Sunday, October 16, 2016

Halt and Catch Fire takes another huge leap in its stunning third season

Back when Halt and Catch Fire arrived in 2014, many critics cited Mad Men as a clear influence and criticized the show for not coming close to that mark.  Whether or not that comparison was accurate in the first place, it's ironic that after the show's beautiful, riveting third season it's clear Halt is the heir apparent to Mad Men.  And it's not just the fact that both are period workplace dramas.  It's because no other show has that distinct spark that Mad Men did, where it could be warm, funny, intense, and heartbreaking all at the same time.  (The Americans, for example, is another one of the best shows on TV, but while it has nuance and subtlety to its writing, it's not exactly a "fun" show.)  When I see these characters interact, with all of their history and flaws and complexities laid out there on the table, I can't help but be reminded of Mad Men.

And yes, Halt and Catch Fire is excellent as a workplace drama as well.  Because it doesn't have death and violence to fall back on the way other dramas do, it has to rely on making the simple act of work thrilling, which it does with great skill.  The show, and its third season especially, focuses on ideas and the value that its characters place on those ideas.  To watch Halt and Catch Fire is to watch a show about smart, capable people with strong notions navigate the conflicts that arise when their vision clashes with the visions of others.

No relationship displays that thesis better than the one between Donna and Cameron.  Part of the reason why the show made such a leap in quality from season one to season two was because of the pivot that made Donna and Cameron the quasi lead characters.  Watching these different but ultimately complimentary people come together and develop a powerful bond over the course of last season was such a joy to behold.  Somehow, season three was just as big of a leap in quality, primarily because the Donna and Cameron relationship as well.  If season two gave the fans what they wanted by bringing them together, season three was crushing in the way that it slowly drove them apart.

It all started when they had to take in a new duo to bring Swap Meet to life, where Mutiny users could complete monetary transactions with other users.  Cameron wanted to fire the guys shortly after they joined but Donna, fearing that it was a rash and unwise decision, crafted a lie to make Cameron believe that their new benefactor Diane (Annabeth Gish) wouldn't allow the firing.  This decision was the catalyst for the slow motion car crash of fights, resentments, and maneuvering that occurred in the second half of the season.  It didn't truly set in with me how excellently the writers constructed this conflict until I read people debating about it in comment sections.  The more I read, the less consensus there was on who was in the right.  That's because the story allowed for both parties to be equally right and wrong.  Cameron can often act like a petulant, self-centered child, but Donna has a habit of making decisions for others and justifying it under the guise of well-meaning paternalism.  Each viewer may have their preference -- I'm generally more Team Donna -- but that doesn't take away from the fact that this is one of the most even-handed and compelling television conflicts in a long time.

The Donna and Cameron schism is a microcosmic version of what makes Halt and Catch Fire so engaging: it's about ultimately good people trying to do their best.  In the vein of great, humane dramas like Parenthood and Friday Night Lights, nobody on this show is trying to deliberately hurt anyone, it's just that their wants and needs don't always mesh with others'.  Cameron just wants her creation to remain pure and uncompromised and Donna just wants to be recognized as a talented and vital part of Mutiny in her own right.  Both are doing what they think is right for the company, which makes their inability to reconcile those differences all the more devastating.

Halt delivered the emotional death blow in its two-hour finale on Tuesday.  This is a show that has always been willing to take radical turns, from making Donna and Cameron the main characters to transporting the whole gang to Silicon Valley for season three.  The finale was no different, as the first hour quickly revealed that the show had leapt four years ahead to 1990.  Having been scattered to the winds after we last saw them in 1986, the core four are brought back together when Donna presents an idea for what would be the beginning stages of the world wide web.  It's an exciting finale for a number of reasons, partly because it's so nice to see Joe, Gordon, Cameron, and Donna bounce ideas of each other.  But it's mostly satisfying because it finally brings Cameron and Donna together to make amends and work with each other again.  Or at least it appears, until Cameron utters a devastating five-word gutpunch -- "I can't work with you" -- after Donna offhandedly mentions that they can get rid of Joe if that would make Cameron happier.

