Friday, October 3, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: 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.

A to Z (NBC, Thursdays at 9:30 PM)
More and more, the romantic comedy is breaking free of the boundaries of film and seeping into the world of television, with the likes of The Mindy Project and New Girl (which didn't start out as one, but is now fully entrenched in the genre).  A to Z is just another addition to that trend, telling the story of Andrew (Ben Feldman) and Zelda (Cristin Milioti), and their new-found relationship.  The pilot is full of romantic comedy cliches: a pairing of complete opposites (Zelda = logic and reason, Andrew = hopeless romantic), a quirky job (he works at a dating website), the fated relationship (they saw each other at a concert two years ago).  But every installment in the genre peddles in a few tropes, and A to Z plays to them reasonably well.  The main draw, without a doubt, is Feldman and Milioti.  They're terrific leads with a sparkling, believable chemistry that carries the pilot.  Everything around them though -- from the sidekicks who are given dire material, to the sluggish workplace comedy -- needs some work.  The good news is that these are very fixable problems.  A to Z has a very solid center, it just needs to strengthen things around the edges.
Grade: B-

Bad Judge (NBC, Thursdays at 9:00 PM)
The "Bad [Occupation]" title seems to be a popular naming structure, from Bad Santa to Bad Teacher (the movie) to Bad Teacher (the TV show).  Now we've got Bad Judge, the latest in the line of get-straight-to-the-point titles.  You see, Rebecca Wright (Kate Walsh) is a judge.  But here's the thing: she's also "bad."  That badness manifests itself in the least funny and least interesting ways: unfunny drunken antics, unfunny sexcapades, and unfunny interactions with little kids.  Not much is there to chew on with Bad Judge, it's just so generic.  The pilot is lumpy and unbalanced too.  If it feels like two different episodes smushed together, that's because apparently it was heavily re-cut from its original, somehow more disastrous incarnation.  Are there any bright spots though?  Well, Kate Walsh has a ton of fun with a lame character, it's always nice to see Ryan Hansen pop up on a show, and there were exactly two jokes that I thought were really funny.  That's about it though.
Grade: D+

Gracepoint (Fox, Thursdays at 9:00 PM)
Watching Gracepoint was a weird experience for me.  I've already seen Broadchurch, the 2013 UK show on which this is based, and was quite fond of it (though I didn't like it as much as the critical consensus did).  Not only is the pilot of Gracepoint written by Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall, but it's also directed by James Strong, who directed the latter's first episode as well.  The result is a nearly shot-for-shot remake, which is kind of bizarre.  It's like Gus Van Sant's Psycho remake if it was directed by the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock instead, or Michael Haneke's Funny Games remake but in the same language as the original.  Even David Tennant returns to play the same character, this time donning a not-always-convincing American accent.  The bad news is that Broadchurch fans might not enjoy having to experience 10 episodes of deja vu.  The good news is that most of America hasn't seen Broadchurch, and Gracepoint is not a bad substitute.  Like its predecessor, the performances on this show are pretty terrific across the board.  If there was one actor whose replacement I was worried about, it was Jodie Whittaker, but Virginia Kull kills it as Beth, the mother of the child who is found dead at the beginning of the episode.  Gracepoint also lays out the tightknit nature of its community just as effectively, underlining how everybody knowing each other makes Danny's murder more shocking and the investigation have higher stakes.  Overall, I'd highly recommend this show to newcomers.  As for Broadchurch fans?  Well, just think of it like a classic play being performed by a new set of actors.
Grade: B

Happyland (MTV, Tuesdays at 11:00 PM)
Let's talk about incest.  It's all anybody wanted to discuss a few months ago when critics watched the pilot of Happyland during the TCA summer press tour, that moment where the main character finds out that the boy she kissed in the previous scene is actually her half-brother.  Based on the tweets I saw from critics, it kind of seemed like they were ganging up on the show's creators, relentlessly pestering them with questions about the incest, barely masked their disgust.  (It certainly didn't help that everybody on the panel did a poor job of answering those questions.)  Now that I've actually seen the pilot, I don't really see what all the vitriol was about.  The reveal itself is a little clumsily handled, but it opens the show up to alot of interesting territory that can be explored.  One of the pressing questions was from critics is, "this is a teen comedy -- why would you decide to put incest in it?," but it's very clear that this show is interested in examining the ways in which people relate to one another, and how that contrasts with the formal definition of those relationships.  The incest angle is just another wrinkle to that fabric.  And let's be honest, on the grand spectrum of Oedipal love, this is pretty lite incest.  (I've told you basically nothing else about this show and I have no regrets.)
Grade: C+

