I popped the advance DVD for "The Finder" (9 p.m. EST, Thursday, Fox) into the DVD player without much enthusiasm. I had watched the backdoor pilot for the show that aired last season on "Bones," and I found myself less than impressed.
How enjoyable, then, to find that Hart Hanson, the creator of both series, had come up with a far more energetic and entertaining hour for "The Finder's" official debut. The show may be composed of easily recognized elements from other shows -- it could be described as a breezy combination of "House" and "Burn Notice" -- but that didn't stop me from appreciating its escapist charms.
"The Finder" stars Geoff Stults as Walter Sherman, a former military man living in the Florida Keys who -- not surprisingly -- can find anyone or anything. There are implications that brain damage he experienced during his service in Iraq may account for at least some of his paranoia and social ineptness, but I wasn't quite sure why "The Finder" needed to find diagnosable reasons to justify Walter's sardonic personality. The show works if viewers accept that he is simply an odd duck, and whether or not his focus on locating things amounts to an unhealthy obsession seems beside the point, given that there's no show without it.
In any event, after being cast in several terrible shows (Remember "Happy Town"? If so, try to forget), Stults has finally found the right vehicle for his talents. Stults -- who is best known for his long-running stint on "7th Heaven" and his role on "October Road" -- is a big, good-looking man, which has led TV producers to cast him as a bland nice guy. But the actor has a nicely calibrated subversive side that makes it easy for Walter to straddle the line between strangeness and scruffy likability. Walter may be nursing some mildly unhealthy paranoia or he may just dislike most of humanity, and Stults makes both scenarios plausible without making the guy too weird or insufferable.
It's lucky for Walter that his only real friend, Leo, owns a rundown bar in the Keys, which is blissfully undisturbed by paying customers. Michael Clarke Duncan, whose rumbly voice is always a welcome sound, plays Leo, a former lawyer and full-time Walter fan, and rounding out the show's central trio is Deputy U.S. Marshal Isabel Zambada (Mercedes Masöhn), who finds herself in need of Walter's skills even if she's not a fan of all of his methods. So far Isabel appears to have rolled off TV's "likable but tough lady" assembly line, but the trio creates an enjoyable vibe, and one hopes "The Finder" will get a chance to embellish the core relationships in the ways that shows like "Bones" and "Burn Notice" have.
The only real false note in the pilot comes in the form of a young woman named Willa (Maddie Hasson), who feels like a network note come to life. (I can practically picture a Fox executive writing the following sentence: "Why don't you add an attractive character who is under 20?!") Willa is a youthful career criminal who theoretically works at the Ends of the Earth bar and is trying to stay off her probation officer's radar. I can't quite see the point of the character, who appears to be a refugee from The CW, nor does Willa mesh all that well with the central characters, but perhaps her purpose will become apparent over time. Or not.
In its early seasons, "House" perfected the depiction of an outsider whose arcane mastery of a strange subject made those desperate for his services treat him with equal parts deference and caution; though "The Finder" has a lighter tone and different goals, it learned the lessons of "House" well. The most complimentary thing I can say about "The Finder" is that with its mildly irascible lead and its extremely sturdy central premise, it evokes USA's better shows, right down to its blue skies and palm trees.
Like a good USA show, the frisky, pleasing "Finder" pilot (which was directed by skilled "House" veteran Dan Sackheim), contained some well-calibrated emotional moments, and if there was a mildly deliberate attempt to pull on my heartstrings, I didn't really mind.
At least "The Finder" found them, which is an impressive feat for any pilot.
"The Finder" premieres on Thurs., Jan. 12 at 9 p.m. EST on Fox.