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Fox's 'New Amsterdam' deserves touch of immortality
By Ted Cox | Daily Herald Columnist

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is a New York City cop with a mysterious -- and quite extensive -- past in "New Amsterdam."


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Published: 3/4/2008 12:15 AM

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"New Amsterdam" is a new series about a cop who can't die, and if there's any justice in this TV world the show will last every bit as long as he does.

I know it defies belief, Aware One, but this detective drama about an all-but-immortal police officer who has seen New York City develop from Dutch colony to today's enduring global metropolis is one of the best new shows of the season.

The key, at least to the pilot debuting at 8 p.m. today on Fox WFLD Channel 32, is Swedish producer-director Lasse Hallstrom, best known for "Chocolat," but who previously did the cult films "My Life as a Dog," "Once Around" and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" Now, TV is not usually considered a director's medium, but that's changing as screens get bigger and wider and as high definition makes it possible to achieve effects previously limited to feature films. If "New Amsterdam" succeeds, at least at first, it's largely due to Hallstrom's visual skill as a storyteller.

"New Amsterdam" is a highly unlikely story, as I've already suggested. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau stars as John Amsterdam, a Manhattan homicide detective who, get this, saved a tribal woman from death in 1642 only to be stabbed in the heart himself. Yet with the help of a little magic smoke from a peace pipe, he's made good as new -- better, in fact.

"You will not grow old, you will not die," intones the tribal woman in a flashback, "until you find the one and your souls are wed."

More than three and a half centuries later, he's still alive and looking, but hey as anyone who's ever been single in Manhattan well knows it can be a tough place to find a date, much less an eternal soul mate.

Ridiculous as this premise might seem, Hallstrom and writer Allan Loeb (a Highland Park product) and co-creator Christian Taylor make good use of it. Amsterdam is a mysterious figure who has seen it all and done it all at some point or another. He knew John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk back in the day, and he can even recall what scent Sarah Bernhardt wore. He shares all this with Stephen Henderson's aging-hipster bar owner Omar, the only one in on his secret.

Zuleikha Robinson is Eva Marquez, the latest in a long series of police partners. He tries to explain himself to her -- without completely blowing her mind with the details.

"I like to solve puzzles," he says of being a homicide detective, "and it intrigues me."

"What?" she says.

"Death. It likes to play hard to get."

The notion of a homicide cop who yearns for death -- or at least mortality, because it goes hand in hand with love -- is indeed intriguing. And tonight's pilot finds nifty ways of playing off that concept, as when Amsterdam meets an old lover now suffering from Alzheimer's.

"Sometimes it's better to forget," she says. "Do I know you?"

"Not anymore," he smiles.

This is a neat twist on the old vampire-with-a-heart-of-gold idea, which has popped up in TV series like "Angel" and CBS' new "Moonlight." Throw in the romantic tease with Amsterdam's search for a soul mate -- who just might pop up tonight in the form of a doctor who literally makes his heart stop -- and you have a basic premise that seems made to spin out, adapt and endure over time.

Yet what makes it such a pleasant viewing experience tonight is Hallstrom's storytelling verve. Take something as hackneyed in the cop genre as a pursuit-on-foot sequence, and look at how Hallstrom makes every shot count, each framed for maximum effect, as when Amsterdam and his suspect burst out onto the street against a lovely bridge backdrop. Each setting and composition is deliberate, and it's no accident that, after Amsterdam and his partner spend much of the show in quaint old locations, in the end they wind up in a modernistic apartment.

Fine touches like that make a viewer feel as if he or she is in good hands as Hallstrom spins his tale. Right now, it looks as if he's only directing the pilot, but he sets the series going as it airs another episode at 8 p.m. Thursday before settling into its regular time slot at 8 p.m. Monday next week.

Throw in a real-estate mogul who makes reference to writer Delmore Schwartz without dropping his name and you have a show that's intriguing and intelligent for all its fantasy. Hey, if John Amsterdam can make it in New York for three centuries, he ought to be able to last in prime time for at least a few years more.

In the air

Remotely interesting: Geoffrey Baer goes in search of "Hidden Chicago" in a new documentary at 7:30 p.m. today on WTTW Channel 11.

Almost 8 million viewers tuned in the debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on MSNBC last week, making it the most watched program ever on the channel.

End of the dial: WBEZ 91.5-FM kicks off its new "Chicago Matters" series on "Growing Forward," comparing the competing interests of economic growth and the environment, with a look at "Land" today in segments airing on "Eight Forty-Eight," "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered." New reports will air every other Tuesday on the station through the end of the year.

Naperville Magazine publisher Leah Rippe and Patti Roberts, director of the Downtown Naperville Alliance, sit in as co-hosts of the morning show from 6 to 9 on WERV 95.9-FM this week.