Friday, January 9, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Week 1 of TV's Midseason 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.

Agent Carter (ABC, Tuesdays at 8:00 PM)
As a well-documented defender of Agents of SHIELD and a longtime subscriber to the Hayley Atwell Booster Club, I was pretty excited about the premiere of Agent Carter, and the two-episode premiere didn't disappoint.  The story of the show picks up shortly after the events of Captain America: The First Avenger, with Peggy Carter dealing with life as an officer of the Strategic Scientific Reserve (which will later become SHIELD) and the fact that Captain America is no longer around.  The latter makes for some of the strongest material in the first two episodes, mainly because of Hayley Atwell's ability to sell the pain and frustration about Cap's "death" and his legacy looming over her.  Some of the broader, post-war ideas are pretty unsubtle, and the writers hammer home the point that she's a woman living in a man's world as she deals with her cartoonish male peers.  But still, it's refreshing for a big budget network show to take such a blatantly feminist stance, one that's likely to alienate Marvel's most meat-headed fans.  That's their loss though -- they're missing out on a slick, stylish, and fun show.
Grade: B+

Babylon (SundanceTV, Thursdays at 10:00 PM)
I love Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong's Fresh Meat and I've liked what I've seen of their heralded classic, Peep Show, so I was pretty excited about Babylon.  This first episode of this UK import from last year is not exactly the "pilot," because SundanceTV opted not to show the 90-minute, Danny Boyle directed intro to the show (mini review: it's solid!) and jump in with "Cravenwood."  It gives the uninitiated a quick little exposition dump that'll catch them up on the basics, but it still seems like a bizarre choice.  And it's either poor timing or perfect timing for us to be getting a comedy about a police force populated by brainless brutes and run by political sharks.  As a police show, Babylon is a very interesting look into the pubic and political ramifications of every small decision the force makes.  As a comedy, it's often very funny and quoteworthy like the rest of Bain and Armstrong's collaborations.  The problem is when the two intersect, resulting in moments where neither work.

Additionally, Brit Marling doesn't quite pop as the lead.  There's not enough of a handle on the comedy, and her serene affect doesn't help the moments of pathos either.  Luckily, the rest of the cast is pretty terrific, especially James Nesbitt, who delivers a singeing rant in the middle of the episode that feels almost Malcolm Tucker-esque.  So Babylon still has some kinks to work out, but there are enough intriguing elements and a high amount of built-in trust in the people running the show, so I'll stick around to see the end of its six-episode run.
Grade: B-

Empire (Fox, Wednesdays at 9:00 PM)
Fox's Empire is relatively unexplored terrain for television.  Sure, there are shows that depict musical performance (Glee) and the music industry (Nashville), but no other program has ever centered around the rap world and all of its many tendrils.  It stars Terrence Howard as Luscious Lyon, a former drug dealer turned hip hop mogul, who tries to put his company in order for the future after he finds out he has ALS.  The premise has a bit of a King Lear setup, as a sick Lyon has no confidence in his three sons -- power-hungry Andre, homosexual R&B singer Jamal, and egotistical young rapper Hakeem -- to take over the business when he dies.  Empire is really textured when it comes to hip hop and black culture, tackling specifics like declining sales, the way making music is often the only way to escape life on the streets, and the rap game's troubled relationship with homosexuality.  Showrunner Danny Strong (aka Jonathan from Buffy) sets up clear conflicts and goals in the pilot and doesn't shy away from going over the top.  And Lee Daniels' stylish direction really makes the soapy elements sizzle.  For evidence of the show's camp, look no further than Taraji P. Henson, who's just straight up cooking as Cookie, a Lil Kim/Remy Ma type who's just gotten out of prison.  She's a character transported from a much crazier show, but it makes every scene she appears in absolutely electrifying.  Honestly, I'm kind of shocked by how much I genuinely liked this pilot.  Who knows if it will fall off of a cliff soon or not.  After all, remember how enjoyable the pilot of Nashville was?
Grade: B+

Galavant (ABC, Sundays at 8:00 PM)
Certain corners of the internet are really obsessed with anything that could be described as "batshit insane."  I'm not one of those people.  So while everyone is raving about the campy craziness of shows like American Horror Story and Sleepy Hollow, I'm mostly just bored while watching them.  Galavant, ABC's new musical comedy event series, isn't the same brand of "batshit insanity," but it certainly is pretty darn bizarre, especially for network TV.  And thus, internet comment sections have been frothing with excitement over it, which has been puzzling to me.  That weirdness gets the two-part premiere some distance, and when Galavant is being a musical, it's pretty solid.  The songs are clever, funny, mildly tuneful, and they give the show energy and a goofy charm.  Unfortunately, when it's being a comedy, Galavant is less successful.  Most of the material between the songs is just too bland.  So much time is given away to showing how the characters got to this point in the story, either through flashbacks or large, halting chunks of dialogue.  Timothy Omundson is loads of fun as the kooky King Richard, but the rest of the cast, especially lead actor Joshua Sasse, don't make much of an impression.  Tons of people are going to love this show, but it's just not for me.
Grade: C+

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