With so much television to choose from, networks are struggling to find ways to make their series stand out. This is the case with CBS All Access’ Interrogation, a gimmicky procedural that allows viewers to watch episodes in any order they please.
“When cold case detectives reopen an unsolved case, they abandon the linear narrative presented in the files of the original investigation,” states the intro to the series. Rather, detectives follow “the evidence in the order they choose.” In Interrogation, viewers are meant to mimic this approach, picking and choosing which “clues” to follow by skipping around to whichever episodes seem to have promising leads. The idea is that we feel as if we’re working the case ourselves — a pretty clever conceit during a time when people are not only obsessed with true crime series and podcasts, but are also building Internet communities that are dedicated to amateur detectives investigating cases. Contrary to most of its other programs, CBS All Access is dropping all 10 episodes at once on Thursday, Feb. 6, rather than weekly.
The pilot of Interrogation introduces us to the case (which is based on a true story): 17-year-old Eric Fisher (played by Kyle Gallner, Veronica Mars) is charged and convicted of brutally murdering his mother for $150. Fisher, who is the one who called 911, immediately becomes the main suspect — especially because he has a history of drug addiction. Much of the episode takes place during the interrogation (get it?), when he’s questioned by Detective David Russell (Peter Sarsgaard, The Killing); these interrogations are taken from real police files. Eric says he’s innocent, despite the evidence against him, and “our” role as detectives is to try and figure out if he’s actually innocent or not.
From there, we can choose where to go. You can watch an episode titled after a potential suspect that was mentioned at the end of the pilot, or read all the episode descriptions and go with what seems the most compelling… or just randomly pick a number and go from there. (The finale, of course, it meant to be watched last.) It’s certainly an interesting gimmick — especially for CBS, the king of crime procedurals, since putting the series on its streaming service allows the network to play around with its usually formulaic approach. Yet while it’s an admirable approach, sadly it doesn’t exactly work. Mostly, it feels as if the entire series exists only to service the gimmick rather than existing to serve the story it wants to tell.
It’s unfortunate because it is a good story and there are certainly interesting bits strewn throughout, such as Eric’s harrowing experiences in prison, which are bolstered by a fine performance from Gallner (though sometimes it’s hard to shake the fact that he looks a bit like Walter White and acts a lot like Jesse Pinkman). Eric’s fervent desire to educate himself in legal matters as he maintains his innocence is an engaging thread to follow … if only we were able to actually follow it! Plots involving Eric’s grieving father (David Strathairn) land well, while much of the backstory into Russell’s family mostly bores, though the Internals Affairs investigation picks things back up. (Sarsgaard, of course, is predictably great, as is Vincent D’Onofrio in a few episodes.) But it frequently feels more like interconnected vignettes because the story will ramp up to something, only to have it be absent from the episode I happened to choose.
It’s a hard series to review because I kept wondering if maybe some of the lesser aspects would work if I’d watched in a different order. It’s the type of series that should be easy to become obsessed with, to race through all the episodes eager to find out the truth, but because of the show’s design, it lacks the momentum to hold interest. It becomes clear that certain twists would’ve hit much harder had I watched a different episode prior.
It’s frustrating because all of the elements are there but Interrogation unknowingly sacrifices its own quality by allowing us to choose where to go. The story was good enough that I was dying to know the conclusion but the way it was presented made me want to skip ahead to the finale instead of wasting time meandering around the other eight episodes. The idea of a Choose Your Own Adventure approach to a crime procedural is certainly exciting on paper; it’s a true disappointment that it doesn’t work in execution.
TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: Interrogation has great performances, an interesting and compelling mystery, but often comes undone by its unique gimmick.