. She kicks ass in an expensive suit, pals around with her all-male colleagues like she’s one of the guys, and pursues relationships with the requisite awkwardness of a woman wrapped up in her professional life. She’s not a wilting flower or a damsel in distress, but neither does she ruffle the feathers of the stereotypical red-state viewer who might change the channel at the mention of feminism or the suggestion that being a woman in a male profession is a daily battle. A watered-down amalgam of the women on CBS’s other procedurals, Detective Bennet unfortunately finds herself rendered with worse writing, a more milquetoast backstory, and less to do on an episodic basis than peers like Elementary’s Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) or the women of Criminal Minds. Even next to super-geniuses and stars, they manage to stand as compelling characters, while Bennet is just...there.
The precinct’s lieutenant and Lizzie’s best friend, Jasmine Gooden (Sharon Leal), spends an unfortunate amount of time trying to balance work with wedding planning, and at least two episodes only pass the Bechdel Test based on conversations about the impending big day. A scene of her hiding in a conference room for a wedding dress fitting brings to mind a similar setup in Season 5 of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but the NBC (formerly FOX) comedy handles gender stereotypes and women in the workplace with competence.
In Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Amy (Melissa Fumero) admits to worrying that if her officers see her looking at wedding dresses, they’ll respect her less. Coworker and fellow avowed feminist Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz) coaxes her into trying on a few dresses during a lull on the job, which ends in Amy chasing down and tackling their suspect while sporting a white gown, using the sash to restrain his hands. The scene recognizes the delicate line women often have to walk in professional settings—hiding anything that might seem too female, too soft—in order to maintain the respect of their peers.
Jasmine, meanwhile, doesn’t hide from her male coworkers but from Lizzie, whose feelings she doesn’t want to hurt: Lizzie was supposed to get married first, and Jasmine’s attempt to shield her from dredging up the spectre of her fiancé leaves Lizzie sulking throughout the remaining episode. The subplot feels devoid of substance, especially when compared to the way Brooklyn Nine-Nine handles its own wedding dress storyline with nuance, depth, and female solidarity.
The show does receive a hat tip for its refusal to play into toxic masculinity; in particular, Cumming avoids resorting to firearms as a lazy crutch to show “power.” While Cumming’s character does carry in a number of Season 1 scenes, he only draws it once to shoot a glass of poisoned iced tea. “It doesn’t sit well with me that I’m on television, and I’m carrying a gun. That’s not a message I want to send,” he revealed at Split Screens Festival in May this year. Without consulting the show’s creator, Cumming decided that he wouldn’t carry a prop gun in the second season, simply by never picking it up. “I just decided not to do it at all.”
Last year, the Parents’ Television Council found that depictions of guns on television had increased from 2013 to 2018, the same time period in which mass shootings were on the rise. Television procedurals similar to Instinct frequently feed into the myth that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, and it’s to Cummings’s credit that he made the choice not to present his character in that way.
On the surface, Instinct should get high marks on inclusion. Despite focusing on two white leads, the show does offer a deep roster of supporting characters of color. The creators appear to have made a point of casting women of color in visible leadership roles—Khandi Alexander was initially cast as top cop Lieutenant Monica Hernàndez, but was later replaced (for unknown reasons) by Leal, as Lt. Gooden. Instinct also casts Sarita Choudhury as the Mayor of New York City, who personally contracts Dylan to work with the NYPD. (He’s repeatedly referred to as her “shiny new toy.”) The lineup of secondary characters also includes Lost alum Naveen Andrews as ex-spook turned shadowy superhacker Julian, Whoopi Goldberg as Dylan’s book editor, Joan, and Stephen Rider as up-and-coming eager beaver Officer Clark.
By and large, the characters avoid falling into racial or ethnic stereotypes. Andrews’s hacker role does veer a bit close to the Indian IT guy trope, but his past as a spy, penchant for leather jackets, and professional autonomy goes far in counteracting it. Unfortunately, Lizzie’s fellow detective, Rafael Sosa (Alejandro Hernandez), falls swiftly into the stereotype of a Latin American cartel member when it’s revealed he killed Lizzie’s fiancé to cover up his involvement in a drug deal.
