Saturday, September 10, 2016

Pilot Talk 2016: 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.

Atlanta (FX, Tuesdays at 10:00 PM)
Given how much of a name he has made for himself as an actor and as rapper, it's easy to forget that Donald Glover came up as a writer, landing a job on the 30 Rock writing staff when he was just in his mid 20s.  Atlanta, the FX show he left Community to focus on, is a quick reminder to the world how much of a talented writer he is.  He serves as showrunner and executive producer, as well the star, where he plays Earnest, a broke but ambitious guy who tries push his cousin's local rap buzz to higher places.  This is some of the best, most relaxed acting Glover has ever done, but it's his writing that truly shines in the pilot.  Atlanta is a five-tool player.  Where other shows can only hope to find one thing that it does well in its pilot, Atlanta seems to do it all.  It's funny, thoughtful, weird, original, vibrant; everything you can think of.  It has a clear setting (the Atlanta rap scene) and somewhat of a spine (tracking the rise of Earnest's cousin, Paperboy), but the show seems intent on telling its story in the least straightforward way possible.  It's full of wonderful little detours and curlicues -- the pilot loops back on itself while the second episode, which also aired on Tuesday night, sprouts so many branches.  Clearly, this is a show that's not finished letting us know what it's capable of, which is refreshing.  I don't know exactly where Atlanta is going, but I'm willing to follow it anywhere.
Pilot Grade: A-
Second Episode Grade: A-

Better Things (FX, Thursdays at 10:00 PM)
Pamela Adlon and Louis C.K. have already proven to be a fruitful collaborative team, with Adlon co-writing a handful of Louie episodes throughout its run, and the two may have struck upon something again with FX's Better Things.  Co-written by the two and directed by C.K., the pilot feels like Louie but from a slightly different angle.  Adlon stars as Sam, an actor and divorced mom of three daughters, as she goes through the trails that those titles entail.  From minute one, there's a very lived-in feeling to the show that's suggestive of a greater life that exists outside of the scenes we are seeing.  We learn so much about what it's like for her as an actor in a scene between her and an actor played by Constance Zimmer, as the two of them go through the motions of preparing for an audition they know they won't land.

Overall, I dig how loose and shaggy Better Things is.  It feels like it can wear any shade, as the first episode cuts to little stylistic interludes with different lenses and shifting aspect ratios.  But the pilot also feels scattered at times.  The material focusing on Sam's life as a mother is the clear highlight because there's an easygoing rapport between her and her kids that feels fresh and truthful.  It helps that the casting of the kids is great, another carryover from Louie.  However, the moments that stray away from the family stuff, such as the brief glimpses into her romantic life, are less interesting.  So Better Things isn't perfect, but it is a fiercely personal work with a vision, and we need more of that.
Grade: B

Mary + Jane (MTV, Mondays at 10:00 PM)
When reviewing pilots, it's easy to play the comparison game.  Part of the reason is because it can be a quick way to give a sense of the show's vibe and tone, but it's also because some pilots easily lend themselves to those connections.  However, it can also be a crutch, and I try to avoid them if I can.  But there's no avoiding drawing similarities between Mary + Jane and Broad City -- I'm not the first to do so and I certainly won't be the last.  This MTV comedy about two friends who run, as they describe it, a "mostly legal marijuana delivery service" is clearly trying to grab the same audience that's interested in the bizarre antics of Broad City.

Unfortunately, the comparisons stop at "stoner comedy starring two women."  It fails in many places where Broad City succeeds, mainly in that this pilot isn't very funny.  It knows what the premise is, but it still doesn't seem to know what kind of show it at this point.  The premiere episode just throws random comedy ideas at the wall to see what sticks, but very little does, like the weird, mostly unfunny interlude where they main characters deliver to the home of celebrities who are implied to be Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Jordan (Scout Durwood) and Paige (Jessica Rothe) are like Abbi and Ilana from Broad City in the sense that the former is the overly sexual one and the latter is more square, except neither have the weird little textures that make the Broad City ladies transcend those cliches.  Still, Durwood and Rothe have excellent chemistry, and that's the most important ingredient in a show like this.  The comedy can come later, and given the way Rothe especially is able to wring so much out of the material she's given, it's possible that it will.  I'm still on the fence about whether I'll see this through, but I wouldn't be surprised if this became a solid little show.
Grade: C+ (but a very optimistic one)

Quarry (Cinemax, Fridays at 10:00 PM)
I didn't know much about Quarry going into it, even after seeing promos for it, but I had this deep sense of anticipation despite not having much information.  At first, it seems like the pilot isn't interested in giving much information either, as it starts with an enigmatic cold open.  But after the title card, it firmly plants the viewer in a time and a place, showing Mac Conway (Logan Marshall-Green) arriving home from Vietnam to a nation that's not too happy with its soldiers. But Mac's town is especially unhappy with him.  It's alluded to the fact that he was involved in some horrific massacre overseas and even though he was cleared of charges, there's still an overt air of animosity and resentment towards everyone involved.  In its first 30 minutes, the first episode works strictly as an examination of the difficulties of entering the world after being at war, especially one as controversial as Vietnam, and those moments are so effective that I could watch a show solely about that.  But once a crime element kicks in -- Mac gets approached by a mysterious man named The Broker, who seems to recruit veterans to become contract killers -- it's pretty gripping as well.

At almost 90 minutes, Quarry's pilot is lengthier than your usual episode of television, but it makes the most of its time.  The first episode carefully lays out this bleak, contemplative tale with great skill and precision.  Sometimes when premium cable networks try one of these quiet, glacially-paced crime shows, it doesn't work (remember The Red Road?), but so far this one seems to have the goods.  Given its 72 score on Metacritic, other critics appear to be less ready to exalt Quarry, but I think it's off to an absolutely terrific start.
Grade: A-

Queen Sugar (OWN, Wednesdays at 10:00 PM)
The main reason why OWN's new family drama Queen Sugar is getting more press than a show on its network usually would is because the pilot is written and directed by Ava Duvernay, who directed the 2014 Best Picture nominee Selma.  Watching this first episode, you can tell it comes from somebody who has never made a TV show.  In some ways, that can be refreshing.  The opening hour has a patience that you don't often see, establishing a mood and tone more than anything, one that is simmering and swaying.  It can lead to frustration too.  For all the time that it spends on the spaces between the plot, I don't feel like I have a great sense of who many of these characters are, nor do I find them all that engaging.  Mostly, I left the first episode feeling a little confounded.  It's not even until about two-thirds of the way through that I felt like I had any sort of idea what the show was about.  This series was pitched by a critic a mix of Rectify and Parenthood, two shows I love, but Queen Sugar only compares to them superficially.  There's obvious skill involved behind and in front of the camera, but I had the nagging feeling throughout watching this that it just wasn't made for me.  This is one of the few times where I genuinely don't know if I'm going to continue watching.
Grade: B-

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