‘Wild Cards’ Review: A Spicy “Will-They-Won’t-They” Procedural

The latest CW series gives new life to a familiar story.

From the moment con artist Max Mitchell (Vanessa Morgan) lays eyes on former detective Cole Ellis (Giacomo Gianniotti) in Wild Cards, the new Canadian police procedural premiering January 17 on The CW (and streaming on CBC Gem for my fellow Canadians), it’s clear we’re in for some good old-fashioned procedural fun of the will-they-won’t-they variety. There’s something almost nostalgic in a glossy comedy-drama starring pretty people that largely resolves everything in a tight 45 minutes, and instead relies on its leads’ engaging chemistry, and the audience’s investment in each of them as people, to drive things forward. Fortunately for Wild Cards, the series’ first two episodes navigate this very well.

What Is ‘Wild Cards’ About?

Wild Cards follows skilled con artist Max Mitchell, whose luck has run out when she’s caught impersonating a wealthy woman in order to break into her safe deposit box. She’s taken to the police station and turned over to the reluctant custody of former detective Cole Ellis, whose recent demotion to the Maritime Unit is still a sore spot. Ellis is annoyed that he’s responsible for booking Max while the arresting officers get to take part in a high-profile robbery investigation, but thanks to a tip from Max — who is extremely perceptive — Ellis becomes the first officer to actually get a decent lead on the case.

From there, the two of them strike a deal with the police commissioner. The pair of them will work together to help the police department in whatever way is asked of them for two months. If neither violates their probation, Ellis will be reinstated and charges against Max will be dropped — and so an unlikely partnership is born. Like Castle before it and Moonlighting before that, the cases on Wild Cards are solved using Ellis’s procedural know-how and Max’s out-of-the-box thinking. But as fun as that can be, it’s not their diverging approaches to crime-solving that will keep audiences coming back each week, but instead the chemistry between the leads, which is by far the strongest part of the show.

‘Wild Cards’ Thrives on the Chemistry of Its Leads

Truly interesting will-they-won’t-they dynamics on TV are becoming increasingly rare. There are relationships explicitly written to be romantic almost immediately, and then there are cases where the very idea of romance is seen as damaging to the integrity of the story by those involved in making it. What makes this dynamic so engaging to watch is the possibility of a romance — think Jake (Andy Samberg) and Amy (Melissa Fumero) on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, or Brennan (Emily Deschanel) and Booth (David Boreanaz) on Bones — without it being a foregone conclusion. Max and Ellis could get together. We want them to get together. But the pursuit of a romantic relationship isn’t what drives them through the first two episodes.

This makes the show’s few “tropey” moments feel infused with just that much more tension, including delicious banter, looks that last just a beat too long to be strictly platonic, and one particularly delicious scene right out of a fake-dating romance that would immediately precede an italicized oh moment. Max’s sunshine demeanor means she’s friendly and jokes around with everyone she comes into contact with, and Ellis’s seriousness means he can’t see past the end of his own angst and ambition to realize the pretty lady might actually be flirting with him. Their differing personalities, and different approaches to crime-solving, put them in opposition, but that only ever causes very short-lived frustration. Morgan and Gianniotti’s incredible chemistry gives their characters a “snarky-friends-to-lovers” energy — which is to say, whenever the two of them do decide to get together (very much a when, and not an if), it’ll be with a satisfying payoff for those of us starved for a good slow-burn on network TV.

‘Wild Cards’ Needs to Maintain Its Slower Momentum

Because our current landscape of prestige TV calls for continuously heightened stakes, it’s uncommon for shows to truly feel and remain light and small-scale. If it’s not tying into a larger on-screen universe, then it’s very quickly introducing massive stakes to a setting and to characters unprepared to take them on. The long-running procedurals so many of us remember growing up with survived for as long as they did precisely because they kept the stakes appropriate for their characters. The characters grew and evolved within their own environments, and so the story grew as a result. One area I hope the show will develop is its ensemble cast, as, for the moment, the only other character that really jumps out is George (Jason Priestly), who is certain to take on a bigger role as the season progresses.

Though only two episodes of the series were provided for this review, those were enough to determine that the series is built on a fairly solid foundation, and should continue to thrive and find its audience should they avoid the temptation to try and fit a network TV procedural peg into a prestige TV-sized hole. The CBC, the Canadian co-producer of the series, has managed to sustain its procedural detective series Murdoch Mysteries for an astonishing 17 seasons while never losing sight of what made it work from the beginning. Here’s hoping Wild Cards manages to do the same.
Wild Cards premieres on January 17 on The CW in the U.S.