Geoff Stults, foreground, Michael Clarke Duncan, right, star in "The… (Jennifer Clasen, Fox )
The problem with "back-door pilots" — episodes of popular series written to introduce characters for a potential new show — is that they are invariably better than the front-door versions that follow.
Exhibit A: "The Finder."
This spring, we met Walter Sherman (Geoff Stults), former military police officer turned private sleuth, when an episode of Fox's "Bones" took Booth (David Boreanaz) and Brennan (Emily Deschanel) into the Florida swamps. Faced with the inevitable half-rotted corpse, Booth turned to Sherman, an old Army buddy and decorated war hero who sustained the sort of gorgeously fictionalized brain damage that leaves a person with the near-miraculous ability to find anyone or anything any where, any time.
Based on "The Locater" by novelist Richard Greener and adapted by "Bones" creator Hart Hanson, Sherman was a natural-born charmer. Flanked by his substantial and trippy sidekick Leo ("The Green Mile's" Michael Clarke Duncan), a smokin' hot bartender (Saffron Burrows) and, of course, Florida, which remains as lovely and lunatic a state as there is in the contiguous 48, Hanson's new detective series got a big thumbs up.
Now comes the hard part. No longer buttressed by the well-entrenched relationships and easy chemistry of the formidable "Bones" cast, "The Finder" retains its essential charm. Walter is glib and appealing, Leo formidable and devoted, Florida steamy and weird. The bartender didn't make the cut, but there is a smokin' hot federal marshal (Mercedes Masohn) in her place and a lovely young parolee named Willa Monday (Maddie Hasson) to up the emotional ante.
Yet despite the strength of its parts, the whole feels very nascent and shaky, like a newborn colt separated from its mother. On its feet, yes, but with no real defense save its good looks.
Unfortunately good looks are pretty standard in the crowded field of oddly gifted detectives and though Stults' Sherman may strip better, or at least more often, than, say, Nathan Fillion's "Castle" or Simon Baker's "The Mentalist," it's not enough to make him stand out. Although there is clearly pain in his past — ahem, brain damage — his character, at least at first glimpse, is more pastiche than person.
He's OCD like "Monk," obsessed with puzzles like "House" and sees things in a different way like, well, like every unlikely sleuth going. Indeed, his particular "knack" is so amorphous — he has dreams, he makes odd connections — it isn't very interesting to watch.
What Sherman, and the series, have going for them is a tendency toward truth-telling that is neither bitter nor wounded, which offers some hope. Sherman's relationships are refreshingly adult for the genre as is his life view, which isn't so much that everybody lies but that everybody lies sometimes.
It took "Bones," which remains one of my favorite shows, some time to find its feet, so maybe we should just keep watching.