tv review

CBS’s Crime Drama, Instinct, Is Notable for Its Openly Gay Lead But Not Much Else

Alan Cumming and Bojana Novakovic. Photo: Jonathan Wenk/CBS

Is Alan Cumming’s Dylan Reinhart on Instinct the first openly gay lead character in a CBS crime show? CBS claims he is, and I can’t think of any other counterexamples on that broadcast network, or on ABC or NBC or Fox, venues that reach more U.S. viewers than any cable network or streaming service. The detail jumps out because it’s the hero’s most intriguing characteristic by far. The series, which is adapted from James Patterson’s book Murder Games, is an otherwise standard-issue CBS crime series, violent but not too gruesome, mildly eccentric but not too weird, about a charismatic, rule-breaking man solving crimes with his by-the-book female partner (Bojana Novakovic’s Detective Lizzie Needham). It lazily tries to turn Cumming’s character into a brilliant and special individual by piling on external details: Named after Bob Dylan by his mother, he’s a best-selling author, rides a motorcycle, eats pizza with a knife and fork, dresses like a dapper English talk-show host, was a friendless piano prodigy as a child, used to be a CIA field agent, etc. But as he and Lizzie team up in the pilot to solve a series of murders by a Seven-esque serial killer who could be described as Generic John Doe, and who appears to be using Dylan’s book on gambling as source material, we find out in passing that his spouse, whom Lizzie assumed was Andi, is really Andy (Daniel Ings, charming despite not being given much to do).

This is a big deal, however belated. The series treads lightly around the physical facts of Dylan and Andy’s relationship (CBS sent out the pilot and the second and sixth episodes for review; only the sixth episode allowed the characters to kiss), but the mere fact of a TV star of Cumming’s caliber playing a lead role of this type — and on CBS, which is by far the most culturally conservative of the U.S. broadcast networks — constitutes some sort of progress. There’s even a nice moment near the end of episode six between Dylan and his father, a longtime CIA officer played by The Wire’s John Doman, where Pop tells his son that he’ll always be a CIA field agent at heart because “It’s who you are, whether you accept it or not.” “‘It’s who I am whether you accept it or not,’” Dylan replies. “I once said those words to you, but in a different context.” (Maybe coincidentally and maybe not, Doman’s Wire character was revealed as gay in the show’s third season, in a silent, throwaway shot that showed him drinking at a gay bar.)

Sometimes a series like Instinct will feature a gay character in the main cast; but they’ll never be among the top-billed characters, and the producers will typically take a while to ease information about the character’s sexual orientation into the ebb and flow of normal storytelling, as if dreading audience backlash. Andre Braugher’s Ray Holt on Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine is an openly gay police captain (the first ever appointed to that job, as per the series), but that show is a half-hour sitcom, not an hour-long crime drama, and it appears on a network that’s far less skittish than CBS. Vanessa Ferlito’s character on CBS’s NCIS: New Orleans, FBI Agent Tammy Gregorio, is an out lesbian, but she was added to the cast last year, two years into the series’ run, and producers waited until a few episodes in to explore that aspect of her bio. Alana Bloom, Caroline Dhavernas’s character on NBC’s Hannibal, got involved with a woman eventually, but only after having relationships with two men. To find any sort of sustained, committed representation in lead roles, you have to go to cable or streaming series (such as HBO’s The Wire).

I wish the series were stronger, but I tend to say that about every CBS crime show that isn’t Elementary. The pilot is so rote that it appears to have been written on a Mad Libs tablet, and the second episode, about the murder of a hedge-fund guy, is only slightly better.
Cummings’s “American” accent is as dicey here as it was on The Good Wife, though you accept it, as you probably have in other roles, because the actor is such a twinkly-eyed rascal. Novakovic is stuck in the usual thankless hard-charging female loner role, though at least here we’ve been spared either of the usual dynamics: “Will they or won’t they?” or “Used to be a couple; still a bit of heat in their bickering.” And there’s a wholly unexpected scene late in the pilot where the characters bond over Lizzie’s grief over her old, sick dog, who probably doesn’t have long to live. Considering how brutally most crime series tend to treat household pets, this also feels like progress, though it would’ve been nice to see Dylan express that much heartfelt adoration for his husband. Maybe in season two.

Instinct Is Notable for Its Openly Gay Lead, Not Much Else