There is no need of a spoiler alert to tell you that, in the first episode of Motive, the murderer of a popular high school teacher is the lonely band geek who breaks into houses for kicks. That information will be revealed in the first minutes when the new police drama premieres Sunday on CTV.
The show is a rare example on television of what is sometimes called a howcatchem rather than a whodunnit.
“In a traditional crime drama, the most exciting thing happens off-screen,” said Daniel Cerone, the L.A. screenwriter and producer who came up with the concept for Motive. “Two detectives walk up, there’s a dead body killed in a gruesome way, they make a quip and it’s a whodunnit.”
“TV is all cat and no mouse,” he added. “If you know who did it, it opens up a whole new avenue of drama and suspense.”
Those old enough to recall Columbo, the long-running 1970s detective show, will mainly remember it for Peter Falk’s performance as the dishevelled and dogged title character, but it was the show’s structure that always interested Cerone.
“The entire first act you never saw Peter Falk; you saw the killer, and then Columbo would move in. The fun was watching Columbo figure it out,” he said.
Versions of this inverted structure are often used in film, from classic suspense movies such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and Dial M for Murder to more recent psychological thrillers such as Silence of the Lambs.
“The movies know the value of the villain,” Cerone said. “What would Silence of the Lambs be without the villain? You get to spend time with the killer.”
Since Columbo, however, the structure has been so rarely repeated on television that Cerone, who had been shopping the idea of a howcatchem around Hollywood for 10 years, only encountered puzzlement from studio executives.
“The reaction was the same: If we know who did it, why would we care?”
Then he met Canadian producer Rob Labelle when they were both working on a U.S. series shooting in Vancouver, and Labelle got it.
“It’s a dynamic concept from the get-go,” Labelle said. They developed the idea for a Vancouver-based series in which the good-looking, fast-moving, working-class detective Angie Flynn (played by Kristin Lehman) will use her smarts and her gut to track murderers already revealed to the audience. The more methodical and patrician detective Oscar Vega (Louis Ferreira) has her back, and the suspense will involve the detection and the chase. In Sunday’s premiere, there is a scene where Angie is searching a closet that gives access to an attic, unaware that the teen killer is working desperately to escape through the roof just above her head.
“It’s the old Hitchcock adage: Is it more suspenseful to know there is bomb under the table or to not know?” says showrunner James Thorpe, who leads the five-member Canadian team that is writing the scripts based on Cerone’s idea. “In this case we know the bomb is there and are hoping Angie will find it before it explodes.”
CTV also got it, signing on within a few weeks of first hearing the pitch; ABC announced this week it has picked up the show for a summer run in the U.S.
Thorpe and Labelle stress that much of the interest in Motive lies in the unique situations that lead to murders committed by ordinary people who kill for extraordinary reasons.
“We are dealing with killers who are everyday people – there but for the grace of God go I,” Thorpe said. “These are not drug dealers or criminals. What if a soccer mom kills?”
What is important, and remains hidden from the audience until the very end of each episode, is what circumstances or psychology would lead formerly law-abiding people to kill. As the series’ title suggests, Motive is not only a howcatchem, but also a whydunnit.
“We will pull the rug out one more time in a O. Henry-esque way,” Thorpe says of these final revelations. So, it turns out the high school student has actually targeted the teacher’s house for a very particular reason.
TV is a medium built on formulas, and unusual twists on the tried-and-true sometimes run out of creative steam before even a single season is over. But Thorpe and Labelle aren’t worried they’ll run out of ideas to support the show’s inverted structure episode after episode.
“Because the series features real people in unusual circumstances, we can build characters case by case,” Thorpe said. “Yes, everything is in a tight box, but there is room to play.”
He can say that with confidence because Columbo ran for seven seasons on NBC in the 1970s, three more seasons on ABC in the 1990s, and was still being revived in specials on ABC as recently as 2003. Motive’s Angie may be better dressed and better looking , but she can only dream of having Columbo’s legs.