Friday, September 27, 2013

Pilot Talk 2013: Week 2 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.

Back in the Game (ABC, Wednesdays at 8:30 PM)
My brother said it best when he saw a promo for Back in the Game, and remarked "this feels like it's more suited to be the plot of a movie."  The thing is, the show will quickly move away from focusing on its premise in the pilot, where we see Maggie Lawson's character start up a little league baseball team comprised of all the kids who were rejected from the rest of the teams in the league.  Until then, we'll probably be stuck with episodes that are as tedious as the pilot is.  The central relationship between Lawson and her father is supposed to be the anchor that keeps everything moored, but their dynamic is way too toothless and squeaky clean to generate any laughs or drama.  The entire rhythm of this show just felt off, wobbling along at its languid, laughless pace.  Overall, Back in the Game feels so confused.  It has all the trappings of a family sitcom, but the pilot is littered with cringeworthy lowbrow humor.  Nevertheless, it's a good fit for ABC's Wednesday comedy block, so I guess that's something.
Grade: C

The Blacklist (NBC, Mondays at 10:00 PM)
The Blacklist is a deeply silly show.  It's a blatant ripoff of Silence of the Lambs, it features James Spader hamming it up all over the place, and there's some really dumb plotting.  Yet it moves along at such a breakneck pace that you don't even notice how much the show is straining credulity at any given moment.  And sure, James Spader is chewing scenery in this pilot, but all of the scenes between him and the also strong Megan Boone are quite fun to watch.  It seems like his character is conveniently best buds with every terrorist on the planet, but you just sort of roll with it because the show does.  And for every bit of bad exposition (like the info dump in the form of a mission briefing), there's some really smart exposition (the self-profiling scene) to balance things out.  Basically, I'm kind of taken aback by how much I enjoyed The Blacklist, even if I was reluctant the whole time I was watching.  It's very stupid, but if it can keep delivering something as thrilling as that incredible highway setpiece in the middle of the episode, I'll stay on for the ride.
Grade: B

The Crazy Ones (CBS, Thursdays at 9:00 PM)
I think I've cracked the Robin Williams Code.  Nobody actually thinks he's funny; he just commits to one of his bits and goes on for so long that eventually audiences come around through the sheer power of attrition.  He's just trying so hard that you get groggy enough to laugh in delirium.  And Robin Williams is working very hard in the pilot of The Crazy Ones, to the point where the show feels completely overwhelmed by his presence.  I didn't enjoy this show, but I laughed at it more than many other comedy pilots because, I don't just sort of wears you down.  It's a shame that Robin Williams derails things with his interminable bits, because the rest of the cast is lined with funny people.  Say what you will about Sarah Michelle Gellar as a dramatic actor, but she's got great comedic timing, and James Wolk is just as game.  I could see a version of this show being a solid comedy if they just dialed down the Robin Williams factor, but I doubt that'll happen.
Grade: C+

The Goldbergs (ABC, Tuesdays at 9:00 PM)
Hey, did you know that The Goldbergs is set in the 1980s?  If you didn't, you'd quickly be reminded of it in the first few minutes.  And then the next few minutes after that.  And the next few minutes after that.  There isn't really much else to the show than the fact that it tosses out references REO Speedwagon, Flava Flav, jean jackets, Back to the Future, and everything else that signifies the decade.  Perhaps the show pushes its "HEY LOOK AT THE 80s" message because even it knows that it's so bland, there's nothing else there to talk about.  There's a family at the center of it all, but they're all archetypes -- the nerdy kid, the wacky mom, the hard-nosed dad.  Yet the one character who feels the least like an archetype, the older brother, is also the one who induces the most groans in the pilot.  Oh, and did I mention that this show is set in the 1980s?
Grade: C-

Hostages (CBS, Mondays at 10:00 PM)
Like The Blacklist, its night and timeslot competitor on NBC, Hostages is a deeply silly show.  The problem is that it doesn't embrace its silliness at all.  Where The Blacklist zealously bathes in the pulpiness of its premise, Hostages tries to take the idea of a surgeon (Toni Collette) being forced to lethally botch a surgery on the president of the United States seriously.  With that premise, you wouldn't think that the show could be boring, even if it was terrible, but Hostages is absolutely somnolent.  Much of the episode takes place in Collette's house, where her and her family are being held hostage, and it's supposed to be tense, but it ends up being listless and enervating.  And I haven't even mentioned Dylan McDermott, who's giving a performance worthy of his work on American Horror Story in terms of its awfulness.  Or the bad dialogue, like a woman being told "you're a 10, honey."  It's not even very coherently edited either.  This show is just kind of a mess -- a soporific mess.
Grade: D+

