Friday, September 26, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: 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.

Black-ish (ABC, Wednesdays at 9:30 PM)
Oh, so this is what a funny pilot looks like.  I was very worried about Black-ish when I heard about it, skeptical that it would just turn into a weekly "white people act like this, and black people act like this" sketch.  Fortunately, the show offers a much more nuanced take on race than the promos led me to believe.  It's essentially a family comedy, but one with a strong and unique point of view.  Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) grew up poor, but now that he's well-off and has a family, he fears his children are losing touch with their culture.  It's a conflict that informs the entire pilot, and results in hilarious observations on perceptions of what it means to be black.  The scenes at Andre's workplace are even more thoughtful, examining what it's like to be one of the few black people in a position of power at a largely white advertising company.  The episode runs the risk of approaching my initial concerns about it piling on the superficial differences between white people and black people, and Andre's definition of what is "truly black" is reductive, but the writers smartly push back on his notions late in the episode.  The last ABC sitcom I liked this much was Trophy Wife, which eventually settled into average family sitcom territory, but hopefully Black-ish just keeps improving.
Grade: B+

Forever (ABC, Mondays at 10:00 PM)
Forever is about a man, Henry Morgan, who can't die.  Well, he can die, but when he does he comes back in a nearby body of water, without any clothes.  Using the knowledge he's accumulated over his centuries on Earth, he studies the dead to solve criminal cases.  If that premise sounds silly to you, then you'll be happy to know that the show itself seems to think so too, and takes on a light, knowing tone.  The pilot, directed by the great Brad Anderson, is fluffy and fun, coasting along at a zippy pace.  Ioan Gruffudd is particularly fun as Henry, evoking charm when his character could easily be seen as an insufferable pill.  Unfortunately, the show's tone doesn't do enough to save it from a lack of originality.  Henry Morgan is a blatant ripoff of Sherlock Holmes, right down to his penchant for making assumptions about people based on the subtle clues gathered from glancing at them.  And once the procedural elements start to kick in, the show looks more and more like Castle, another ABC that features a non-cop becoming an investigator.  The dialogue might be Forever's most egregious crime though.  Clunkers like "There's almost nothing in my life that I haven't done...except leave it" and "You might not be able to die, but you haven't lived in a long time" abound.  Procedural shows like this live and die on how fun of a spin they can put on the format.  So far, Henry putting his life beyond the line to make progress on a case is only mildly entertaining.
Grade: C

Gotham (Fox, Mondays at 8:00 PM)
How many times have we seen Bruce Wayne's origin story?  That anonymous gunman raising his firearm, pearls falling to the asphalt, son watching in terror as his parents bleed out.  The answer to that question is the same for any superhero origin story: too many.  One thing Gotham has going for it is that it's the first time (as far as I know) that the story doesn't jump forward in time, instead keeping things at Bruce's childhood.  The show, then, centers on rookie cop Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and his grizzled partner (Donal Logue, no stranger to grizzled detectives).  If there's one thing that it gets down, it's the look of Gotham City.  Lots of money went into the pilot, and it shows.  The entire episode is gorgeous, perfectly capturing the wonderful noir look of the city.  Less successful is the show's dialogue, which always seems to be thrown out with a bold underline, and lands with a thud just as often.  Many lines -- and whole characters, in fact -- are supposed to be gritty but just come off goofy.  It's not an auspicious beginning, but at least the underground crime world has already been laid out.  Hopefully, the writers will figure out a way to make an effective detective show to navigate that environment.
Grade: C+

How to Get Away With Murder (ABC, Thursdays at 10:00 PM)
Many people, including New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley in her controversial piece on the show, have been mistakenly acting as if Shonda Rhimes (Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice, Scandal) is the creator and showrunner of How to Get Away With Murder.  That title actually goes to Peter Nowalk, with Rhimes merely serving as an executive producer.  But you can't fault people too much for that mistake, because she has such a strong and distinct style that even with a less hands-on role, her stamp find its way onto this series nonetheless.  Like the rest of the shows associated with her name, How to Get Away With Murder is ridiculous.  High powered defense attorney Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) also runs an unconventional college criminology course, one where she invites her students to help come up with ways to win her cases.  It flouts all logic and reasoning involved in the way court trials or university classes work.  But that's where the second quality of Rhimes' work comes in: How to Get Away With Murder is deliciously entertaining.  Viola Davis plays Keating with such electrifying confidence, and it's a load of fun to watch her push her students as they, in turn, push the boundaries of the law to get a leg up.  The pilot has a fussy structure where it cuts back and forth between the early stages of the semester and some point in the future when a few of her students have to cover up some kind of murder, but even that somehow works.  How to Get Away With Murder has a propulsive, livewire energy that other pilots would benefit from imitating.
Grade: B+

