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New Amsterdam:  Indians and Immortality

New Amsterdam If you're a TV watcher, you know the premise of New Amsterdam:

New Amsterdam (TV series)

The main character is John Amsterdam (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a New York homicide detective who is immortal. Amsterdam was a Dutch soldier in the year 1642 when he stepped in front of a sword to save the life of a Native American girl during a massacre of her indigenous tribe. The girl in turn rescued Amsterdam by weaving an ancient spell that conferred immortality upon him. It was also prophesied that he would not age until he finds his one true love, and only then will he become whole and ready for mortality. His immortality has resulted in Amsterdam spending more than three centuries marked by loss as his friends, lovers, and children gradually grow old and die while he is forced to remain alive.

Now here's my review:

The origin of John Amsterdam
In 1642, Dutch soldiers are massacring a village of Indians on the site of what will become Manhattan's Flatiron District. "Don't kill the women," says the bearded John van der Zee (aka John Amsterdam). Apparently, killing the men is okay with him.

In the melee, Amsterdam takes what looks like a lethal sword thrust. But the woman he saved breathes smoke from a pipe into his mouth. She pours liquid on his wound and covers it with a leaf. Other Indian women surround her and seem to be praying.

"You will not grow old," the woman intones. "You will not die...until you find the one, and your souls are wed."

I'm glad to say I recognized Tamara Podemski as the healer. I didn't recognize Carla-Rae Holland, the mother from Imprint, as one of the others. The women wear furs (plausible) and look rather young and Hollywoodish (implausible). By that I mean none of them look old and wrinkled, as you might expect. But that's a minor flaw in an otherwise decent scene.

Amsterdam's lifestyle
Amsterdam respects the people, places, and things from his past. He uses an old box camera and a pocket watch. He has a secret hideaway in a bar where he makes furniture and keeps files. It isn't clear, but he may live there.

Because he carves pieces in a valuable antique style, his work sell for up to $87,000. So he doesn't have to worry about money. He also wouldn't have to worry if he invested his funds in various bank accounts, stocks, and bonds and let the power of compound interest work for him over the decades.

Some critics have said New Amsterdam's depiction of an immortal's lifestyle is unbelievable or riddled with loopholes. I don't buy that. Living the life of an immortal doesn't seem that hard. You move and change careers and identities every 10 or 20 years. You can say whatever you want about your past and people will write you off as an eccentric.

The "shaman" thing
When Amsterdam thinks he's met his soulmate, he explains it to his confidante Omar:

AMSTERDAM: Well, the shaman told me I'd feel it here, in my heart.

OMAR: Well, maybe the shaman was wrong.

"Shaman" is the wrong word here. A shaman a particular kind of priest or medicine person found mainly on the West Coast. Shamans are noted for acting as intermediaries between the material and spirit worlds.

We can excuse Amsterdam and Omar for not using the correct term. But if you listen with the captions on, as I do, you see that the show itself calls the woman a shaman:

"Shaman: In all of time, there is only one person you were meant to be with. We feel this. We know it. But we do not know how to find the one."

That all medicine men and healers are shamans is a common Native stereotype.

Tormented or not?
Amsterdam continues explaining the situation to Omar:

"This is a good thing.

"I've been waiting centuries for this. If I can find her, it'll all have value. Time...will have value."

This raises a bit of a question. On the one hand, Amsterdam seems well-adjusted, upbeat, even happy. He has a fulfilling job, hobbies, friends and lovers. On the other hand, he's desperate to find his soulmate. Until he does, he implies his life has been meaningless.

As one who hasn't found his soulmate, I'd say there's more to life than love. If my choice were eternal life without love or death with love, I'd probably go for the former. People such as Jesus and Buddha went through life without finding true love. Were their lives meaningless?

True, Amsterdam might choose differently from me. But at least he should consider the alternatives. That the show glosses over this profound philosophical question is a weakness.

Strange blood
Amsterdam has a heart attack when his soulmate brushes by. He's taken to a hospital where he apparently dies. The doctor discusses his case:

"Check out this blood type. It's a rare form of RZRZ.

"It became extinct when certain Native American tribes disappeared."

Is she saying he has Native DNA in his blood? Is that how the healer's spell conferred immortality on him? How is that possible since no one gave him any blood?