Stereotypes aside, where Instinct fails to achieve genuine inclusion is through a dearth of substance. Characters of color exist in a “post-racial” space where race and ethnicity are incidental. As with Lizzie’s role, the “strong female lead” who doesn’t actually challenge norms, Instinct’s Black, brown, and Asian characters never actually reflect nonwhite experiences. Though Choudhury’s Mayor Meyers would be the first female mayor of New York City, and only the second mayor of color, her race and gender don’t come into play at any point. Nor do Gooden’s, as a Black female lieutenant in a male-dominated precinct.
Compare that with how Brooklyn Nine-Nine handles identity in the workplace: Captain Holt (Andre Braugher) is a Black, gay man, and the resistance he faced on his rise through the ranks is out in the open from the pilot. An Instinct plotline involving a possible hate crime against a Muslim woman does raise questions of stereotypes, and while it doesn’t bumble things nearly as badly as Law and Order: SVU did recently, the lack of writing finesse makes it feel glib, with the “wrong place, wrong time” conclusion wrapping things up too neatly. Race, ethnicity, and religion do play a role in New York City policing, politics, and crime—and by now, there’s solid proof that both comedies and dramas can take on even the most sensitive issues and address real questions of identity without sacrificing quality.
Where Instinct falls short in the gender and race categories by stubbornly refusing to raise the matter of identity, it consistently recognizes Dylan’s identity as a gay man without making it his defining feature. Most episodes show Dylan interacting with his husband Andy (Daniel Ings) with open affection as they experience the same day-to-day issues that any straight couple would face. Their lives together reflect relatable, universal experiences—trying to understand one another’s hobbies, or confronting the vast disparity in expectation versus reality when it comes to meal delivery kits—that invite acceptance and recognition of commonalities. Years ago, Will & Grace first helped confront homophobia by “help[ing] people feel like they know somebody LGBT,” as activist Wilson Cruz put it. Taking it one step further, Instinct helps people understand that LGBTQ people are just like them. Writers avoid relying on stereotypes—the one exception being Dylan’s borderline campy wardrobe—resulting in one of the more relatable, true-to-life relationships on television (in spite of the often-stilted dialogue.) At the same time, Dylan and Andy’s marriage conforms to an extremely safe, even conservative worldview by centering a white, male, and cisgendered relationship that comes with its own set of privileges.
A few fleeting moments of near-introspection do occur: A detective fumbles for the right term for Dylan’s partner (husband), and an adoption counselor appears unsettled by meeting prospective parents who are gay. Though it’s a little hard to buy that a NYC-based adoption counselor would be surprised at such a scenario, we get a back-and-forth in which Dylan tells Andy that he won’t pretend to be someone else, not even for someone who might determine the future of their family. But that’s as deep as it goes—no social context and no acknowledgement of the larger queer community ever comes up in Instinct.
Based on what Cummings has said on the subject, that seems to be the intention. “I think we need to have more representation of LGBT people in general actually, but, when we have them, let’s not make it about their gender or their sexuality,” he says in one interview. “[Y]ou don’t have ‘straight issues’, you know what I mean?”
While he reflects a valid argument in favor of normalizing queer characters, he misses the reason why we don’t have “straight issues.” The dominant narrative throughout the history of television has been from a straight, white, male perspective—which means that any shift away from that narrative is a disruption of the status quo. The “issues” unique to queer people, women, people of color, disabled people, or anyone that doesn’t fit that status quo are not simply reflective of those classifications, but of the lived experiences to which the straight, white, male archetype doesn’t relate. To ignore those experiences in favor of reflecting commonalities is neither progress nor representation—it’s straightwashing.
Mediaversity Grade: C- 3.00/5
Instinct’s firm choice to avoid discussing real issues—gender, racial, or sexual—makes it little more than white noise in a genre already known for playing dumb. As much as it might make the show more palatable to that coveted demographic of white men as intolerant as their own executives, Instinct’s refusal to confront reality, along with its poor execution, renders it exactly what Cumming said he wanted to avoid: remarkable only for having gay lead. In a time and place where anti-LGBTQ attacks are on the rise, even in traditionally liberal cities, discrimination against queer workers remains legal, and existing protections are being stripped away, just showing up isn’t enough.
Instinct deserves props for making a long-overdue move as the first network drama to feature a gay lead. It’s important to remember that a platform like CBS enjoys far wider reach than non-network peers like HBO, or even streaming platforms, and thus holds a greater opportunity to speak out. Yet Instinct chooses instead to trade in unoriginal stories and overused gimmicks, ensuring a complete and utter failure to make its mark.