The season leaves us with Donna walking away from the group and leaving Joe, Gordon, and Cameron to run with the world wide web idea.  For anyone who has grown to love these people and want nothing more for them to get along, it's a depressing ending.  Up until very recently, it wasn't certain whether Halt and Catch Fire would be back for another season.  Despite the growing fervor for the show from the critical community, the ratings are horrible.  Thankfully, the show's renewal for a fourth and final season was announced shortly before the finale, because I wouldn't have been able to live with leaving on the note season three ends on.  If you would have told me two years ago I wouldn't have believed it, but Halt and Catch Fire has become an astonishing, essential show.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Pilot Talk 2016: Week 5 of Fall's TV Pilots

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

American Housewife (ABC, Tuesdays at 8:30 PM)
Yikes.  Formerly known as The Second Fattest Housewife in Westport -- although with the amount of times that phrase is uttered  in the pilot, they might as well have kept that name -- American Housewife feels like flat soda comedy.  You can kind of recognize a version of this show that's much better, but everything about its current incarnation feels off.  There's a causticness to main character Katie (Katy Mixon) and her quest to not fall too far down the social ladder in her upper crust suburb, but there's no voice or point of view to it.  I'm an eternal optimist and I was planning to stick with this show no matter what, given the fact that creator Sarah Dunn is a Bunheads alum and I've liked Katy Mixon in the past, but this was so bad I can't continue watching.  Where were the laughs in this pilot?
Grade: C-

Divorce (HBO, Sundays at 10:00 PM)
Sharon Horgan has already showed that she knows her way around the ins and outs of marriage with her and Rob Delaney's hilarious and sweet comedy Catastrophe.  In her new HBO show Divorce, it looks like she's trying her hand at fast forwarding things a bit, examining the dissolution of the marriage between Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her husband Robert (Thomas Haden Church).  The pilot has a healthy dose of funny moments, largely from the same kind of acerbic dialogue that Horgan does so well on Catastraphe, but it feels a little too flabby and airless as a whole.  Part of that comes from the fact that it's hard to be too invested in the end of a relationship when we're introduced to it at the point right before it all crumbles.  Still, the final moments indicate that we're in for some delicious, acidic material, not just a story about a post-divorce self-discovery.  I would expect nothing less from Horgan.
Grade: B

Insecure (HBO, Sundays at 10:30 PM)
This has been a great fall for unapologetically black TV.  In just a span of a few weeks, we've gotten Atlanta, Queen Sugar, and Luke Cage -- shows that aren't afraid to exist outside of white spaces, offering a perspective on the experience of being black in America in ways that we rarely see.  HBO's newest comedy Insecure, partially based on creator Issa Rae's web series Awkward Black Girl, is another example of this refreshing trend.  In some ways, it's in line with the bounty of slice of life comedies that this television age has given us.  Much of first episode "Insecure As Fuck" centers around Issa and her best friend Molly, as they navigate the choppy waters of their professional and romantic lives.  But Insecure is also a slice from a completely different pie, and the new ingredients and flavors it brings are what make it special.  There's a livewire, offbeat sense of humor to the writing by Rae and co-writer/executive producer Larry Wilmore.  When it comes to the more dramatic and thoughtful moments, the show handles those deftly as well, examining the nuance of what it means to be an educated black woman in 2016.  HBO has been an embarrassingly white network in the past, so hopefully quality programming like this will represent a sea change for them.
Grade: B+

Friday, October 7, 2016

Pilot Talk 2016: Week 4 of Fall's TV Pilots

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Conviction (ABC, Mondays at 10:00 PM)
Hayley Atwell is above Conviction. She's got endless charm and charisma, none of which she gets to use in this show. She's got a fantastic British accent, which she doesn't get to use in this show. She's just an all-around great actor, but you wouldn't know it from this show. Really, the only thing Conviction seems to know is that Hayley Atwell has large breasts. In this stinker, she plays the daughter of a former US president who now leads the Conviction Integrity Unit, a group of lawyers, detectives, and forensics experts who help wrongly accused individuals. If that sounds too convoluted, then don't worry, the fact that she's a former First Daughter plays no role in this pilot. Conviction comes off like it's trying to emulate the slick, stylish tone of a Shonda Rhimes show, but it doesn't realize that for all their flaws, Shonda shows are never as boring and straightforward as this is. Let's hope this sucker gets cancelled quickly so Hayley Atwell can move on to better things.
Grade: C-