It's silly to imply Native blood has some sort of magical properties. (If it does, give me a blood transfusion...stat!) The show's premise is already implausible enough without trying to give it a pseudo-scientific basis that doesn't make sense.

The unsinkable Amsterdam
Another problem: Not only is Amsterdam immortal, he's unkillable. He says he's been shot strangled, poisoned, and beaten, he says, with no permanent effect. His great-grandson asks a obvious question: What if someone cut your head off? Amsterdam replies that no one's tried that yet.

On this point, the kid is smarter than Amsterdam—or the show's writers. What if Amsterdam cut off an arm and let himself bleed to death? Would another arm magically grow back? What if he jumped off a building or under a train and pulped his body? Would it restore itself? If the writers have answered these questions, even among themselves, it isn't obvious.

This unkillable trait is unnecessary to make the premise work. It raises a host of related questions. Why shouldn't Amsterdam confront any crook with a gun or knife if he knows he can't die? He could act suicidally every time and still come out on top. Speaking of suicide, if he's tired of waiting for his soulmate, has he ever tried to kill himself? How?

Final oops
The first episode hadn't made any major gaffes. Then it showed one more flashback: to Amsterdam's recovery from the spell. He awakens to find himself surrounded by teepees.

Oops. Major stereotype alert! How ignorant do you have to be to think Manhattan's Indians lived in teepees? A child could've pointed out this mistake to the show's creators.

The second episode doesn't include Indians. Presumably they played their part and are now gone. But episode 2 is worth discussing because it deepens the show's premise and raises some new questions.

The ethics of love
Apparently Amsterdam keeps in touch with the children he sires. They help him keep his secret as they age and he doesn't. This is plausible. Amsterdam's children would learn his secret as they grew up with him. They'd love him unconditionally and want to help him.

What the show doesn't address (at least so far) is what happens to the mothers. Amsterdam supposedly has married many times. How many women want to grow old while their husbands stay young? Isn't this subjecting them to cruel and unusual punishment?

Even if most women love Amsterdam enough to die for him, you only need one to feel differently. If one woman resents Amsterdam's immortality and can't stand it anymore, she can reveal his secret to the authorities. Then he becomes a pariah, an inmate, or a lab specimen—I'm not sure which.

In episode 2, he meets a woman who he loved earlier and then left. She remembers him and seems haunted by the abandonment. His response is the equivalent of a shrug. He may have ruined this woman's life, but he hasn't given her a second thought.

Point is that it's foolish of Amsterdam to enter into "relationships." If he can't resist his sexual or emotional urges, he should keep things casual. At most he should limit himself to, I dunno, five years with anyone.

And how about getting a vasectomy, fella? Does the world really need hundreds or thousands of your descendants? How many times did you have to leave them to grow up fatherless and troubled or scarred?

Resemblance to Life
As one viewer (Russell Bates) noted, New Amsterdam resembles NBC's Life. You have a cop with a quirky take on things who utters unfathomable comments and has a secret life. His partner is a cool, cynical, and all-business Latina. The crimes are perfunctory crimes—it's easy to guess who the criminal is. The show is really about the character.

The interesting thing is how Amsterdam uses his knowledge of the past and what he's learned over centuries. As the second episode proves, the heart of the show is exploring Amsterdam's relationship with people from past—as in a good time-travel story. New Amsterdam should focus on that rather than the crimes.

In fact, I'd suggest giving Amsterdam a new job—as a reporter. His beat is uncovering old stories of New York City. Because he goes everywhere, he gets into conflicts with a cop who investigates crimes. So there's still plenty of opportunity for cops-and-robbers danger.

The crime in the first episode involved an old hotel. It could've been all about the old hotel—about keeping it from being torn down. Amsterdam would've probed its secrets and found the real reason the owner didn't want the hotel. Perhaps he buried a body there 80 years ago.

Oh, well...too late now. Or maybe not. If the show lasts, Amsterdam could take a new job every season. That would keep things fresh. Trust me and make him a journalistic sleuth rather than a law-enforcement sleuth. It's a better approach.

More on New Amsterdam
Excerpts from New Amsterdam
Indian spell creates immortal cop

Related links
TV shows featuring Indians

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2008 by Robert Schmidt.

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