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Two new sleuths see through all

July 14, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

It goes without saying in detective fiction that the hero will always be the smartest person in the room, though lately on television there has been a rage for the super-gifted, even supernaturally gifted (and usually female) sleuth, whose powers of observation and intuition are insisted upon as part of the premise. (See "The Closer," "Medium," "Cold Case," "Bones," "The Inside" and "Criminal Minds.") Departing not at all from this trend is "Angela's Eyes," premiering Sunday on Lifetime, and featuring Abigail Spencer ("All My Children") as the titular FBI agent, a human lie detector.

Though she is certain that she knows everything about how other people will act, to the point of pressing her forehead against the barrel of a gun she is sure will not be fired, Angela is less sanguine about her own life, especially her love life. Else what would she be doing on Lifetime, where you are never more than a few steps away from a Harlequin romance? And, really, what is the use of being a fearless Fed and walking polygraph without a good man to share it with?

But the fact that her parents are famous convicted spies has left her with "trust issues." (She puts a tracking device in her new boyfriend's cellphone, because she just can't help herself.) There is something to be made from a character who sees too much to be happy, after all. Perhaps that will happen here, and perhaps not.

The pilot episode is a little too predictable given how seriously the show seems to take itself. It's a somber, often leaden affair, beset with stiff dialogue and a gloom that not even the fitful gibes of tech guy/designated comic relief Joe Cobden (looking like he moonlights in a '60s-punk cover band) or the odd romantic clinch and glowing morning-after can dispel.

Rounding out the team are level-headed Lyriq Bent and prematurely gray supervisor Rick Roberts. In order to spare the producers the expense of hiring extras, they work alone in a kind of concrete bunker located in an establishing shot of what looks like an old armory in a city that stock footage tells us is New York. Just so, her imprisoned father is conveniently kept in solitary confinement (in what appears to be Hannibal Lecter's old cell), the better to avoid presenting a persuasive, peopled, more expensive prison.

Still, Spencer is an interesting presence, and the pilot's last minutes, concerning the skeletons in the family closet -- time capsule, actually -- seem more promising than what preceded them.

As the hyperintuitive sleuth in "Psych," which airs its second episode (and a repeat of its first) tonight on USA, James Roday ("Miss Match") also has parental issues and a Holmesian ability to read a person or scene, trained into him from childhood by cop-dad Corbin Bernsen. Unlike "Angela's Eyes," it is a comedy -- much like "Monk," which compatibly precedes it. It is, indeed, a kind of anti-"Monk," for where Tony Shalhoub's literally buttoned-up consulting detective suffers from OCD, Roday's Santa Barbara slacker sleuth is clearly afflicted with (undiagnosed, except by me) ADD. (He has held 57 jobs since high school, we are told.) For reasons that are not particularly logical or dramatically convincing, he pretends to be psychic rather than just extremely observant.

Dule Hill ("The West Wing") is Watson to Roday's Holmes, drafted away from his safe job as a pharmaceutical sales rep, temperamentally conservative to comically contrast with Roday. As in most detective shows, there is an exasperated and skeptical police detective (Tim Omundson), though here there is also his less exasperated and better-looking partner (Maggie Lawson). Kirsten Nelson plays the "interim police chief." Vancouver plays Santa Barbara, about as well as you'd expect.

This is lightweight stuff, but I've always preferred a little whimsy (not to say a little Wimsey) in my detective stories, and in spite of its numerous forfeitures of sense and forensics -- the pilot, for instance, involved a staged suicide that any ballistics expert would have seen through -- "Psych" does have some genuine sparkle. Roday is obnoxious at first but grows a little more charming and funny as you get used to him, and once Hill is allowed to do more than fret, they may have something worth turning up for. Painless at worst, and mostly better than that.

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