Frequency (CW, Wednesdays at 9:00 PM)
It's a little weird to have made Frequency into a TV show.  If its plot, about a woman (Peyton List -- no, the other one) communicates with her dead father 20 years in the past via an old ham radio, feels like it's better suited for a movie, that's because it already was one in 2000.  Weirder still is that it's on The CW, since it doesn't quite fall on either side of the genre show (Arrow, The Vampire Diaries) or offbeat dramedy (Jane the Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) binary.  But either way, I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed this pilot.  Bolstered by a terrific, assured performance from List, the moments of Raimy Sullivan interacting with her father will tug even the stiffest heartstrings.  And the idea that Raimy knowing the details of her father's murder allows her to try to help him avoid it is an interesting setup.  However, somewhere around the halfway point the strong legs holding the show up begin to buckle, as the episode wanders away from that central idea and goes wild with its butterfly effect ramifications.  There's still a chance that the show could turn itself back around, but low ratings for the premiere indicate it won't have much time to do so.
Grade: B-

No Tomorrow (CW, Tuesdays at 9:00 PM)
Between Jane the Virgin two years ago and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend last year, the CW is on a hot streak with their non-genre shows, so No Tomorrow has alot to live up to.  It doesn't quite meet that high bar, at least not yet.  Tori Anderson is a little bland as Evie, a woman who decides to make an "apocalist" when her path crosses with a man who genuinely believes the world is going to end in about 8 months.  And despite that corker of a premise, it doesn't feel as special or stylistically unique as Jane or Crazy-Ex.  Still, it's got a breezy zaniness to it that's very charming.  Creator Corinne Brinkerhoff used to write for Jane the Virgin and she brings some her sensibilities to the pilot's handful of very funny gags, including one involving Evie's milquetoast ex-boyfriend who speaks so softly his dialogue occasionally has to be subtitled.  (Another one including a pogo stick is too hilarious to spoil.)  This grew on me more and more as it went along.  Let's hope the whole show has the same trajectory.
Grade: B

Timeless (NBC, Mondays at 10:00 PM)
NBC's Timeless is deeply silly stuff.  This is a show where a team consisting of a historian (Abigail Spencer), a soldier (Matt Lanter), and a scientist (Malcolm Barrett) use a time machine to attempt to stop a criminal with another time machine who's hopping around the space-time continuum trying to change American history.  Luckily, the show is in good enough hands -- Shawn Ryan (The Shield, Terriers) and Eric Kripke (Supernatural) are co-creators, while Neil Marshall directed the pilot -- that it moves along at a rapid enough speed that you just kind of go with it.  There's a flailing, hurried quality to everything in the show, which is both a good and bad quality.  Mostly though, the pilot is a fun time, despite how daffy and convoluted it all is.  One of the most interesting things Ryan and Kripke have said is that they don't plan on getting bogged down in serialization, preferring to have the episodes function mostly as time-travel-of-the-week standalones.  Refreshing, if true, but judging from what we've seen so far, I'm skeptical of whether they can keep that promise.
Grade: B

Westworld (HBO, Sundays at 9:00 PM)
On paper, Westworld seemed like a sure bet all the way: big budget, airing on HBO, co-created by Jonathan Nolan, an absolutely stacked cast.  But things seemed dicey for a while as word of production issues got out and the show was delayed over and over.  I really wanted this to be good and I'm relieved to report, at least for now, that I'm very happy with it.  Based on the 1973 film of the same name penned by Michael Crichton, Westworld tells the story of a futuristic theme park where guests pay large sums of money to inhabit a world populated by extremely lifelike androids called "Hosts" and play out the numerous scenarios that have been programmed for them.  Nolan is right in his wheelhouse here.  He loves the kind of twisty puzzle box plotting that's on display, and the pilot proceeds with an elegance and grace of someone who is right at home with the material.  The episode constantly upends itself, veering away from expectations and pulling out to reveal another layer folded around what we previously knew the story to be.

