Sunday, March 8, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Week of 3/1/2015

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.

American Crime (ABC, Thursdays at 10:00 PM)
For a while now, the major networks have been trying to create a drama that feels like it could be on cable, but what they usually get is something that's superficially "cable," but without the soul and quality of the best shows cable has to offer.  Consider American Crime another entry into that category.  It comes from Oscar winning screenwriter John Ridley -- a fact ABC wants you to remember in every one of its promos -- who's clearly trying to make an Important Show.  Above all else, American Crime is very impressed with its own seriousness, to the point of it being laughable.  The show is unsubtle in its statements about race within this story about the murder of war veteran Matt Skokie.  That's not to say unsubtle is automatically bad -- after all, Do the Right Thing isn't exactly understated -- but Ridley clumsily beats his point into the audience's head with his histrionic writing.

So is there anything to like about American Crime?  Yes, of course.  I do enjoy the way it's carving out the city of Modesto so far, even if it's not clear how everything connects.  We're introduced to everyone from Skokie's parents (Timothy Hutton and Felicity Huffman) to a Hispanic family tangentially connected with the investigation to a pair of wandering junkies.  And as blunt as Ridley's writing choices may be, this pilot is excellently directed, containing a film-like quality that you don't see on many other ABC shows.  For now, American Crime isn't all that satisfying, but it could come together and form something brilliant.
Grade: C+

Battle Creek (CBS, Sundays at 10:00 PM)
Battle Creek is based on a script that Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan wrote over a decade ago, so naturally CBS would want to capitalize on the interest his name brings now.  Really, that's about the only reason why anybody is talking about this show, which is an otherwise standard buddy cop procedural.  Dean Winters and Josh Duhamel star as the mismatched pair of Detective Russ Agnew and FBI agent Milt Chamberlain (yes, really), and they've got an amiably combative chemistry.  The pilot is bogged down with some cheesy and forced lines ("Milt, you're good at everything!"), but it generally hums along with a competency you'd expect from people like Gilligan and David Shore, who serves as the actual showrunner on this series.  Bryan Singer adds even more prestige, giving the episode a stylish look by directing it with lots of warm tones and smoky air to the Battle Creek police station.  Still, it's hard to begrudge anybody who comes away from this pilot feeling like nothing of substance happened.
Grade: C

The Last Man on Earth (Fox, Sundays at 9:00 PM)
In a TV landscape full of derivative ideas, The Last Man on Earth feels like an exciting breath of fresh air.  If its premise -- a virus that kills off the world's population in 2019 leaves Phil Miller (Will Forte) is the last man remaining -- feels like it would be better suited for a movie, that's because it originally started out as one.  Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Clone High, 21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie) came up with this idea as a feature film before bringing it to Will Forte, who turned it into a treatment for a television show.  As an actor, Forte gets to play squarely in his wheelhouse.  He's always been excellent at balancing unhinged and humane, and Phil Miller is the perfect vehicle for that, as we see the hilarious and harrowing effects being the last man on Earth would have on somebody.  As a writer, he's just as impressive.  Not only is the pilot very funny, it somehow never gets boring, even though there's only one character.  Credit goes to Lord and Miller as well, whose visual flair gives the episode a Keaton-esque sense of energy.

Anyone who thinks about the setup of the show for more than a second can suss out that it's unsustainable, and that The Last Man on Earth is a very deliberate title choice.  Kristen Schaal shows up at the end of the first episode as Carol Pilbasian, presumably the last woman on Earth.  The second episode is a significant step down from the pilot, mostly due to my hesitance about Carol as a character.  At first she seems like a relatively normal person, who just has different and funny personality traits.  But she quickly just becomes a stock crazy woman, and after an entire episode of Phil praying for a female companion, the punchline is "can you believe he's stuck with this nutjob?!"  That most of the second episode is focuses on their hacky "nagging wife, beleaguered husband" dynamic is a little disappointing.  Still, I love the tension between these two differing viewpoints on how to live as the last people on Earth.  If the show can focus more on that theme, it could turn things back around for episode three.
Pilot Grade: A-
Second Episode Grade: B

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix, All 13 episodes released March 6th)
Ellie Kemper has always been underrated, so it's nice to see her finally get a leading role in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the new show from 30 Rock creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock.  Kemper plays the titular Kimmy Schmidt, a woman who attempts to start her life over in New York City after she escapes a doomsday cult, and she gets to do her over-the-top exuberance that she did so well as Erin on The Office.  There are some very funny jokes in this first episode, but it's also missing the snap and zip of 30 Rock at its peak.  Oddly, there seems to be something wrong with the background sound of the show -- in that there isn't any -- and it's really dulling the comedy.  It's like somebody forgot to record room tone and add it in post.  As of right now, it's nice to have the Fey and Carlock style back, even if it's not quite operating at peak potential.  Plus, this show is not really made for this style of review.  The Netflix model imagines that you won't just stop after watching the first episode.  So take this grade as a very optimistic B.  I'm with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt for the long run.
Grade: B

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