Friday, October 17, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: 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.

The Affair (Showtime, Sundays at 10:00 PM)
There's no way to describe The Affair without it sounding prosaic, so I'm just going to skip the premise.  In fact, can I skip talking about plot altogether?  Just take my word for it when I say that this is by far the best pilot of the fall (to me, the gap between an A- and a B+ is wider than other gaps).  The show comes from Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, both of whom had a hand in HBO's In Treatment.  We don't talk about this enough, but In Treatment might be the most structurally daring shows of the past decade, and you'll be happy to know that The Affair has ambitions of its own. I didn't know much beyond a simple logline going into the pilot, so the series of upheavals that occur near the middle of the episode left me absolutely giddy.  The show is deeply invested in the nitty-gritty of truth, memory, and perception; and the process of unpacking the motivations of its characters is fascinating.  In doing so, it also implicates the viewer, causing them to question their own worldview as well.  I'm holding back on giving this a full A only because the pilot hints at the show possibly going in a direction that I'm not crazy about, but if it can avoid that pitfall, this is going to end up being something special.
Grade: A-

Jane the Virgin (CW, Mondays at 9:00 PM)
In order to enjoy Jane the Virgin, it's necessary to get past its silly premise.  Jane (Gina Rodriguez) is, well, a religious virgin who gets pregnant when she's accidentally artificially inseminated with the sperm of Rafeal (Justin Baldoni), a wealthy man who also happens to be her boss.  Not only is that setup horribly convoluted, but the moment of the insemination is even more goofy and illogical.  However, the show has a playful enough tone that it's easy to just roll with it.  Once that's out of the way, there's more than enough to enjoy about this pilot.  Above all else, there's Gina Rodriguez, who is spectacular and incredibly likable as Jane.  She's part of the reason why the show works as well as it does, able to play the comedic and heartfelt moments with equal aplomb.  It's also refreshing to have a show that depicts faith and virginity in a non-judgmental way.  Where lesser shows would be satisfied with a sex-negative worldview, Jane the Virgin chooses to have more nuance.  Jane isn't against sex -- one of the most interesting scenes implies that she and her boyfriend have had phone sex before -- she just has a different set of values that inform her decision to not engage in it until marriage.  So instead of the show's central question being "how long will Jane remain a virgin?," it asks bigger and better ones like, "how will Jane deal with this freak occurrence that happened to her"?  There may be one or two too many complications added to the mix, like Jane's fiancee having some sort of secret that his brother is threatening to uncover, or Rafael's wife being evil and scheming.  But otherwise, Jane the Virgin is a sweet, earnest, and funny little show.
Grade: B

Marry Me (NBC, Tuesdays at 9:00 PM)
Marry Me is about Annie (Casey Wilson) and Jake (Ken Marino), a long-term couple who are stumbling through their engagement period after a series of botched proposal attempts.  But here's the thing about Marry Me: It will not be about that for very long.  That's just one of the symptoms of a show from creator David Caspe.  After all, remember when Happy Endings started off as a show about how Alex left Dave at the altar on the day of their wedding, and then it moved away from that as quickly as possible?  As it stands now, the show is torn between its limiting premise and the hangout show it so clearly wants to be.  From a comedy standpoint, the softer NBC romcom style in the vein of A to Z is wrestling with the "fusillade of jokes" style that Caspe is known for.  There is some vintage Happy Endings gold in the pilot ("Ugh, I'm sweating like Shaq!"), but overall it's much more low-key.  That's a recurring theme of the episode, the feeling that the show is holding itself back.  For example, Ken Marino is one of the funniest comedic actors out there, but he's mostly relegated to playing the beleaguered straight man.  Still, this pilot is solid and charming, if a little flabby and shapeless.  Marry Me will almost certainly be one of the funniest network sitcoms on television if it lasts long enough, but it's just not there yet.
Grade: B-

Well, that concludes the fall round of Pilot Talk!  There are still some new shows slated to premiere (Constantine, The McCarthys, State of Affairs, Ascension), and I'll cover some of them, but they're spread out enough that there won't be any roundups of a week's worth of pilots until midseason.  Let's see the total tally of grades from the last five weeks.

A's: 1
B's: 9
C's: 8
D's: 4
F's: 1

Just for kicks, I looked at the tally from last year,'s nearly identical.  (Fall 2013's tally: A's = 1, B's = 9, C's = 8, D's = 3, F's = 2.)  Though I felt like I had become a much harsher grader this year, apparently that's not the case.  Overall, I'd call this a pretty solid fall.  There are a few shows that I've decided to keep watching based on the quality of their pilots, and a few shows whose pilots I didn't like as much that have greatly improved (be on the lookout for my "Selfie is the Greatest Show of All Time" thinkpiece).  I wouldn't be able to tell you whether or not something as torturous as The Mysteries of Laura was has gotten any better though.

Like last year, I'm incredibly burnt out from watching and reviewing all these pilots and I never want to do this again.  Somehow, though, I know I'm going to talk myself into it all over again in 2015.  Either way, I'm glad I can get back to writing about other things in the meantime.

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