"The Original" leaves the viewer with alot of questions, but not the frustrating kind.  It's the kind that indicates the show has set up an interesting world and dramatic blueprint that fosters that specific questioning.  And the episode doesn't just raise questions about its mysteries, it probes the audience with questions about what it means to be human.  If we create beings and only select the attributes we want from humanity, is it inevitable that they'll also develop the attributes we don't want?  Is committing violence upon the Hosts truly harmless?  Where do we draw the line between human and inhuman?  These are the things Westworld is truly interested in.

I also love how the process of maintaining Westworld the theme park feels alot like the process of running a TV show.  It's not a coincidence that the scientists overseeing the park make so much mention of "characters" and "storylines."  It's a delicate balance, just like television.  So many moving and interlocking parts -- if one thing goes wrong, everything is thrown out of whack.  There's a great moment where one of the programmers who writes the Hosts' dialogue is excited to see a new speech he created for a character, but then one of the visitors shoots him before he can deliver it.  It feels alot like a writer getting his or her favorite lines cut in the showrunner's final pass at the script. There are even more overt nods too, as Evan Rachel Wood's Host character gets described by a scientist as "a hooker with hidden depths."  How many times have we heard that archetype, even on HBO?

If there's one complaint so far it's that the story feels a little too on rails, much like the Hosts who unknowingly play out the same arcs over and over.  That's the flipside of Nolan's careful precision -- you can time the moments where things slowly being to go wrong to a tee, which can make it all feel slightly soulless.  Still, this was an exciting and suitably creepy hour-plus of television.  More than pretty much any other new show this year, I'm excited to see where this one goes.
Grade: B+

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The creators of Jules and Monty strike gold again with Pantheon University

Two years ago, I wrote about Jules and Monty, a web series created by Tufts University drama students Ed Rosini and Imogen Browder along with help from many of their friends in the theater department.  Jumping off of the craze at the time of people making YouTube adaptations of literary works, they wrote a modern take on Romeo and Juliet, but set in college and formatted as a series of vlogs.  If you haven't watched it yet, do so immediately because it's an absolute joy and the tragic ending haunted me for at least a week after finishing it.  What awed me the most about Jules and Monty was here were these college students only a year or two younger than me making an adaptation that was better than similar web series with 10 times the budget.  It was enough to make me think, "I'll watch anything these people create until the end of time."

Which is what I did when they released their follow-up the next year, a series called Wave Jacked about a group of students who band together to try to put on an old-time radio play on their college's premiere station.  Rosini, Browder, and their Neat-O Productions group could've tried to keep reliving the magic of Jules and Monty over and over, but this was a refreshing departure in many ways.  For one, it was an original work instead of an adaptation, and it wasn't done in vlog format.  But it was also such an odd, unclassifiable little story, blending gentle comedy with surreal elements with semi-spooky noir.  Judging from the view count for the series, it's not as beloved as Jules and Monty, and I still prefer the latter as well, but it's hard not to be taken by the sprawling charm of Wave Jacked.  There's a unique sense of life in the series, and you can tell it was a personal work for the creators.  (You could almost read the story, which is about a bunch of college kids scraping their resources together to put on a show, as a meta-commentary on Rosini and Browder's creative pursuits.)

Earlier this year they announced Pantheon University, their final project together, as most of the crew involved with producing these series were in their final year of college.  Pantheon would be a return to adaptations in a way, but for this series they were reimagining Greek gods and goddesses, and the myths surrounding them, in a modern college setting.  This time around they seized a different trend, the method of releasing all 13 episodes at once, like many shows that premiere on streaming services.  But they added an extra wrinkle: aside from the finale, the episodes were designed so they could be watched in any order (though there is a recommended sequence, which is how I watched it).  Despite the fact that all of this sounded extremely exciting to me and I loved their previous work, I didn't immediately watch it when it was released in April.  Maybe it's because I knew this was going to be the last series from this group of people and I didn't want to say goodbye.  Maybe it's because I'm horrible at watching things when every episode is presented to me at once.  But either way, the tab stayed on my browser for months while I constantly told myself, "I'll get to it soon."

