Not always empirically good, but better than the bland title and awful opening sequence might lead you to suspect, ABC’s Will Trent quickly emerges as an above-average broadcast TV procedural — even if it’s exactly those structural trappings that so frequently undermine it.
As middlebrow popular lit adaptations go, Will Trent delivers a distinctive main character and leading performances, a promising ensemble and — based off the first two episodes — it appears easily capable of appealing to the same audience that found comfort in Netflix’s Lincoln Lawyer and Amazon’s Reacher.
The Bottom Line
A broadcast drama with promise.
Named with the same strategy that gave us Lincoln Rhyme: Hunt for the Bone Collector on NBC for a couple of months back in 2020, Will Trent is based on a long-running series of Atlanta-set novels by Karin Slaughter — a fact that existing fans probably still could have deduced with a more vivid title. Surely the current title is the least vivid imaginable, and it shortchanges Trent himself, an endearingly quirky, interestingly damaged special agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Will (Ramón Rodriguez) is one of those archetypal Holmesian investigators who simply sees the world differently. His secret gifts — observational and not by-the-book because, as we quickly learn, Will is dyslexic — were honed in a rough childhood in the Atlanta foster care system and various group homes.
The series, adapted by Liz Heldens and Daniel T. Thomsen, begins with Will facing blowback from his role in orchestrating a major police corruption probe. Since the GBI and APD share an office building, Will is constantly forced into contact with people who think he’s a rat or a snitch, which gets even harder when he’s called in on a major case that requires departmental cooperation.
The case involves a mother (Jennifer Morrison), who returns to her ritzy suburban home, thinks she finds her teenage daughter murdered and, in a struggle, kills the man she thinks was the perpetrator. APD decides it’s an easy solve, but Will uses his superpower — like so many Sherlockian gumshoes, it’s illustrated mostly with a lot of squinting — to pick holes in what appeared obvious, much to everybody’s chagrin. Soon he’s dealing with the victim’s boorish father (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), who knows Will from a shared past, a grouchy boss (Sonja Sohn’s Amanda) and a reluctant new APD partner (Iantha Richardson’s Faith), whose grudge with Will is personal.
Off to the side, but swiftly interacting with the main case, are undercover vice detective Angie (Erika Christensen), a recovering addict and another piece of Will’s traumatic past; and her new partner Michael (Jake McLaughlin), who comes across as a bit of an ass, but apparently has a high case clearance rate, so we’re supposed to take him as a capable work-in-progress rather than as anything like a bad cop.
The overqualified presences of a raw Morrison and an expert blustery and bullying Gosselaar build instant investment and made me wish that the first case could have possibly been stretched across a full season, rather than rushing to a conclusion by the end of the second hour. That’s how the cable version of the series obviously would have played out, and I have concerns about that Will Trent might transition to a case-of-the-week structure, perhaps exemplified by the wholly unengaging B-case in the second hour. Giving everything more room to breathe could have alleviated some of the challenges in explaining the GBI’s jurisdiction and how it, and Will, fit into the Atlanta law enforcement scene. But at least the general depiction of Atlanta is well handled, and the spreading of Will’s initial case over two episodes offers some chance for character details to emerge.
Will is just a good and interesting character, full of physical and psychological scars that inform everything he does — from his reluctant series-opening decision to adopt an adorable, abandoned chihuahua named Betty to his under-renovation home in a rough neighborhood to his relationship with Angie, which is half booty call and half jointly necessary therapy. Although Rodriguez is solid in the lead role — a good mixture of dapper and damaged, with just enough humorous undercurrents — Christensen, frazzled and dangerously on edge throughout, is the real standout. I could instantly get why the Will/Angie pairing is the sort of relationship that I might invest in on the page.
I could argue that the first two Will Trent episodes spend too much time spelling out explanations for their eccentricities and pathologies, but the last thing I ever want to do when it comes to a broadcast show is complain that the characters are too clearly and specifically motivated. That extends to most of the main characters, including Faith, trying to find her place in a department dominated by her mother’s now-conflicted legacy, and to Amanda, still enough of a cop to resent Will for his role in the corruption case she made pursue him. Only Michael doesn’t quite have a hook after two hours and that, again, is far better than shows of this type usually manage this early in their run.
The failures of tone are much more familiar to the broadcast space, and they’re almost instantaneous. The opening scene, rehashing the main crime, is bizarrely operatic, with slo-mo screams and heightened violence bordering on parody — director Paul McGuigan makes one bad decision after another in confusing flashiness with emotional commitment — only to transition instantly into a purely comic scene of Will trying to get rid of his dog at a shelter. Time after time in these two episodes, humorous beats and clunky banter undermine the attempts to give gravity to Will and Angie’s backstory.
I would have liked to see one or two more episodes of Will Trent to find out how it operates on a week-to-week basis, to see how the series settles into letting its characters’ personalities drive the drama instead of using the drama to explain the characters’ personalities. Still, wanting to see additional episodes is as close to praise as I’ve been able to give a broadcast drama over the past year or two.