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'Unforgettable' hopes title is true as it returns to CBS

NEW YORK — CBS' brooding procedural "Unforgettable" of 2011-2012 featured a detective with a mind so uncanny no memory ever truly disappeared.

It's a fitting premise.

After canceling "Unforgettable" at the end of the 2012 season, CBS is now bringing it back, believing a recognizable name and familiar characters can sell a show with a new setup, tone and schedule. When the debut episode airs on Sunday, it will pose a fraught question: In this age of "Arrested Development"-style reprisals, can a network successfully take a mulligan?

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"What became increasingly clear to us after we canceled 'Unforgettable' is that it made a very strong impression on fans," said CBS president of entertainment Nina Tassler. "So we decided to give it a second chance.

"Unforgettable" has a Hollywood back story as twisty as a prime-time plot. Developed by CBS and Sony Pictures Television as a drama about Carrie Wells, a detective with the mixed blessing of perfect memory, the network passed on the series in 2010 when it couldn't find a suitable lead actress.

Most passes don't get another shot, but after producers were able to cast former "Without a Trace" star Poppy Montgomery a year later, CBS gave the series the greenlight. The network debuted the show in 2011 to strong numbers — it regularly pulled in an audience of 12 million viewers. But ratings dipped toward the end of the season and CBS executives, citing a strong crop of pilots, canceled the show.

After an aborted attempt by Sony to sell the show to a cable network, creators thought it dead. "We were sitting at home not expecting anything," said executive producer Ed Redlich. "And then a call came out of the blue."

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CBS had wanted more original scripted programming to go with its big summer bet, the adaptation of Stephen King's "Under the Dome, and had rung Redlich and fellow executive producer John Bellucci. Grateful at the second chance, the pair and their team hammered out what was essentially "Unforgettable 2.0": lighter, breezier, more action-oriented. Rather than Montgomery's Carrie and partner Al (Dylan Walsh) solving grisly murders in outerborough New York, they'd investigate less forensic crimes — bank robberies, hostage situations — in a federal unit in Manhattan. "We knew," said Tassler, "the show could be bigger than Queens."

Writers also removed the haunting arc of the first season in which Carrie grapples with her sister's long-unsolved murder, and made her generally less burdened by her ability to recall every last painful moment. "We decided to have fun with her gift a little more," Redlich said. "I'm not sure we did enough of that in the first season." (Incidentally, Carrie's gift/affliction is similar to that carried by Marilu Henner, who serves as a consultant on the show.)

But true to form, there was another obstacle: Montgomery was now pregnant and would be in her third trimester as shooting was set to begin. She gamely agreed to start production barely a month after she would give birth, doing action scenes even as she recovered from labor.

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"It's been a good way to get back into shape," said the actress, taking a break between takes on set. "But it also helps to have 19 red-haired [stunt] doubles of me running around," the ginger-haired Aussie laughed.

Still, the pregnancy meant shooting would need to be delayed by two months, forcing the show to debut at the end of July instead of early June — and five of its 13-episode order to be displaced to an as-yet undetermined place on the schedule.

But despite the challenges, the show's principals think they have a winning formula.

On location at a Brooklyn banquet hall overlooking the East River last week, that formula was on display. Amid extras dressed in SWAT uniforms, Montgomery brandished her weapon and used charm and steadfastness to talk down a post-traumatic-stress-afflicted former Army officer threatening hostages. "We can still be intense sometimes," she said, smiling to a reporter.

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Whether audiences will respond to these new episodes is an open question. Despite its appealing star and recognizable name, "Unforgettable" is in the tricky position of trying to win back a fan base that may well have forgotten about the series in the 14 months it's been gone — and with episodes far different from the originals. (With the long-running murdered-sister story line scratched, for instance, the season is composed mostly of self-contained  episodes and features no larger arc, a la early "Law & Order.")

And series comebacks are generally trickier than they appear, in part because new episodes, no matter how strong, must contend with fans' nostalgia about the quality of the original — see under: Netflix's Arrested Development."

But CBS hopes the quality of its creative team (Redlich and Bellucci also worked on "Without a Trace") and the size of the initial fan base can overcome these obstacles. "What we have faith in is the track record of our show runners and our concept," Tassler said. "And," she added, "other networks have current shows on the air that do lower numbers than 'Unforgettable.'"

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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'Unforgettable'

Where: CBS

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and violence)

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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