Well I finally made good on my promise to myself and checked out Pantheon University, and I'm happy to report that it's Neat-O Productions' most complex, intelligent, and creative work yet.  Unlike Romeo and Juliet, there's not one concrete story to Greek mythology, which allows them to pick and choose from an array of characters and tales.  As a result, they're able to get more ambitious and freewheeling with their storytelling.  And that sense of playfulness takes the series to interesting places structurally as well.  The idea that these little short stories can be watched in any order gives Pantheon University a wild, massive feeling.  There are references to events that make more sense a few episodes later, subtle arcs that build in the cracks and corners of the story, and an expanding and shrinking sense of time.  After watching the series all the way through once or twice, you can map out the sequential order of every single thing that happens if you truly want to, but it also works if you think of the show as a fascinating Mobius strip where all the events just occur freely and the timeline bends back on itself.

There's such an astonishing breadth to Pantheon when taken as a whole.  Though there is a throughline to the story, each episode functions so well as its own discrete short story with varying themes and filmmaking styles.  There's an episode that's shot as a simulated unbroken take, a choose-your-own-adventure episode, a mockumentary episode, a musical episode, and so much more.  And they're not just stylistic switch-ups for the sake of stylistic switch-ups -- the form always matches the content for each character.

I'm also impressed by the clever ways in which the series translates these characters to a real-world, modern context.  Some the choices feel like a natural extension of what we know about these gods and goddesses (Zeus is the president of the college's most popular frat, Ares is a hothead), but many of them take an extra step that at once seems fresh and logical (Aphrodite runs a campus hookup site, Hades' underworld takes the form of the university's underground radio station).  Best of all, these stories are able to maintain Greek mythology's overarching theme of gods meddling in the lives of others' because it makes sense that a group of young people in the same social circles would be this invested in what's going on with the people around them.

If you're not an expert on Greek myths, don't fret.  I was a little bit rusty too.  (Though if you're like me, watching these episodes will cause you to read through the Wikipedia pages of each of these gods and goddesses.)  These stories work because they're compelling, not just because they're riffing on ancient myths.  Take the Aphrodite episode for example, which tells the story of her romance with Ares.  In this episode, we're introduced to Cupid's Bow, the algorithm-based hookup site that Aphrodite runs to help her peers find someone to have sex with.  In voiceover narration, she describes the rules she and the site live by: no romance, no repeat matchups, and the use of protection is mandatory.  When she begins using Cupid's Bow for her own purposes, she finds herself increasingly drawn to Ares.  Despite the surface differences between the two of them, along with the ethical gray area of her rigging her own system to get repeatedly matched with the same person, Aphrodite and Ares fit together.  It's a fascinating angle from which to approach this story.  This is a woman who lives by a code, and watching her reckon with something that causes her to question her convictions is really interesting stuff.

Of course, knowing more about these myths enriches the experience.  The Hades episode is perhaps the best example of this.  It's a re-telling of the story of Orpheus' trip to the underworld to save Eurydice, but it also touches upon Hades' relationship with Persephone, mirroring these two sets of separated lovers.  When I first watched it, my foggy memory caused me to not quite register the myth they were tackling with Orpheus, and I still enjoyed the episode.  But on my second viewing, after I familiarized myself with the story again, I absolutely loved it.  In particular, the way that they handle the end of Orpheus and Eurydice's story in a non-supernatural way almost makes it more moving and resonant than the original version.

All of these semi-standalone stories culminate in a satisfying finale that displays an excellent control on the scope of the series, wrapping up every character's arc beautifully.  That cumulative power of the series is really overwhelming once you take a step back and get the full view of this mosaic of complex, soulful little narratives.  Jules and Monty might be Neat-O Productions' most famous work, but Pantheon University should be the one they're most proud of. 

Both Jules and Monty and Wave Jacked had a series of "Vlog Vlog"s, which is what they called their behind-the-scenes production videos, to go along with the actual episodes.  They were funny, entertaining, informative, and in my opinion, essential viewing.  So it makes me a little sad that there aren't any for Pantheon University (although they promised it would happen, so maybe one day? Please???).  It makes me even more sad that this is the last series we will see from Browder, Rosini and the rest of the gang, but what a high note to go out on.