Manhattan Love Story (ABC, Tuesdays at 8:30 PM)
I'm all for a pilot trying to do something different.  And that's what Manhattan Love Story is trying to do with the choice of having the viewer be able to hear the inner thoughts of Dana (Analeigh Tipton) and Peter (Jake McDorman) as they prepare and finally meet up for a blind date.  It's not new -- the UK classic Peep Show does that and takes it a step further by shooting everything from the first person perspective of its two leads -- but it is different.  The problem is that these internal musings don't serve much purpose, lacking insight and comedy.  They're actually a subtractive force instead of an additive one.  By vocalizing Dana and Peter thoughts, the show makes them less likable, reducing them to a trite "he constantly thinks about boobs, she constantly thinks about purses" dichotomy.  In doling out all of these outdated cliches, Manhattan Love Story feels more like a Helen Hunt romcom from the 90s than a comedy for modern times.  Yet it's hard to really get bent out of shape about this show when it's so vanilla.  Unfunny but not aggressively so, misguided but not infuriating.  Manhattan Love Story is just dull, dull, dull.
Grade: C-

Selfie (ABC, Tuesdays at 8:00 PM)
I really want to like Selfie.  It's created by Emily Kapnek, who has written for Parks and Recreation, and has also created solid shows like Suburgatory and As Told By Ginger.  It also stars internet darling Karen Gillan (who proved she could be funny on the most recent season of NTSF:SD:SUV::) and John Cho.  Unfortunately, I don't like Selfie very much, at least not the pilot.  The biggest problem is that it's not very funny, and actively annoying at certain points.  I do like that it's one of the first television attempts to genuinely examine the way we engage with technology and social media by centering around Eliza Dooley (Gillan), an image-obsessed sales rep.  But so far, it's not a very nuanced or amusing attempt.  There's a way to make myopic vapidity funny -- think Cher Horowitz -- but Selfie just isn't quite there yet.  It also feels long and definitely has to be tightened up.  The jokes need to come with a little more zip and maybe they'd land with more success.  Sitcoms rarely start out funny, so that's less worrisome.  What's more cause for concern is the premise -- a riff on Pygmalion and My Fair Lady -- where the concept of Henry (Cho) fixing Eliza feels a little icky.  Kapnek has accumulated enough goodwill to make Selfie worth sticking with, but it's still got a long way to go.
Grade: C

Stalker (CBS, Wednesdays at 10:00 PM)
Apparently, creator Kevin Williamson didn't properly scratch his "women in peril" itch with Fox's execrable The Following.  On that show, he used horrific violence against women as an entertainment and shock factor while trying to pretend that it was a more sophisticated look into the darkness in humanity's soul by adding inane references to Edgar Allan Poe.  Now, like those unstoppable killers he seems to be so enamored with, Williamson is back again with CBS's Stalker, which purports to examine the issue of stalking, but is really just another excuse to show women getting murdered.  And boy, do they ever.  The opening scene of a woman being burned alive is filmed with maximum cruelty, lingering on her terror in an almost fetishistic way.  To balance things out, the pilot includes a subplot about a male being stalked, but not only does it feel like an afterthought, it doesn't have even half of the sadistic glee that the scenes featuring women being preyed upon do.  Still, I was willing to throw this show a D+ for most of the episode because at least it was competently made.  There are a few well-written lines that recall Williamson's better work, some genuinely creepy imagery, and a dependable lead in Maggie Q.  But then it ends with an idiotic, pat conclusion that reinforces its "everybody stalks in their own way!" worldview.  Burn Stalker to the ground.
Grade: F

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