On ABC's new police procedural Motive, the question at the start of each episode is not who committed a crime, but why. But the looming question on the minds of the show's cast and crew is whether the Canadian show, which was the highest-rated series premiere in Canada last season, can find equal success in the States.
Though American viewers may notice some subtle local color, overall Motive (premiering Monday at 10/9c on ABC) slides seamlessly into place alongside other homegrown crime shows. It was a smart move on the part of ABC to purchase the series outright, rather than trying to create an Americanized version of an existing success, as NBC did with its ill-fated Prime Suspect adaptation in 2011.
"There are certain things that resonate with me as a Canadian viewer that I love about our show," star Kristin Lehman, who plays Detective Angie Freeman, says. "And I know that it's a byproduct of a budget that is, like, a drop in the bucket compared to a lot of the shows on network television in the States. ... It comes from where it was made. And it isn't necessarily cultural in like, 'Oh, we don't understand murder the way you understand murder,' or something like that. It's more a byproduct of the environment it was made in. It can't be recreated in that way."
Motive takes a cue from shows like Law & Order: Criminal Intent in revealing to viewers at the start of each episode the identities of the killer and his/her victim. The rest of each hour is then dedicated to unraveling the circumstances that led to the victim's death as the show's detectives try to solve the case.
"I don't really feel like anybody here feels like we've reinvented the wheel," Lehman, who also played Gwen Eaton on AMC's The Killing says. "[But] the way the killer and the victim are presented, it's not just that the viewer knows who they are off the top, it's that the way they're presented challenges, possibly unconsciously, the way a viewer perceives a killer and a victim."
Adds Lauren Holly, who plays nightlife-loving medical examiner Betty Rogers: "Very often you're shocked at who the victim is, shocked at who the killer is, have no idea how their paths could cross. And as the episode goes on, you start to think you know, but there's always some little other twist right before the end. ... There are certain episodes where I actually had empathy for the killer, which was sort of strange. But I think it comes from that sometimes, it's a split-second decision that they make from emotion or whatever, and otherwise their lives would not have turned out that way."
That dynamic is evident from Motive's first episode, in which a bullied high school student murders not his attackers, but an unsuspecting teacher. As viewers learn why, we meet the show's central players, including Lehman's Angie, a no-nonsense investigator who's also a single mother to a teenage son.
"Angie's not trying to live up to anyone else's expectations but her own, and I think she's pretty well aware of her limitations in life. ... The fact that she's a single mom and she was a young mother informs almost everything about how she moves in the world," Lehman says of her character. "I think your life changes so totally when you become a parent, on every single level. The stakes become something totally different. ... So it influences every decision that Angie has made, including the way she relates to the victims and the killers in the cases that she deals with."
It's also why, according to Lehman, viewers will never see a romantic relationship blossom between Angie and her partner, Oscar Vega (Louis Ferreira).
"The two of them, they're not spring chickens," Lehman says. "They are pretty happy holding heroic projections of each other as opposed to ones that could fail."
While Motive is centered around dark themes of grief and murder, Lehman says somewhat surprisingly that it was actually elements of humor that drew her to the series when she first saw the material.
"I just thought, wow, this is so funny and brave," Lehman recalls. "How are they going to do this on network television? It read with much more freedom of a cable show, to tell you the truth."
The show went through some tonal adjustments before making it to prime time, Lehman admits, but many of the darkly comic overtones are still there.
"In the course of having a show come to life, there's lots of cooks in the kitchen, and in our case we have various studios and a couple of production companies," she says. "So, our show sort of became a happy amalgam of lots of different necessities when making network television. What remains is the framework of what [creator Daniel Cerano] put forward."
"I certainly still try to inhabit some of the looseness of the humor that needs to run alongside people who are having to deal with kind of awful human frailties all the time," Lehman adds. "They use a lot of inappropriate humor to get through it."
Enter quirky Dr. Betty, played by Holly, who describes her character as "the spice of the show, the paprika." Holly visited actual mortuaries to research the role. ("Crazy me, thinking that that would be a good thing to do," she says.) The most surprising thing she found? How "blasé" the morticians seemed as they went about their jobs. "Not that they're not respectful or anything like that," she clarifies, "but just emotionally sort of detached. They're just a detective. It's like their crime scene. ... And at the same time, they deal with so much grief and everything. I can only imagine the sadness they've seen."
Regardless of whether Motive finds a second home among American audiences, the show has already been picked up for a second season in our neighbor to the north. But its stars are optimistic.
"I think we make a really solid, compelling and beautiful show," Lehman says. "But, by sheer volume of population and volume of shows we make, our climate up here in entertainment is different. It'll be interesting to me to see if my suspicions that we're creating a show that can stand on its own in a more competitive market rings true. ... I do hope and I do think that we'll be able to swim in those waters."
Motive premieres Monday at 10/9c on ABC, and moves into its regular timeslot with its second episode, airing Thursday at 9/8c on ABC.