Saturday, September 19, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Week 1 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 Bastard Executioner (FX, Tuesdays at 10:00 PM)
They say the definition of insanity is choosing to watch another Kurt Sutter show after sitting through the last few seasons of Sons of Anarchy.  So I guess I'm a lunatic, because here I am, reviewing the two-hour pilot of The Bastard Executioner.  Set in 14th century Wales, his new series follows Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), a knight in King Edward I's army who gives up on war and fighting, until unfortunate circumstances cause him to impersonate an executioner and take up the sword again.  Of course, you wouldn't really know much of this for a while, since the premise of the show doesn't truly kick in until the end of the second hour.  For a majority of the pilot, I couldn't tell you what this show was about.  I could tell you the setting and the characters, but necessarily what it's "about."  Usually, pilots try to get that point across as quickly as possible.  Not so with Kurt Sutter!  Sometimes not playing by the rules can create some surprising, thrilling television.  Often, though, it can create messy and disastrous storytelling.  Executioner feels much more like the latter so far.

Aside from the length of the pilot, Sutter's characteristic indulgence manifests itself in other ways, namely in the violence department.  This is a series where a small child gets his throat cut and a pregnant woman gets stabbed in the stomach and dies in the first episode.  That's the baseline Sutter sets.  When you start with that level of shock and horror, where can you even go from there?  The worst part is that it's empty shock.  Who are these people, really?  Why should we care?  Extreme violence can work if it's stylized, but the violence on display in this pilot feels hollow and gratuitous.

With the plot scenario Sutter sets up, he's positioned The Bastard Executioner to be one of those shows where the protagonist constantly gets painted into a corner, only to somehow get out by the skin of his teeth.  Obviously, we've seen good examples of that with Breaking Bad and even The Shield, on which Kurt Sutter served as a writer for many seasons.  But we've also seen him do it more recently with Sons of Anarchy, whose plot machinations became tiresome and contrived.  So am I ready to see him do it again?  Not really.  Yet something tells me I'm going to keep tuning in anyway...
Grade: C

Moonbeam City (Comedy Central, Wednesdays at 10:30 PM)
Moonbeam City, Comedy Central's new animated comedy from creator Scott Gairdner, probably would not have even been on my radar if its art style didn't catch my eye in a promo that aired during a Key & Peele commercial break.  It looks like Archer meets Patrick Nagel, an 80s pastiche with a rich neon color palette and silky smooth animation, and it's such a beauty to look at.  The actual comedy, on the other hand, could use some work.  This pilot feels a little derivative -- its similarities to Archer don't end with character design, it also resembles that series in its premise and storytelling beats.  Dazzle Novak (voiced by Rob Lowe) is basically Sterling Archer if he quit spycraft to become a cop, and you can see alot of the latter in the former's lasciviousness and ability to get results while not really caring about the damage he unleashes in the process.  But Moonbeam City feels like Archer if Archer was 65% less tight and 40% less clever.  The pacing of the pilot feels so airy, it all moves along with very little momentum.  The jokes themselves aren't great -- it's full of obvious punchlines, half-funny mumbled asides, and tiny bits of forced absurdity -- but the speed with which they're delivered is truly ruinous.  Still, with its terrific voice cast (which also includes the likes of Elizabeth Banks, Will Forte, and Kate Mara) and that magnificent artwork, it's easy to give this more of a chance.  Here's to hoping the show finds itself.
Grade: C+

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