Madam Secretary (CBS, Sundays at 8:00 PM)
In terms of subject matter, Madam Secretary feels like a mixture of The West Wing and The Good Wife.  It follows Elizabeth Falkner McCord (Tea Leoni), a woman who gets appointed to Secretary of State after some time away from politics when the former person holding the title dies in a plane crash.  In terms of style, it has the flair of neither The West Wing nor The Good Wife.  But like the latter, which reportedly started out shakily, it's not hard to imagine this becoming a gripping show by the end of the season.  As it stands now, Madam Secretary is a slightly bland, watered-down political drama.  In a goofy line of dialogue, somebody praises Elizabeth by saying, "You don't just think outside of the box -- you don't even know there is a box."  But we never really see any evidence of that, and the central conflict of the episode, involving Americans taken hostage in Syria, is handled quickly and with very little pulse.  Yet there's quite a bit of long-term drama to be mined from Elizabeth's new position, which creates tension at home (her kids are upset about being uprooted from their old neighborhood) and at work (a bubbling rivalry with the President's Chief of Staff, played by perennial bad guy Zeljko Ivanek).  Madam Secretary shows promise, but I'll wait until I hear about it making a leap before I try to fit it into my already busy Sunday schedule.
Grade: B-

NCIS: New Orleans (CBS, Tuesdays at 9:00 PM)
I've never actually watched a full episode any incarnation of NCIS (or any incarnation of CSI, for that matter).  But I have seen enough clips, read enough articles, and absorbed enough snark to have a general idea of what these shows are all about.  So when the cold open of NCIS: New Orleans ended with a severed leg buried in a pile of shrimp, I thought, "Yup.  This is just an NCIS show, but set in New Orleans."  In the pilot, the show feels like it's just playing a game of NOLA bingo: there's a jazz performance here, a Cajun accent there, and just when you think there won't be a beignet reference, they sneak one in during one of the final scenes.  But this kind of shallow examination of New Orleans just doesn't cut it when something like Treme exists.  And the kind of straightforward procedural storytelling it indulges in doesn't cut it when, well, a dozen other identical shows already exist.  The investigative team is full of the usual CBS procedural types: the manly male protagonist (Scott Bakula), the partner who's mostly defined as "woman agent" (Zoe McLellan), the wily younger guy (Lucas Black), the nerd (Rob Kerkovich), and the lab scientist (CCH Pounder).  They try to give Bakula's character an emotional background, but it won't mean much to anyone new to the NCIS universe.  And usually McLellan's character, who is new in town, would be used as the audience entry point, but they don't really do that.  You already know this world.  Likewise, you already know whether you're going to watch this show or not.
Grade: D+

Scorpion (CBS, Mondays at 9:00 PM)
If nothing else, Scorpion is the most jaunty CBS drama pilot I've ever seen.  Part of that credit goes to Justin Lin (of Fast & Furious fame), whose direction gives the hour an exhilarating zip.  Unfortunately, that doesn't stop it from being just like every other procedural on the network, just with more tech.  Some will find it fun, but I just thought it was grating and exhausting.  And can we do away with the "geniuses who don't know how to deal with people" trope?  Anyway, at least check out the last 10 minutes, because they feature a jaw-dropping car sequence.
Grade: C-

Transparent (Amazon, Entire first season released on Friday 9/26)
I watched Transparent for the first time back when it was a part of Amazon's second pilot series back in February, and I was planning on doing a Pilot Talk about that whole slate of shows, but I just never found the time to do it.  Now that it's been picked up for a full series (and the entire first season will be available by the time this post goes up), I decided to watch the pilot again and give it an official review.  Looking back at my original notes for the show, I wasn't overly impressed with the first episode.  Out of all the pilots in that series, critics were the most positive about Transparent's, and I just didn't understand the reason for the lavish praise.  On second viewing, I appreciated it much more, bumping it up two letter grades from the original B- I gave it.  One thing I loved about Transparent is how intimate it feels.  Creator Jill Soloway (writer/director of Afternoon Delight, co-showrunner of The United States of Tara) makes the viewer feel like a fly on the wall, capturing these characters as they brush their teeth, walk around unglamorously nude, or share idle chitchat.

It's also got a terrific cast.  Jeffrey Tambor plays Mort -- who prefers to be called Maura -- a father struggling to tell her children (Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker, Gaby Hoffman) that she is transgender.  The show is a dramedy, so it has a few comedic moments, but it handles Maura's struggles with the seriousness that they deserve.  Tambor, better known for his roles in comedies, is excellent here, giving a performance that's sure to get him nominated for an Emmy.  So much of the time, reviewing a pilot is about judging a show based on its potential.  The pilot of Transparent is solid in its own right, but the possible heights it could reach is what makes this episode really exciting.
Grade: B+


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