Sunday, June 28, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Week of 6/21/2015

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.

Ballers (HBO, Sundays at 10:00 PM)
Ballers, one of HBO's new half-hour dramedies, drew many comparisons to Entourage from critics, and it's not hard to see where they're coming from.  The show follows Spencer Strasmore (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), a retired NFL athlete, as he attempts to mentor current players and cope with life outside of the limelight.  Though it doesn't inhabit the same world as the luxurious vision of Hollywood that Entourage presented, there's an aspect of lifestyle porn to the football scene in Miami, where these players can party and have sex with as many beautiful women as they want.  But the Entourage comparisons only run so deep.  Ballers has much more teeth, and it seems interested in exploring the seedier elements of the lifestyle of multi-million dollar earning sports stars.  The pilot alone deals with the struggle to maintain one's finances after retiring, getting cut from a team due to misconduct, and addiction.  These attempts at drama just make the scenes of the characters banging big-breasted women and spouting half-jokes even more incongruous.  Ballers is clearly better at being a drama than a comedy, and the sooner it realizes that, the better it will be.
Grade: C+

The Brink (HBO, Sundays at 10:30 PM)
Judging from the promos, HBO seemed to be aiming for a Dr. Strangelove vibe with The Brink, its new satire that focuses on a geopolitical crisis in Pakistan.  That's a good starting point, since Dr. Strangelove is one of the greatest political satires of all time.  And it certainly boasts an impressive cast: Jack Black as a Foreign Service officer in Islamabad, Tim Robbins as the United States Secretary of State, Aasif Mandvi as a Pakistani employed by the U.S. Embassy, etc.  But The Brink clearly lacks the quality to match its cast or ambitious.  There is absolutely no bite to its satire, which makes the extra-long pilot drag for an utterly laughless 33 minutes.  This is a bland, boring show.
Grade: C-

Mr. Robot (USA, Wednesdays at 10:00 PM)
It's about time Rami Malek got some kind of starring vehicle.  For years now, he's been an "oh, that guy" actor, popping up in films like The Master and Short Term 12, and TV shows like The Pacific and 24.  He has such an eerie look and presence, but there's something to him that makes him impossible to turn away from.  Mr. Robot, USA's new psychological techno-thriller, uses Malek to his fullest potential.  He stars as Elliot Anderson, a man whose social anxiety disorder and chronic depression cause him to isolate himself from society.  By day, he works as a security technician at a big, soul-sucking corporation, but he spends his nights as a vigilante hacker, righting the tiny ills he sees on a daily basis.  Hacking is the way he feels connection to people, as the pilot shows him hacking into the social media profiles of his therapist (Gloria Reuben), his only friend (Portia Doubleday), and her boyfriend in order to gain a better understanding of them.  It's from those observations that he concludes the world is too preoccupied with banal and shallow matters that he doesn't care to engage in.

All of this makes Mr. Robot sound like an awful Reddit commenter got his own TV series, but there are two things that make the show more than that.  The first, of course, is Malek.  He plays Elliot with such a specific oddness that he becomes a compelling character.  Elliot's internal monologues -- of which there are many, though it's kind of the point -- are delivered in a cold, flat affect that makes it clear he's teetering on the line that separates sanity from madness.  The second thing that elevates the show is its chilly style.  As written by series creator Sam Esmail and directed by Niels Arden Oplev, the pilot is full of gray tones and massive wide shots that sell the isolation and doldrums of Elliot's life.  Scenes are scored by pulsating, sterile electronic sounds as we hear him give one of his voiceover monologues or see him skulking through the night.  Soon enough, you'll get that same paranoid and on-edge feeling.  It's hard to know whether the show can sustain itself, especially when a disastrous version of it is waiting right around the corner, but this promising start is a pleasant surprise.
Grade: B

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