Highlight episodes
1. Dionysus
This episode centers around Dionysus, a director in the drama department, as he struggles to concoct his magnum opus.  A perfect example of form matching content, the installment is told in the style of a musical and it's absolutely delightful.  This is the episode that really made me sit up and recognize the brilliance of the series.  It's incredibly funny, the songs are catchy, but it's also a dreamy, thoughtful rumination on the creative process.  If you watch Pantheon University in the recommended order, then this episode arrives at about halfway through the series, which is the perfect placement for it.  It's the one that has least amount of impact on the overall plot of the story and yet it deftly comments on everything we've seen or will see in the other episodes.  You can tell everyone involved put everything they had into this episode.

2. Hera
In my Jules and Monty review a couple of years ago, I mentioned Imogen Browder's excellent performance as Juliet as the highlight of the series, and she once again delivers as Hera.  She's just an amazing talent, bringing a sense of life and reality to a character who could've been painted in much simpler terms.  This episode depicts the complexities of Zeus and Hera's long-term relationship, tracking their meeting in freshman year all the way up to the events that occur in Zeus' episode in their senior year.  Compressing such a long passage of time allows you to see all the rhythms and phases of long-term coupledom right next to each other, from the initial stages of bliss, to the rough patches, to the sustained sense of comfort.  And it's not just the acting that carries the episode -- there's a skillfulness and subtlety to the writing that shows the way that Hera has been defined by her relationship with Zeus ("I don't know what college is like without him," she says at one point) while still making her a three-dimensional character.

3. Hephaestus
This episode features alot of classic story ideas thrown into a blender together in a way that I've never really seen before.  Part of it is a sci-fi story in the vein of Ex Machina, about man (in this case, computer programmer Hephaestus) pushing science and technology too far (creating an artificial intelligence program and trying to trick others into thinking it's human).  There's also a little bit of something like You've Got Mail as it tells a story about the budding friendship between Hephaestus and Hera.  It's a charming and sweet episode that also has a nice tinge of melancholy to it.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Pilot Talk 2016: Week 3 of Fall's TV Pilots

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Bull (CBS, Tuesdays at 9:00 PM)
I hope you weren't fooled by the two A- grades that were dished out in the first week.  The new network shows are here in full force and that's when Pilot Talk truly kicks in, baby!  And boy does it ever with Bull, one of CBS' latest gussied up procedurals about a firm that uses pseudoscience to calculate the outcomes of trials and help their clients win cases.  Like Rake and House and many more before it, Bull is one of the shows that focuses on the titular man (in this case, Dr. Jason Bull) whose strong personality provides the gravitational force for everything that proceeds.  Unfortunately, the character and the actor who plays him (Michael Weatherly) are the absolute worst.  Every line is said with a cocked eyebrow, like he's fighting the urge to look at the camera and wink.  As a whole, the show is so self-satisfied, from its flat quips to the tech talk that sounds like it was written by your dad.  Bull tries to exude cool, but at every turn it comes off like a phony.
Grade: D+

Designated Survivor (ABC, Wednesdays at 10:00 PM)
All of the promos made Designated Survivor out to be one of those shows that bursts out of the gate in the first episode, but then proceeds to fall apart afterwards.  So it's not a good sign that even the pilot wasn't as exciting as I thought it would be.  That's not to say it's all bad.  In fact, there's quite a bit to like about this episode, which centers on the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (Keifer Sutherland) who must rise to the occasion when a bombing at the Capitol kills the President and the rest of the Cabinet, leaving him as the next in the line of succession.  It does a great job of placing you in Secretary Kirkman's shoes, as we're often shown the chaos of these events from his direct POV.  You can always count on Keifer Sutherland to deliver gravitas, and he undeniably carries the show, especially later in the episode when his character reveals himself to be better suited for the job than many would've thought.  Still, I couldn't shake the feeling that this was just a little too soulless.  It was supposed to be propulsive, but it just seemed to be incapable of reaching top speed.
Grade: B-

