New Amsterdam has a lot going for it — compelling characters, an intriguing backstory that gives the writers endless possible plotlines to play with, some good actors (and others I can ignore), and lots of potential for olden-days in-jokes that makes history geeks like me all tingly. But why oh why did they have to muddy it up by making it a police procedural as well? Is there some sort of law that every third show on TV has to involve the investigation of a crime?

Robert Johnson invented the spoilers.

The procedural aspect is the least interesting part of the show, and that’s what we spend the most time on. This week’s crime: A dead homeless guy who the cops want to write off as an overdosing junkie. He’s got a friend who insists that Ollie was clean and sober for years, and John notices the dead man shot up in the wrong arm. Plus, John feels a kinship with the dead man — he remembers his own stint at rock bottom, and what it took to turn his life around.

John insist the lab do a complete tox screen, which reveals that Ollie died of a massive methadone overdose, not tainted heroin. Further investigation reveals (1) Ollie tended to camp out in a park near a newly opened homeless shelter; (2) the shelter just got a boost in funding courtesy of a benefit concert by rock star Chris Duncan; (3) Ollie had a vintage guitar in a storage locker, which may have belonged to blues legend Robert Johnson; (4) Ollie had an AA meeting chip that leads John to the same meeting Duncan attends.

John and Eva track down Duncan, but he’s dead with a needle in his arm. A quick review of his AA journal shows the person to whom he did the greatest wrong was Tara Brown of Brooklyn. She has no clue what Chris Duncan has to do with her — she thought the detectives were there to follow up on the hit-and-run that killed her young son.

John and Eva figure out what happened: Ollie was the guy that Chris spilled his guts to, the one he told all the horrible things he’d done. Someone didn’t want that secret to get out, so they killed Ollie, then Chris. John takes Daphne, the woman who runs the shelter, to the site of the accident and gets her to admit that she was in the car with Chris, and she was driving. She panicked and sped off. She wanted to turn herself in, but her husband, a city councilman, told her he’d take care of it. The councilman denies it, but of course, he’s a lying schmuck, and he convinced his driver (a recovering junkie who used to be homeless) to kill both Ollie and Chris. Never trust the politician.

John’s backstory is much more fascinating — he owned a club in the early 60s, and he was a bad, bad drunk. At one point, Rat Pack John openly mocked a potential mobster while swilling booze, and passed out on stage in front of Omar. Omar checked him into a mental hospital, then left him. Ouch. The mobster turns out to be a guy named Frank, who is in AA and wants to help Rat Pack John. He tells Rat Pack to write down the most horrible secret he’s kept, then the next one, then the next one, and when he’s done, to read it to another human being — secrets do nothing but kill the soul. Rat Pack John eyes the composition book dubiously — you got more of those? He eventually fills a whole boxful of notebooks, but before he can bare his soul, Frank dies of a heart attack.

And here’s where things got almost unbearably sad. Rat Pack John needs to share his secret, and he’s got no one he can trust. So he brings young Omar into his secret hideout and tells him everything. Oh, my heart broke for the boy — how exactly are you supposed to react to your dad telling you he’s  immortal, laying out all the shameful things he’s done through scores of lives? To his credit, Omar takes it all in, and stays with his dad until the end. I love him even more now.

Sara? Not so much (and it’s not just because she spells her name wrong.) Sara gets all squirrely when John doesn’t tell her everything at once. She googles him, and discovers that according to public record, he didn’t exist five years ago. I demand answers! John resists, but finally, tells her: So, I was born more than 400 years ago… Sara stalks off. I’m not saying it’s an easy story to swallow, but you’re the one who forced his hand with your questions about anomalous blood readings and such. The least you could do is let him finish.

Fun facts about John:

  • He has fathered 63 children.
  • He uses a pocket watch
  • His club in the 60s was called "The Dutchman."
  • John looked damn good in a tux — but he wasn’t a very good comedian.
  • His detox ravings included stories about chasing down John Wilkes Booth and "throwing the high hard one to Emily Dickenson." (I hope that’s baseball terminology, not sexual euphemism.)
  • There’s a bunch of overlapping confessions as Rat Pack John writes out his history. Among the things I caught — he was in the CIA, he put someone’s life in danger in France in WW1, he abandoned is family to chase fame. ANY of those stories would be more interesting than yet another mystery of the week.

Other thoughts:

  • I have to pick nits with the guitar thing — Robert Johnson most likely played a Gibson Kalamazoo and a Stella. In his iconic pictures, he’s probably holding a Gibson L-1, not a Gibson L-00. And if it was Robert Johnson’s guitar, it would be worth a hell of a lot more than $320,000 — someone claiming to have Johnson’s L-1 listed it for $6 million.
  • I kind of love the nurse who tells Rat Pack John about Frank’s death. When he thanks her for coming, she says "No choice — Frank told me if I didn’t I’d start drinking again and die a horrible death." Hee!
  • Howard the paparazzi was more odious than most — so of course he has a British accent. Sigh. 
  • I find myself really hoping Dr. Sara isn’t The One, just because she kind of annoys me. Who greets that news that "I don’t drink" with "I bet that’s a good story"? Because hitting rock bottom and realizing you need help = instant hilarity!
Posted by:Sarah Jersild