“The Talmud teaches us to see a single human being as the whole world,” declares Avraham Avraham (Jeff Wilbusch), in Peacock’s new crime series “The Calling. “That each person is entitled to infinite respect and concern. Everyone is precious.” It may come as a surprise to those unfamiliar with the work of David E. Kelley, in which everything ultimately returns to the legal arena, that Avraham is deploying this wisdom not as mere spiritual teachings but by way of explaining his method of interrogation. If Avraham — like past Kelley characters from shows like “Ally McBeal” or “The Practice” — has a particular gift when it comes to getting the information he wants, it’s his humanity: He’s finely attuned to what others want to hear, and he provides the empathetic reactions that will get them over the finish line.
All of which makes Avraham a compelling case study, and at times a somewhat hollow character. His complete fusion with his work — his ability to erase the self he is in order to be the mirror of suspects’ needs — means that he is at his most interesting when operating in counterpoint to extreme incident, while we lose him when little is happening. As if to compensate, writer Kelley, adapting Dror Mishani’s novel series, has built out a series of operatic plot highs. But it grows difficult to sustain: So much happens in “The Calling” that little ends up carrying weight.
The spine of the series is Avraham’s relationship with his partner (Juliana Canfield): Would you believe that they have a great deal to learn from one another? The relationship is nicely drawn in moments — with Canfield’s character expressing a desire not to grow compartmentalized and cold that really lands. But, when one considers it, how could she not? She and her partner barely have space to breathe amid a cascading series of mysteries involving a missing child, a potentially culpable aspiring fiction writer, and a day-care proprietor with seemingly shady motives, among others. These last two, especially, seem meant as gestures toward depicting street-level New York City life with a “Law & Order” sociological flair, but Kelley’s pen has grown less sharp over time.
This applies, too, to Avraham’s particular expertise. Much of his expert findings rely less on intuition than on an ability to detect the groaningly obvious, as when a young interviewee loudly gulps and Avraham yelps “You just vomited in your mouth, Benjamin, and i can see that you’ve swallowed your vomit. Are you nervous, or is this something you do?” His connection to the spiritual realm, too, generates some howlers, as when, while questioning a suspect, he declares “A famous rabbi once said, the truth shall set you free. That rabbi was Jesus Christ.”
It has been a difficult stretch for defenders of Kelley, who has been responsible for some of the great popular television of the past quarter-century — from “Ally McBeal” to “Big Little Lies.” Rarely, since the “McBeal” heyday, has he been as omnipresent as he is in this streaming moment. And yet, in recent shows including “Anatomy of a Scandal” and “The Lincoln Lawyer,” his trademark precision and knack for character seems to have evaporated. “The Calling” boasts a good idea for a central figure — but that’s about all it’s got.
“The Calling” premieres Thursday, November 10 on Peacock.