NBC’s Deception (Mondays, 10 p.m.), about an African-American policewoman investigating a murder in a rich white household, comes on like Revenge plus Scandal with a dash of Imitation of Life. If that makes it sound like the greatest prime-time soap ever, I’m sorry to disappoint you. The most frustrating thing about this show is that it’s more fun to pick apart than it is to watch. It lacks momentum and nerve, and it’s sitting on a wellspring of meaning that it’s too polite to tap. Scandal — which revolves around a twisted affair between an African-American PR maven (Kerry Washington) and a white president (Tony Goldwyn) — was initially coy about Going There, too, but even its first few episodes you could sense a ghoulish id boiling behind the actors’ nervous eyes. When subtext finally erupted into text — with the heroine comparing herself and the prez to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings — it was cathartic. I don’t sense much percolating under Deception’s surface except focus-grouped caginess.
The show thinks it’s being progressive — or “post-racial” — by soft-pedaling its premise. The Bowers are a clan of human Scrooge McDucks who control a pharmaceutical company that’s testing a revolutionary cancer drug. They’d fit right into Revenge, or Trading Places; the ruined family dinners cry out for a besotted Dan Aykroyd to stagger in with Jamie Lee Curtis on his arm and fall facedown in the soufflé. Into this tasteful hellhole strides a strong, beautiful black woman, Meagan Good’s detective Joanna Locasto. She knows the terrain because she grew up in it. She’s the daughter of a family housekeeper. The deceased, self-destructive socialite Vivian Bowers (Bree Williamson), was her best friend. Their bond is conveyed in impressionistic flashbacks of the girls frolicking around the Bower estate, haloed by sunlight. Joanna has come to expose and punish the family of the friend she supposedly came to mourn. She pretends to be a battered woman seeking refuge in the familiar, but she’s really a curvy Serpico, gathering evidence with wireless mikes while her supervisor and ex-lover, Will Moreno (Laz Alonso), eavesdrops from a van. She contemplates “accidentally” turning the mike off when another Bower boy, Julian (Wes Brown) — who deflowered Joanna as a teen — sidles up to flirt. Cue Don Draper’s description of nostalgia: “the pain from an old wound.” Her cover story is the past she spent her adult life trying to escape. “She’s not a stranger here,” insists the Bower family patriarch, protesting too much.
What a great setup: working-class heroes raking ruling-class muck. In the hands of a defiantly whacked-out showrunner — Rhimes; Ryan Murphy; heck, David E. Kelley, who I don’t even like — it might have been remarkable, or at least unignorable. Deception could still please me — I rarely write off any show this early — but the first three installments sent out for review are chutzpah-deprived. When Will snarls in an upcoming episode that “these people” — referring to families like the Bowers — “get away with everything,” your instinct is to wonder if “these people” refers to rich people or white people, or if we’re at the point now where race is on the verge of being folded into class, and if Deception isn’t meek, just ahead of the curve. Nice try.
The characters are standard soap types; the best actors flesh them out. Tate Donovan brings such constipated self-loathing to Edward Bowers, Vivian’s big brother, that I felt sorry for him even though he spreads bad vibes everywhere he goes. His sneer is tragic. Victor Garber, who I can’t recall being bad in anything, melds arrogance and heartbreak as Robert Bowers, CEO of the family business and father of a murdered child. His eulogy for Vivian — an anecdote about how her favorite bedtime story was Guess How Much I Love You? — is more affecting than it had any right to be. I was initially lukewarm on Katherine LaNasa as Robert’s second wife, Sophia, who at first seems just another cougar shrew in pearls, but a flashback in an upcoming episode instantly humanizes her. A surprising number of flashbacks do that; they’re one of the show’s few saving graces. Even monsters suffer.
I won’t beat up on the rest of the cast; suffice it to say the younger and prettier the performer, the more likely he or she is to make no particular impression. Good is okay — and convincing when beating the crap out of people — but she’s too much the blank slate. Joanna needs to be able to convey inner turmoil to viewers while plausibly fooling the other characters, but too often Good is stiff and vague. When an eavesdropping cop says Joanna is “good, very sincere,” it’s wishful thinking. Alonzo fares better as Will — who never should have been allowed to supervise an ex-lover, what-ever — but when he uses his voice and face to tease out themes that the scripts would rather submerge, Deception doesn’t back him up. I’m already dreading the inevitable upcoming sweeps episode in which Will poses as Joanna’s abusive ex; a show this worried about giving offense can’t possibly do it justice.
The show’s masterminds — Friday Night Lights writer-producer Liz Heldens and onetime ABC co-presidents Gail Berman and Lloyd Braun — told TV reporters that Deception wasn’t meant to have any racial component but that Good’s audition was so brilliant that they decided to cast it color-blind and “[deal] with race without actually having to talk about it.” That would be a worthy goal if Deception showed more imagination and personality. As is, it makes Scandal seem like a high-low classic — which it is, actually.