The Catch: The Bunny-Ears Lawyer Gets a Welcome Makeover In The World of Detection
Ah, Shondaland. What would I do without you? The Catch is the newest addition to the production house’s stable, and a series which I can admit to having some trepidation about. The trailer was a little bit alarming, after all. There were just too many white people. Still, The Catch manages to deliver enough thrills and provocations to fit well with Rhimes’s oeuvre. It is worth noting that Rhimes only serves as executive producer, as is the case with the often mis-attributed How To Get Away With Murder. Maybe someday Peter Nowalk will get his well deserved credit.
But we’re not talking about HTGAWM, we are talking about The Catch which has enormous shoes to fill. The series follows Alice Vaughan, a private detective played by Mireille Enos, who was conned by her fiancé. Vaughan is dead set on revenge, and must balance her quest for extra-legal justice with the daily upkeep of her detective firm, which comes to the viewer in the form of the weekly mystery plot.
The series manages to do a lot with a premise that isn’t immediately arresting. Enos and Peter Krause (who plays Vaughan’s con-artist ex-fiancé Benjamin Jones) have fantastic chemistry and establish the emotional stakes of their relationship believably despite the time constraints of a 40 minute TV episode. The pilot in particular shines as it flits freely through time showing tender moments that make Jones’s con hit particularly hard. Krause is firing on all cylinders in a moment where his character asks Vaughan to run away with him. He does more acting with his facial expressions than most actors do in their entire life. The anguish and various obligations that pull at Jones come across spectacularly in this scene. This strong emotional core, and the degree to which the ambiguity of the relationship between Vaughan and Jones is captured so authentically as their absurd cat-and-mouse game begins makes the series immediately captivating. It’s almost as if the series itself doesn’t trust how convincing its actors have been, as in the second episode Elvy Yost’s character is given the unenviable task of delivering expository lines like “maybe he’s saying it was real and he really loved you.”
Another of the series’s strengths is the way in which it complicates the “Bunny-Ears Lawyer” and “Insufferable Genius” tropes. Alice Vaughan is an outstanding investigator, orders of magnitude better than her peers, colleagues, and subordinates. However, as a human being, she has no frustrating or uncanny personality quirks. She just works. She is strikingly relate-able in her disposition, and the low-key and intimate moments of humanity which are such a trademark of Shondaland are on full display here. Vaughan is Sherlock Holmes without the neurosis. Just like Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating, Alice Vaughan is a character who is no less human for her superheroic proficiency at her job. The Holmesian quirkiness can often function as both a narrative and character developmental cop-out. A character who feels so human, particularly in the context of detective work where the genre of detective fiction is so riddled with Holmes ripoffs and reinterpretations, is a breath of fresh air. To further complicate these tropes, Vaughan is rarely alone. She’s the boss of an enormous detective firm, and her excellence comes as much from her inherent detective skill as from her ability to delegate.
Despite these refreshing changes, The Catch still suffers from all the failings of the detective TV genre. Just like House or Sherlock Holmes in his various incarnations, despite the narrative conceit of Vaughan’s flawless detective work, she is wrong far more often than she is right. It’s a necessary evil, as a television show where the protagonist was always several steps ahead of the viewer wouldn’t be much fun. House, Holmes, and Vaughan seem clueless precisely because they have to serve the function of making the viewer feel intelligent and allowing the viewer to draw conclusions about the mystery that might be correct before anyone in the show does. Still, this odd disjunction is no less unsettling for its necessity.
The show stumbles, too, in asking too much of Mireille Enos. She just doesn’t play composed well. While her chemistry with Krause and fantastic work in the more tender, vulnerable, and humanizing moments are crucial for making the show work, she does not command the screen or have the authoritative presence flawlessly delivered by Kerry Washington and Viola Davis. Because their character archetypes are so similar, it’s difficult not to compare their acting. Washington and Davis never seem to be out of their depth as performers. If anything, Scandal‘s script asks far too little of Washington. Enos just has not expressed the same kind of mastery of the masterful dimension of her character. Even in the moments where she is supposed to be holding all the cards, it seems like she’s holding on by a thread.
Even with my complaints, The Catch delivers. It takes a lot to make me tune into a show week to week, and there is no question The Catch is a priority in my rotation. The show is undeniably Shondaland for better or for worse. In Alice Vaughan we get another engaging protagonist, a genius without any overly theatrical neurosis but rather with all of the small recognizable flaws that make one human, along the same lines Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating. Just like Scandal’s later seasons and HTGAWM, The Catch’s weekly plots play second fiddle to the overarching narrative and largely get lost in the shuffle of the episode. Though Enos’s performance leaves a little bit to be desired in the moments where Vaughan is expected to appear as calm, collected, and in-charge, it is an open question as to whether Enos will become more comfortable in the role as the series progresses.