ABC Family’s latest drama centers on a young woman named Kirsten (Emma Ishta), who gets recruited into a secret government agency that can “stitch” her consciousness into the memories of the recently deceased—which in turn allows her to solve crimes. With a premise like that, Stitchers could have plenty of potential as a (much-needed) follow-up to tons of sci-fi TV—think season 1 of Fringe, another version of Dollhouse, or even a tonally different Pushing Daisies. Unfortunately, the pilot’s not remarkable or memorable enough to elevate itself to be anything more than a run-of-the-mill, trope-filled procedural with a supernatural twist.
Is that harsh? Sure. Those glossy ads that showed Kirsten in her catsuit gracefully sinking into a waterlogged room—along with the tagline “Memories Never Die”—certainly looked intriguing. But that striking image doesn’t make it into the pilot, and that tagline isn’t even accurate. (The entire conceit of the show, i.e. the process of “stitching,” revolves around Kirsten having only a set amount of time before those memories actually do die.) It seems the show doesn’t quite get what tone it wants to strike: Is it a character study of a difficult heroine with an intriguing condition? Is it a dark but campy supernatural sci-fi show about accessing people’s memories? Or is it an action-thriller-type procedural, with memories replacing flashbacks as the narrative tool?
Stitchers tries to be all of that at once, which leads to a pilot that’s just as messy as the memories Kirsten explores. The hour begins in media res, as Kirsten gazes at two glowing figures in bed before jumping to another psychedelic memory that sees a man activate and detonate a bomb. We then flash backwards to 10 hours before, when Kirsten is giving her roommate and Caltech classmate Camille (Allison Scagliotti) a hard time. Camille accuses Kirsten of messing with her schoolwork, but Kirsten doesn’t help matters by condescendingly dismissing Camille and explaining how her condition—temporal dysplasia—makes her fail polygraph tests and seem emotionally distant. All of which I understand is supposed to make Kirsten come off as a tough, difficult anti-heroine of sorts, but only makes her seem thoroughly unlikeable.
And even though Kirsten finds out her foster father has died in the next scene and flashes back to her childhood, she doesn’t get any more sympathetic—mostly because her one-liners (and their deliveries) are cringe-worthy. “You’re the detective. Detect,” she tells, er, a detective when she doesn’t believe his conclusion that her foster father killed himself.
At least she’s ballsy: Kirsten makes her way back into the police’s internal network and starts flipping through the photos of her foster father’s crime scene, until she gets taken to… a Chinese restaurant? Dubious fronts aside, Kirsten meets Maggie (Salli Richardson-Whitfield), who tells Kirsten her temporal dysplasia could be the key to a secret government program. (At least, she gets to say this after a long conversation about why Kirsten doesn’t feel anything and can’t “feel” time.) Eventually, Maggie takes Kirsten below the restaurant and introduces her to Star Labs the Stitchers program, which features one tank and a handful of engineers. Kirsten dishes another one-liner when she spots the tank, which Maggie says they call the “fish tank.” “Because it looks like a fish tank?” she sneers. “I hope you people are smarter than you are creative.”
Luckily, Kirsten is quickly introduced to Cameron (Kyle Harris), a nerdy, talkative engineer who walks her through the program with a slew of quippy dialogue before getting her to change into the catsuit that she has to wear while in the tank (because science!), while adding that she has to go in ASAP because the corpse whose memory she’ll be exploring belongs to a man who placed two more bombs in hidden locations. (Or something like that. Honestly, Kirsten doesn’t seem too concerned about the plot.) Kirsten seats herself in the tank, is assured by Cameron she’ll be fine (love interest alert!), and gets warped into the memory from the beginning of the episode.
That’s when things pick up—because the odd environment of the memories at least looks cool. Figures in the memory appear and disappear, coming in and out of focus. The time of day shifts in a heartbeat. Our senses are toyed with just as much as Kirsten’s. Kirsten’s brain, however, goes into overdrive after sifting through dozens of memories of the man. When she finally exits the memory, she ambles away from the tank, kisses Cameron (love interest alert again!), and collapses in his arms. And just for kicks, there’s one more cute-sy scene between the two when Kirsten wakes up in Cameron’s apartment and misguidedly slaps him. Aww.
Back at the lab, Kirsten reveals she gleaned two clues from the memories: A) Sepulveda Boulevard B) a blue door. When Maggie pushes back on having them dig any further, Kirsten takes matters into her own hands again, and Cameron tags along as she goes back to her home and drags Camille into the fold. This leads to a typical hacking scene, as Kirsten and Camille smash their fingers into a keyboard and talk about looking at “files” until Cameron steps in to search simply for the key words “Sepulveda” and “blue door.” They figure out what had happened with the corpse: The man’s girlfriend, Julie, had her work stolen by a company named Blue Door, which led to her death, which in turn led to him trying to exact revenge on Blue Door’s executives, then blowing himself up out of grief.
With this intel, Kirsten and Cameron speed off to track down the two execs involved. They arrive at one bomb location just in time for it to go off. They manage to find the other one shortly after, with the first saved exec’s help—but the second bomb, located in the basement of the research facility where Julie worked, requires the second executive to remain in his position until a passcode is entered. Using her temporal dysplasia, Kirsten puts herself back in the memory and remembers hearing the dial tones of a string of numbers. She figures it out, stops the bomb, and saves the day—but not before she seems to feel emotions for the first time over the plight of Julie. Phew. Got all that?
The episode ends with a displeased Maggie telling Kirsten and Cameron not to go rogue again. Just as Kirsten gets up to leave, Maggie stops her and says she has clues to Kirsten’s biological father, who, she reveals, began the Stitchers program. Ooooh.
But even with that final nugget of a mystery, much of this first episode of Stitchers just felt tedious and low-stakes, with its predictable plot and lackluster central mystery. More important, Kirsten is just too off-putting a character to care about—at least for now. Part of this is thanks to Emma Ishta’s (so far) wooden portrayal, but it’s more in the way the character is written. Sure, Kirsten isn’t an emotional person, but that doesn’t mean she should look bored of her own case. And if she’s so smart, why should Cameron be the one to solve both the Sepulveda-blue door clue and realize she’s the one with temporal dysplasia who can remember the tones?
In other words, it’s a good thing the episode concludes with Kirsten showing a wink of character development, and it’s a good thing her scenes in people’s memories allow us to put together the clues alongside her. Without that intereactive element, it’s going to be hard for the show to make anyone care about Kirsten’s biological father’s involvement in the Stitchers, or even her week-to-week adventures. Because in the end, it’s incredibly easy to, well, forget what this show is about: a character solving crimes by entering dead people’s memories.