The Exorcist (Fox, Fridays at 9:00 PM)
The growing trend seems to be TV studios just throwing darts at random popular films and deciding to make a show out of them.  It hasn't been overwhelmingly successful, but maybe Fox's hope is that they'll land on something with a reinterpretation of the classic William Friedkin horror film The Exorcist.  The show follows Father Tomas (Alfonso Herrera), a priest who has been having dreams featuring a mysterious man (Ben Daniels) performing some kind of exorcism on a boy who seems possessed.  When Angela Rance (Geena Davis), one of his parishioners, reaches out to him about mysterious disturbances occurring at her house since her eldest daughter returned home from college, he decides to try to find this man and enlist his help.  Tomas isn't very interesting so far, but all of the scenes focusing on the Rance family are quite compelling.  The pilot sets up an interesting dynamic that mirrors the original film's, where you're unsure whether Katherine, who took leave from school after her friend died in an accident, is acting strange out of grief or some sort of possession.  There's a grim, moody patience that the episode moves along with, which helps scenes build tension.  It also contains some surprises that have me hopeful that it could take a step up in quality.
Grade: B

The Good Place (NBC, Thursdays at 8:30 PM)
This pilot begins with Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) waking up in an unfamiliar location with no memory of how she got there.  A man then explains that she's died and is in  The Good Place, an afterlife haven where only the select few who lived the most virtuous lives can spend eternity.  But here's the thing: there was a mix-up and Eleanor is actually an awful person who doesn't belong there.  That's a high concept for a comedy that other writers might crumble under.  However, the great Mike Schur (who brings along many of his Parks & Recreation writers) is just the guy for the job, and he handles that setup as well as you can imagine.  The first episode can get a little heavy on the info-dumping, as the logic and rules of The Good Place get established, but it still manages to be funny and brisk throughout .  And it helps that the show is led by Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, who are inveterate delights.  Bell's post-Veronica Mars career hasn't been as artistically promising as it should have been, but her work here reminds you just how terrific she is.

If a show about a bad person feels odd for Mike Schur, then it'll make sense when it quickly reveals itself to be about a bad person learning to be good.  There's no learning needed for The Good Place itself though; this one is doing all the right things already.  It's laying out some interesting ideas about the way the afterlife works, it has already taken some wacky turns, and it has given some nice texture to Eleanor.  Things can only go up from here.
Grade: B+

Kevin Can Wait (CBS, Mondays at 8:00 PM)
Poor Erinn Hayes.  She was absolutely hilarious as Dr. Lola Spratt for seven seasons on Childrens Hospital, and she's generally delightful whenever she pops up on a show or in a movie.  I only want the best for her.  Kevin Can Wait, Kevin James' return to CBS, is far from the best.  In this generic sitcom that feels like middle-tier material from the late 90s, James plays a recently retired cop and Hayes is his put-upon wife.  I'd tell you more about show, but you can probably accurately guess the other ingredients with a small margin of error.  There are three kids, James' character doesn't approve of his eldest daughter's boyfriend, there's a goofy uncle, and so on.  For the first few minutes, Kevin Can Wait seems pretty harmless.  It's not funny, but it's not offensive either (one of Erinn Hayes' line deliveries even made me smile a little!).  But after a while, that mediocrity begins to pile up and I finally threw my hands up and decided I hated this pilot.
Grade: D+

Lethal Weapon (Fox, Wednesdays at 8:00 PM)
Here's another TV show based on a popular film from more than two decades ago.  This time the dart landed on the buddy cop series Lethal Weapon, which stars Damon Wayans as the "too old for this shit" Roger Murtaugh and Clayne Crawford as the plays-by-his-own-rules Martin Riggs.  Featuring direction from McG and writing from Matt Miller (Chuck, Human Target), the pilot is a slick, fun little jaunt.  The procedural case, involving a man whose murder was made to look like a suicide, is a little generic, but that's to be expected.  What really matter in shows like these are the beats in between the crime-solving, and Lethal Weapon delivers ample flavor in that regard, thanks to Crawford and Wayans' entertaining chemistry.  This is a show I won't be watching weekly because I imagine it will always stay in this gear, but if this is your kind of thing, I highly recommend it.
Grade: B

MacGuyver (CBS, Fridays at 8:00 PM)
Studios aren't just about making shows based on movies, sometimes they make shows based on older shows.  MacGuyver may be a new version of the 1985-1992 series of the same name, but it's not exactly modern.  In fact it seems distinctly targeted towards older people -- it is a CBS show after all -- as it goes through so much trouble to over-explain everything.  Whether its through MacGuyver's (Lucas Till) excessive voiceover narration or the unnecessary chyrons on the screen that explain things like "adhesive tape" and "paper clip" to you.  At least it has a springy vibe to keep things from getting too dull.
Grade: C

