Saturday, October 5, 2013

Pilot Talk 2013: 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.

Betrayal (ABC, Sundays at 10:00 PM)
I strongly considered being unprofessional and having my review of Betrayal just be me saying "Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz."  Boring is my least favorite word to use when criticizing a work of art, but really there's no other way to describe this show.  It's got a very schlocky premise -- think the movie Unfaithful but without Diane Lane -- yet it doesn't play up its trashiness in the way that other ABC shows like Revenge and Scandal get praised for.  Where those two shows would get straight to the point of this story about a woman who unknowingly cheats on her husband with the man he's going up against in a big court case, this show chooses to twiddle its thumbs, endlessly teasing the hookup we all know is coming.  The whole pilot is just so lifeless, and while there have been worse shows this fall, Betrayal was the first one where I strongly considered giving up on it in the middle of the episode.  It heavily relies on cross-cutting -- THE ESSENTIAL FILMMAKING TRICK WHEN TRYING TO GENERATE TENSION -- yet it still just flops around like a dying fish.  And I haven't even gotten around to the clumsy ways in which it tries to incorporate a family crime drama into its romance novel story.  My mom loves this show though.
Grade: D-

Hello Ladies (HBO, Sundays at 10:30 PM)
HBO generally gets more recognition for its dramas, but they really deserve some credit for the interesting choices they make when it comes to their comedies (or in some cases, "comedies").  They've got a surprisingly auteur-driven mentality, taking creators with a very distinct point of view and giving them their own show to channel that voice through.  In recent years, it has resulted in some heavyweights like Lena Dunham's Girls, Mike White's Enlightened, and Armando Ianucci's Veep; but they've also produced more insubstantial shows that wouldn't be able to exist anywhere else, like Christopher Guest's Family Tree.  Of the two categories, Hello Ladies, the new show from the UK Office co-creator Stephen Merchant, falls into the latter.  That's certainly not a bad thing either -- Family Tree is frequently funny and charming, but both shows have a low-key nature that doesn't demand your attention or love.  They also both have a loose structure that guides them along.  Where Family Tree contained the throughline of Chris O'Dowd having awkward interactions with members of his extended family, Hello Ladies seems to be structured around Merchant having awkward encounters with women.  He hasn't lost his knack for crafting some really cringeworthy scenes, and while they generate many of the pilot's biggest laughs, it sometimes gets taken a step too far.  However, the thing that made me decide I was going to come back for more was the other characteristic of his work -- that twinge of melancholy that undercuts every moment.
Grade: B

Ironside (NBC, Wednesdays at 10:00 PM)
I'll say this for the pilot of Ironside: it's surprisingly stylish.  Some of the shots even feel like the creators have taken a page out of their network counterpart, Hannibal's, book.  Unfortunately that's all of the praise I can heap onto the show, which is otherwise generic.  It lays out its exposition in the most conventional ways, as characters stare at pictures of their family so you feel invested in them and flashbacks appear frequently.  There's even a moment where Ironside says, "I'm in this chair but you're the one that's emotionally crippled!!," underlining what the audience is supposed to think of these stock characters.  There's no denying that Blair Underwood is great, but he and this entire show are completely coasting.  It doesn't make much of a case to justify its existence as a remake, much less a TV show at all.
Grade: C

Masters of Sex (Showtime, Sundays at 10:00 PM)
This is one of those pilots that just gets better and better as it goes along.  At first, the show seems to approach Masters and Johnson's revolutionary sex research in the 50s and 60s with a winking archness, getting alot of mileage out of the lack of knowledge that society had about sex in the early going, but it quickly evens out and is quite excellently paced after that.  It's the kind of pilot that has the confidence to wait a whole 16 minutes to put Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan together, and that urge must've been difficult to contain, because every scene with the two of them together is crackling.  It's easy to see how their chemistry could carry the show as it figures out what it wants to do.  However, Masters of Sex might be the most fully-formed pilot I've seen so far.  It's about an hour long but it flies along, and it's all great fun -- much lighter than you'd expect, without being irreverent or cutesy.  Still, it has pretty high-stakes too.  Masters and Johnson's quest to be at the forefront of unexplored scientific terrain while fighting against the conservative constraints of society is a strong conflict to center a show around, and it's very compelling to watch.  Wonderfully directed, acted, and scripted -- Master of Sex has all the makings of one of our next great dramas.
Grade: A-

