Review: Instinct 1×1 (US: CBS; UK: Sky Living)

Alan Cumming's gay competence porn

Alan Cumming and Bojana Novakovic in CBS's Instinct

In the US: Sundays, 8/7c, CBS
In the UK: Acquired by Sky Living

There is a genre of drama known as ‘competence porn’. Don’t worry, this isn’t what it sounds like.

The defining feature of ‘competence porn’ is a character who’s just good at everything. They’re rich, they dress well, they’re good at their job, they don’t make mistakes, they don’t trip over cracks in the pavement. Whatever life throws at them, they use their top-notch brain, balletic grace and wealth of experience to overcome the odds and beat their adversaries.

Usually, it’s a straight white male who’s the star of competence porn – think James Bond, Sherlock Holmes or even Matt Damon in The Martian. But not always – Olivia Pope in Scandal is straight black female competence porn, for example.

Now, in Instinct, we have possibly the first TV instance of gay white male competence porn*. Based on a James Patterson novel, its shockingly competent central hero is Dr Dylan Reinhart, a well dressed, best-selling author, university lecturer and former CIA field officer and paramilitary, capable of slapping around bad guys while simultaneously theorising about whatever psychological issues led them to try to hit him in the first place. He’s also gay and gave up his CIA career so he could he could get married and have a normal life with his now ex-husband.

When a serial killer starts murdering people and sends the NYPD a copy of Reinhart’s book about mental abnormality, detective Bojana Novakovic (Edge of Darkness, Shameless) seeks out Reinhart and enlists him in the hunt for the killer. Which is handy because Reinhart’s agent is pressing him for a new, exciting book and Novakovic hasn’t got on with any of her new partners since the death of her ex-partner and fiancé. Gosh, if only this was the start of a beautiful, completely platonic, crime-solving partnership.

All of which sounds great and wonderfully diverse, if otherwise a little bit formulaic. The only problem? Reinhart is played by Alan Cumming. Yes, this Alan Cumming.

Here’s a trailer.

Alan Cumming and Bojana Novakovic in CBS's Instinct
Alan Cumming and Bojana Novakovic in CBS’s Instinct

Good instincts

For the most part, this is a bog standard procedural. Cumming and Novakovic wander around interviewing people, making the sort of nonsensical deductions that even Criminal Minds thought were too obvious or ludicrous seven seasons ago. The bad guy gets caught, no form of due process is correctly observed. It’s CBS business as usual.

There are a number of good things about the show, though. Cumming is, of course, great and while his character is scripted as being arrogant and egotistical, he doesn’t play it that way and is highly disarming and charming. There’s also a genuine warmth between him and Novakovic, and the fact there can never be a relationship between them frees the show from worries about sexual tension, etc. I say frees and I mean it – it did feel genuinely freeing, watching the first episode, to know that they were just going to be work colleagues and friends, but nothing more.

On top of that, there are some good guest stars and supporting cast – while I don’t think Whoopi Goldberg (yes, that one) will be back too frequently as Cumming’s agent, her presence is welcome and Lost‘s Naveen Andrews is scheduled for far more regular appearances as a former work colleague of Cumming who wants to get him back playing the Great Game again – but is willing to help him access handy clandestine government services in the meantime if it gives him a taste again of what he’s missing. I just hope he gets to do more than sit in a chair all the time, which is all the first episode had to offer him.

The show also doesn’t take itself too seriously. I’m not sure that’s because of the source material rather than the cast simply being a little less serious than necessary, but there’s humour and even the occasional joke. On top of that, the characters themselves seem to know they’re in a formatted procedural and need a thinly constructed reason for weekly episodic adventures.

Alan Cumming, Naveen Andrews and Bojana Novakovic in CBS's Instinct
Alan Cumming, Naveen Andrews and Bojana Novakovic in CBS’s Instinct

Bad instincts

There are also some bad things about Instinct. The first is Novakovic’s character – the poor thing gets lumbered not only with her miserable back story, but every night she goes back to an empty apartment to be with her pet dog… WHICH SHE HAS TO PUT DOWN! That’s just gratuitous.

The other problem is that Cumming is many things, but an action hero he is not (as you may have noticed in X-Men 2). Not since Michael Myers in Austin Powers has a human being seemed so ill at ease with a gun in his hand.

Would that it all stopped with guns, but there are times when Cumming has to do fight sequences. The first of these is when he has to pretend to punch a student – he’s not actually punching him but he’s doing it for the benefit of an audience who need to believe it’s real.

No human being could believe that was a real punch. Sorry, Alan.

However, this is Alan Cumming, CIA field officer and paramilitary. He also needs to be able to disarm men with guns and throw them over his shoulder afterwards.

The director doesn’t even try to get Cumming to do this. We’re talking an entire fight sequence where Cumming’s head can’t be seen except from behind. Not for a moment will you even be asked to believe, let alone actually believe that anyone other than a rather good stuntman was doing the necessary, while Cumming was off have a nice cup of tea in his trailer.

Alan Cumming and Bojana Novakovic in CBS's Instinct
Alan Cumming and Bojana Novakovic in CBS’s Instinct

Nice Instinct

But again, I don’t think the producers are really trying to convince us here. This is Alan Cumming gay competence porn. The audience is here to see Alan Cumming be great and even if it’s a stuntman being great for him, it’s the idea that Cumming might be doing it that’s more important. Even if he’s obviously not.

Because a super-competent gay man as the lead in a CBS procedural – that’s groundbreaking.

Don’t go into Instinct expecting verisimilitude or decent plotting; instead, go into it expecting something that pushes the casting envelope and the idea of who’s allowed to be the star of a bog standard crime procedural. But above all, expect some fun.

  • I’m prepared to concede Arliss Howard as Kale Ingram in Rubicon as an example of gay competence porn, but he wasn’t the lead


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.