Notorious (ABC, Thursdays at 9:00 PM)
What happens when you cross a bad lawyer show with a worse version of The Newsroom?  Well, Notorious is what you get.  I feel sorry for anyone who had to write 800 words about this empty show.
Grade: C-

Pitch (Fox, Thursdays at 9:00 PM)
Critics have been using Friday Night Lights as a point of comparison when talking about this new Fox drama about Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury in a star-making turn), the first woman to play for an MLB team.  And that makes sense in terms of how unrealistic and goofy both can be when getting into the nitty gritty details about their respective sports.  The main character throws 10 straight balls (3 of which are wild pitches) in her first major league start!  Her specialty pitch is a screwball!  Jokes aside, this was a great first episode, one that's in contention for being the best network pilot of the fall.  Dan Fogelman (Galavant, Crazy. Stupid. Love) co-wrote this pilot, and he brings alot of his signature spark and wit to the episode.  He deconstructs sports narrative cliches -- the rousing motivational speech, the fierce rival, etc. -- but he's also not afraid to embrace its cheesiness.  Some may not be able to stomach the level of cheese this pilot provides, from its schmaltzy flashbacks to its inspirational tone, but those who can will find that it offers unique delights.

And there is a refreshingly low level of antagonism compared to what you'd expect from a show with this premise.  There are some players on the team who are annoyed by the main characters' presence, and one who especially seems to have it out for her, but it doesn't feel like the whole world is against her.  It's that kind of smart decision-making that puts it ahead of many other new shows.  Plus it already has two strong relationships going for it: the tenuous camaraderie between Ginny and her superstar catcher (Mark Paul Gosselaar), along with the intense dynamic with Ginny and her father.  Who knows if Pitch can satisfy as a sports show, but the strength of the character dynamics is what gives it such great potential.
Grade: B+

Speechless (ABC, Wednesdays at 8:30 PM)
ABC has been trying their hand at diversifying their family sitcoms with great results, as it has given us Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, two of the best network comedies on the air.  This time around, they're applying their "it's an ABC family sitcom but _________" formula and putting "with a disabled child" in the blank with Speechless.  And once again, it seems like they've landed on a hit.  The pilot not only differentiates itself by offering an insight into living with a disability -- the title comes from the fact that son J.J. has cerebral palsy that renders him unable to speak -- but it also isn't afraid to be a little cruel.  The DiMeo family has a mean edge to them, but not in the over-the-top way that some family sitcoms go for -- there's still clearly alot of love there.  Though we may not know what it's like to be in a family where someone has a disability, there's a quality to their interactions that feels genuine.  And most importantly, the show is funny.  It spreads the wealth around, giving everyone in the cast, even the kids, an opportunity for comedy.  After watching Kevin Can Wait, it's nice to know I still have the ability to laugh.
Grade: B+

This is Us (NBC, Tuesdays at 10:00 PM)
One of the biggest surprises of becoming an adult is how much I've grown to love goopy, touchy feely dramas.  I've especially been missing Parenthood lately, the best goopy, touchy feely drama there ever was, so NBC's This is Us has arrived right on time.  I was convinced that I loved this sappy, sensitive drama about a set of disparate people seemingly only connected by the fact that it's all of their 36th birthdays in the first few minutes too.  It turns out I was tricked by the fact that Sufjan Stevens' "Should've Known Better" was playing under the early scenes and I just love the song, no the show.  But I do like it, and could end up liking it even more with time.  There are some missteps in this pilot, namely the fact that it defines Kate (Chrissy Metz) solely by the fact that she's overweight and hates it.  Despite that, the first episode works thanks to the sharp writing of Dan Fogelman, who reunites with Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, his collaborators on the very underrated romantic comedy Crazy. Stupid. Love.  By now, you've probably heard about a big twist that the episode ends on, and it's certainly an interesting one.  But this one would be worth sticking with even if it didn't include that extra wrinkle.
Grade: B