The Millers (CBS, Wednesdays at 8:30 PM)
The Millers has Greg Garcia, who's created solid comedies like My Name is Earl and Raising Hope, at the helm, so it's got the potential to become something interesting, and it definitely does show some flashes of promise in the pilot.  Margo Martindale's vomiting gag in the middle of the episode is one of those strange things that indicate the show won't just be another run-of-the-mill multi-cam sitcom.  In fact, the entire scene is really funny, and it drew one the biggest belly laughs of this fall season from me.  The extended fart gag later in the episode, though?  Not so funny.  The problem with The Millers is that there's just alot of funny and unfunny fraternizing together, creating a confusing mix of hit-or-miss bits.  I don't like the show, but somehow, it's the one that I'd be the least surprised about if I heard that it became really funny in 13 episodes.
Grade: C+

Sean Saves the World (NBC, Thursdays at 9:00 PM)
This year, every network seems to be trying to capture CBS's magic by venturing into multi-cam sitcoms, and the old-fashioned Sean Saves the World is NBC's attempt.  At the center of it is Will & Grace's Sean Hayes, whose high energy schtick I've always found grating.  He brings a great deal of physicality to the role, but he's more like a sugar-addled kid than Buster Keaton.  There's some supporting players that liven things up, particularly Tom Lennon having fun as the boss from hell and Megan Hilty displaying some pizzazz as one of Sean's coworkers, but they're overshadowed by Hayes' sweaty performance.  The actress who plays Hayes' daughter also has potential, but the show doesn't seem interested enough in the father-daughter dynamic to give it any real weight.  Overall, Sean Saves the World is a bunch of slapstick bits haphazardly thrown together, failing to form a satisfying whole.
Grade: C

Super Fun Night (ABC, Wednesdays at 9:30 PM)
I was predisposed to disliking Super Fun Night from its inception, because I think Rebel Wilson is terribly unfunny, and America's mission to make her a thing is one of the more baffling things going on right now.  It certainly doesn't help that they make her character American, forcing Wilson to take on a really bad accent that barely masks her natural Australian inflection.  The accent distractions and preconceived notions could've been ignored if the show was any good, but it is decidedly not that.  The pilot never really settles into any kind of rhythm, possessing a manic energy one second and completely dragging the next.  It's all just so flabby.  Having everything be about this lead up to the titular "super fun night" should give the episode focus, but it doesn't do much at all.  The scenes in Wilson's workplace just end up feeling limp.  When there are any jokes at all, they're tired and predictable.  Everything culminates in a comedic setpiece where Wilson and her rival duel in karaoke, and it's grating and interminable.  This pilot was just a gigantic misstep at every turn.
Grade: D

We Are Men (CBS, Mondays at 8:30 PM)
We Are Men made me regret wasting my F on Dads.  For as racist and unfunny as Dads was, at least you could get angry at it.  We Are Men, on the other hand, is extremely dull along with being unfunny.  It feels like a relic of 2011, where so many comedies were concerned with the "Mancession" and the reclaiming of masculinity that's never been threatened.  There's a scene in the beginning of this pilot where a camera pans to a bikini-clad woman for no apparent reason, and that's basically the show in a nutshell.  It feels like Entourage for the CBS set, where they still use the word "whore," but its vanilla enough to not push the envelope too much.  But hey, I shouldn't be mad at this show!  After all, it's just about dudes bein' dudes!  Sports!  Women!  Sports!  However, for being so focused on "bro-ing out," the chemistry between the four leads is nigh invisible.  At the time of writing this, it was just announced that ABC's Lucky 7 was the first show of the fall season to be cancelled, but I wouldn't be surprised if this quickly follows it.
Grade: F

Welcome to the Family (NBC, Thursdays at 8:30 PM)
I was fully expecting to find Welcome to the Family insubstantial and unfunny, so I was surprised by how sweet and charming the pilot was.  It's funny straight from the first scene, where it sets up the premise -- two teens from very different families discover that they're going to have a baby together, right as they're graduating high school -- and is peppered with funny lines throughout the episode.  Unfortunately those comedic moments co-exist in a mixture that also includes some very questionable choices and generic elements.  The set-up between the two teens' clashing fathers is a bit contrived and it doesn't ever gain any nuance or, more detrimentally, comedic value.  Yet the cast is so winsome that they elevate even the basest material.  There are enough elements that I don't like about the show that I can see how it could fly off the rails, and the previews for upcoming episodes do nothing to mollify those fears.  On the other hand, there are times where it seems like the writers are really onto something, trying to tell a heartwarming story about how one event can alter carefully constructed life plans and show diametrically opposed people coming to slowly understand one another.  If they can slough off the rough edges, then the writing and the game cast can truly shine.
Grade: B

1 comment:

  1. I've heard comparisons of Masters of Sex to Mad Men (at least as a period piece); haven't watched it yet but I plan to.