Lucky 7 (ABC, Tuesdays at 10:00 PM)
This pilot could've been an interesting exploration of the lower-middle class and what they do to get by, and then once they win the lottery, it could transition into telling a story about these same people adjusting to their newfound wealth and realizing that it's not enough to fill the holes that existed within them.  Lucky 7 is decidedly not that, and unfortunately it trades in what could've been a quiet and nuanced show for full-on melodrama.  But I don't want to critique what the show could've been, let's talk about the show we got.  My main gripe is that it just doesn't earn any of its emotion.  We don't get enough definition from these characters to be invested in what winning the lottery means to them.  There's a scene near the end of the episode where one of the characters has a teary breakdown, but who is this person and why are we supposed to care?  It tries to sell you on the idea that these people who just work at a gas station together are like a family, and it doesn't work at all.  I really wanted to like this one because of its premise, and there are moments that make me want to watch the second episode, but not enough to make me actually do it.
Grade: C+

The Michael J. Fox Show (NBC, Thursdays at 9:30 PM)
The Michael J. Fox Show serves as a bit of a meta-narrative for Michael J. Fox's real life story -- it's about a beloved, award winning actor returning to TV after being diagnosed with a debilitating disease.  Lest we misunderstand the motives behind the show, Fox's character quickly comments on the fact that he's returning because he wants to work, not because it would make a inspirational puff piece.  And the show as a whole combats any suspicions of emotional manipulation by frequently making Fox's character and his Parkinson's the butt of jokes.  Unfortunately, the Parkinson's becomes a double-edged sword -- it gives the show a strong focus and point of view, but the pilot leans far too heavily on it as a source of comedy.  Maybe they just need to get it out of their system in the first few episodes before they move away from relying on it, but for now it's pretty tiresome.  The biggest problem, however, is the thing that is plaguing many of the new comedies this year -- it isn't very funny.  Really, only the always entertaining Wendell Pierce generates any laughs in the first episode.  Luckily, the cast is strong enough that even when the script isn't making you laugh, the actors work to at least make you smile.  Plus, the whole thing goes down pretty easily, which is more than I can say about some of these other pilots.
Grade: B-

Mom (CBS, Mondays at 9:30 PM)
People always talk about Anna Faris' underutilized talent, and now that she's the lead of a multi-cam sitcom, it seems crazy that the world was trying to make her a movie star when this is the perfect medium for her strengths.  She's got this big theatricality to her, and it's basically engineered for the format, which is almost like a stage play.  Couple that with Allison Janney, who plays the mother with whom she has a strained relationship, and what you've got is a show that's much better than its Chuck Lorre Productions pedigree would lead you to believe.  Faris and Janney sell the material, but the reason why the comedy works is because much of it comes from a real emotional place: resentment, struggle, and disappointment.  The pilot deftly hides exposition in conflict, and the fraught relationship between Faris and Janney really centers everything.  It's a multi-cam sitcom, so of course it feels the need to underline things a little more than I'd like, but I came away from it quite surprised.
Grade: B

Trophy Wife (ABC, Tuesdays at 9:30)
The Trophy Wife premiere is very much a premise pilot -- relying heavily on narration to start off the episode -- but it sets things up very economically.  It's also another show that proves that it's much easier to make a funny show when you've got a great cast.  Malin Ackerman may be known by many as "that horrible actress from Watchmen" but anybody who's seen Adult Swim's Childrens Hospital knows that she's got incredible comedic chops.  She's very good at displaying daft charm, and that comes into play when she has do a huge physical gag in the middle of the episode that ends up being the biggest laugh of the pilot.  The kid actors are also surprisingly tolerable, mostly because they stay out of the way, although I'm not sure about the youngest one yet (who gives me Manny from Modern Family vibes -- not a good thing).  If there's one quibble to make, it's that the show feels a little overstuffed, introducing not one, but two ex-wives of Ackerman's husband (played by Bradley Whitford) to deal with.  Regardless, there's alot of upside to this, and I can see it becoming one of the major successes of this TV season.  It made me smile alot, which classifies it as a solid episode of comedy, but an even more impressive pilot.
Grade: B+

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