TV shows lost to history: ‘The Inside’ (2005) (Review)

Fox publicity photo

“The Inside” was a deliciously, stylishly dark series that aired in the summer of 2005 on Fox. At first glance, it fits into the “X-Files” family, a show that is best enjoyed in the middle of the night with the lights out. And, true, it does work on that level, as I found out on a recent re-viewing of my VHS tapes.

However, I distinctly remember enjoying the seven broadcast episodes in the middle of summer, when the sun was out until late in the evening, when a baseball game was on another channel, when a nice breeze was coming through my screen door — a time of year when it is subversive to engage in the act of watching TV. Entering the darkness of “The Inside” was a palpable experience.

That’s why, even though “The Inside” is — as the title suggests — about getting inside the minds of human monsters, rather than using actual monsters as a metaphorical jumping-off point to explore humanity (an approach I generally prefer), I found this series engrossing.

The pedigree in front of and behind the camera is remarkable. The special unit of FBI agents gels from episode one in part because we already know a lot of the actors. Peter Coyote (“E.T.,” of course, and most recently “Law & Order: Los Angeles”) gets the role he was born to play: Virgil “Web” Webster, the agent in charge. Web handpicked his team investigators because they all have something he needs, and he’s not shy about using them; in episode seven, he gets investigated by his higher-ups for using them a little too liberally.

Jay Harrington (“Summerland,” and later “Better Off Ted”) is Paul Ryan, a good guy to a fault. Rachel Nichols is a fresh face here (and I’m stunned that she hasn’t become a huge star yet) as the seemingly fragile but emotionally tough former kidnap victim Rebecca Locke. Nelsan Ellis, as tech expert Carter Howard, shows that cool, controlled vibe that would make him a fan favorite as Lafayette on “True Blood.” Adam Baldwin (“Firefly”) as Danny Love and Katie Finneran (“Wonderfalls”) as Melody Sim aren’t explored as much, but there’s one scene where they are lit only by their flashlights, and they give Mulder and Scully a run for their money as FBI partners with understated sex appeal.

Noir style seeps from the pores of “The Inside.” Starting with a scene where Ryan digs a human heart out of a garden, episode six seems entirely drenched in rain. The team’s office makes “nondescript” seem descriptive. Throw in the fact that all the agents wear black suits over white shirts, and you have a crisply bleak foundation. This allows the characters’ personalities to pop, and also the looks for which they were cast –Finneran’s red hair, Harrington’s baby face, Baldwin’s edge, Nichols’ fragility, Ellis’ bemusement and Coyote’s battle-tested experience.

Broadly, “The Inside” fits into the “X-Files” box, but actually it comes more from the Joss Whedon/“Buffy” branch of the TV family tree. Many talented people worked on this show, but it’s the clever, cliché-dodging voice of Tim Minear (“Angel,” “Firefly” and “Dollhouse”) — which is similar to, and perhaps influenced by, Whedon’s — that shines through.

Oh yes, “The Inside” got dark. The third episode even featured a 10-year-old girl as the killer. And it wasn’t one of those last-second “Law & Order” twists where the least likely suspect turns out to be the killer. Rather, Locke suspects the girl the whole time, and the show explores her psyche. Granted, “Angel” had an episode with an evil kid once, but somehow the blow strikes harder in a “real world” show like this one.

But, thanks to the deft hand of Minear and other scribes — including Jane Espenson, also from the Whedon school — the noir tone makes room for humor. Not humor that takes you out of the darkness, but humor that’s all the more impressive because it too is dark, but not clichéd, violence-ridden “dark humor.” A lesser show might’ve had fun with the fact that Locke replaces an agent who committed suicide via ripping off her own face, but on “The Inside,” it’s not a punch line, it’s a plot point that introduces us to this world.

Coyote gets a few of the best lines, even though — or perhaps because — Web is all business. In the pilot episode, he shoots a perpetrator dead between the eyes, then says “Let the girl go.” And after a beat: “I always get that backwards.” Earlier in the episode, he chides Danny for his enthusiasm about going undercover: “This time, keep the ‘plain’ in plainclothes. This isn’t dinner theater.” And in the final episode to air, a prostitute (whom Web is using to catch a killer, natch) asks “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you happy to see me?” “It’s a gun in my pocket,” Web replies.

There are plenty of procedural shows that try to — or pretend to, or try to pretend to — also be a character show. “The Inside” succeeds. In fact, I enjoyed it mostly for the characters. I kind of worry about how long it could’ve gone on exploring the dark recesses of the human mind. Just how many variations on that theme can there be? Only four episodes in, and “The Inside” already came up with “the Pre-Filer” (played by Michael Emerson, who became a star as Ben Linus on “Lost” soon after this), a vigilante who picked off “future murderers.”

Still, I know I would’ve stuck with “The Inside” for much longer than the seven episodes that aired, because I loved hanging out with the members of this investigative team. It pains me that there are six more episodes, unaired in the U.S., sitting in the Fox vault. The cancellation was one thing, but the lack of a DVD or Hulu release is truly cruel.

If I ever do get a chance to see the rest of the series, I’m going to watch it on a beautiful summer evening. That’s when the darkness really shines.

(This blog post is part of a series about great short-lived TV shows that haven’t been released on DVD or digital or streaming services, and are rarely – if ever — shown in syndication. While some of these shows can be found somewhere on the Internet, fans of great TV want to see them get a proper release. If you’re one of those fans, your best bets are to vote for the show at TVonDVD.com or to request information from Amazon.com in the event the show gets released. This will let the copyright holder know of your interest. Find an index of my TV reviews here.)