Saturday, September 24, 2016

Pilot Talk 2016: Week 3 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.

Bull (CBS, Tuesdays at 9:00 PM)
I hope you weren't fooled by the two A- grades that were dished out in the first week.  The new network shows are here in full force and that's when Pilot Talk truly kicks in, baby!  And boy does it ever with Bull, one of CBS' latest gussied up procedurals about a firm that uses pseudoscience to calculate the outcomes of trials and help their clients win cases.  Like Rake and House and many more before it, Bull is one of the shows that focuses on the titular man (in this case, Dr. Jason Bull) whose strong personality provides the gravitational force for everything that proceeds.  Unfortunately, the character and the actor who plays him (Michael Weatherly) are the absolute worst.  Every line is said with a cocked eyebrow, like he's fighting the urge to look at the camera and wink.  As a whole, the show is so self-satisfied, from its flat quips to the tech talk that sounds like it was written by your dad.  Bull tries to exude cool, but at every turn it comes off like a phony.
Grade: D+

Designated Survivor (ABC, Wednesdays at 10:00 PM)
All of the promos made Designated Survivor out to be one of those shows that bursts out of the gate in the first episode, but then proceeds to fall apart afterwards.  So it's not a good sign that even the pilot wasn't as exciting as I thought it would be.  That's not to say it's all bad.  In fact, there's quite a bit to like about this episode, which centers on the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (Keifer Sutherland) who must rise to the occasion when a bombing at the Capitol kills the President and the rest of the Cabinet, leaving him as the next in the line of succession.  It does a great job of placing you in Secretary Kirkman's shoes, as we're often shown the chaos of these events from his direct POV.  You can always count on Keifer Sutherland to deliver gravitas, and he undeniably carries the show, especially later in the episode when his character reveals himself to be better suited for the job than many would've thought.  Still, I couldn't shake the feeling that this was just a little too soulless.  It was supposed to be propulsive, but it just seemed to be incapable of reaching top speed.
Grade: B-

The Exorcist (Fox, Fridays at 9:00 PM)
The growing trend seems to be TV studios just throwing darts at random popular films and deciding to make a show out of them.  It hasn't been overwhelmingly successful, but maybe Fox's hope is that they'll land on something with a reinterpretation of the classic William Friedkin horror film The Exorcist.  The show follows Father Tomas (Alfonso Herrera), a priest who has been having dreams featuring a mysterious man (Ben Daniels) performing some kind of exorcism on a boy who seems possessed.  When Angela Rance (Geena Davis), one of his parishioners, reaches out to him about mysterious disturbances occurring at her house since her eldest daughter returned home from college, he decides to try to find this man and enlist his help.  Tomas isn't very interesting so far, but all of the scenes focusing on the Rance family are quite compelling.  The pilot sets up an interesting dynamic that mirrors the original film's, where you're unsure whether Katherine, who took leave from school after her friend died in an accident, is acting strange out of grief or some sort of possession.  There's a grim, moody patience that the episode moves along with, which helps scenes build tension.  It also contains some surprises that have me hopeful that it could take a step up in quality.
Grade: B

The Good Place (NBC, Thursdays at 8:30 PM)
This pilot begins with Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) waking up in an unfamiliar location with no memory of how she got there.  A man then explains that she's died and is in  The Good Place, an afterlife haven where only the select few who lived the most virtuous lives can spend eternity.  But here's the thing: there was a mix-up and Eleanor is actually an awful person who doesn't belong there.  That's a high concept for a comedy that other writers might crumble under.  However, the great Mike Schur (who brings along many of his Parks & Recreation writers) is just the guy for the job, and he handles that setup as well as you can imagine.  The first episode can get a little heavy on the info-dumping, as the logic and rules of The Good Place get established, but it still manages to be funny and brisk throughout .  And it helps that the show is led by Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, who are inveterate delights.  Bell's post-Veronica Mars career hasn't been as artistically promising as it should have been, but her work here reminds you just how terrific she is.

If a show about a bad person feels odd for Mike Schur, then it'll make sense when it quickly reveals itself to be about a bad person learning to be good.  There's no learning needed for The Good Place itself though; this one is doing all the right things already.  It's laying out some interesting ideas about the way the afterlife works, it has already taken some wacky turns, and it has given some nice texture to Eleanor.  Things can only go up from here.
Grade: B+

Kevin Can Wait (CBS, Mondays at 8:00 PM)
Poor Erinn Hayes.  She was absolutely hilarious as Dr. Lola Spratt for seven seasons on Childrens Hospital, and she's generally delightful whenever she pops up on a show or in a movie.  I only want the best for her.  Kevin Can Wait, Kevin James' return to CBS, is far from the best.  In this generic sitcom that feels like middle-tier material from the late 90s, James plays a recently retired cop and Hayes is his put-upon wife.  I'd tell you more about show, but you can probably accurately guess the other ingredients with a small margin of error.  There are three kids, James' character doesn't approve of his eldest daughter's boyfriend, there's a goofy uncle, and so on.  For the first few minutes, Kevin Can Wait seems pretty harmless.  It's not funny, but it's not offensive either (one of Erinn Hayes' line deliveries even made me smile a little!).  But after a while, that mediocrity begins to pile up and I finally threw my hands up and decided I hated this pilot.
Grade: D+

Lethal Weapon (Fox, Wednesdays at 8:00 PM)
Here's another TV show based on a popular film from more than two decades ago.  This time the dart landed on the buddy cop series Lethal Weapon, which stars Damon Wayans as the "too old for this shit" Roger Murtaugh and Clayne Crawford as the plays-by-his-own-rules Martin Riggs.  Featuring direction from McG and writing from Matt Miller (Chuck, Human Target), the pilot is a slick, fun little jaunt.  The procedural case, involving a man whose murder was made to look like a suicide, is a little generic, but that's to be expected.  What really matter in shows like these are the beats in between the crime-solving, and Lethal Weapon delivers ample flavor in that regard, thanks to Crawford and Wayans' entertaining chemistry.  This is a show I won't be watching weekly because I imagine it will always stay in this gear, but if this is your kind of thing, I highly recommend it.
Grade: B

MacGuyver (CBS, Fridays at 8:00 PM)
Studios aren't just about making shows based on movies, sometimes they make shows based on older shows.  MacGuyver may be a new version of the 1985-1992 series of the same name, but it's not exactly modern.  In fact it seems distinctly targeted towards older people -- it is a CBS show after all -- as it goes through so much trouble to over-explain everything.  Whether its through MacGuyver's (Lucas Till) excessive voiceover narration or the unnecessary chyrons on the screen that explain things like "adhesive tape" and "paper clip" to you.  At least it has a springy vibe to keep things from getting too dull.
Grade: C

Notorious (ABC, Thursdays at 9:00 PM)
What happens when you cross a bad lawyer show with a worse version of The Newsroom?  Well, Notorious is what you get.  I feel sorry for anyone who had to write 800 words about this empty show.
Grade: C-

Pitch (Fox, Thursdays at 9:00 PM)
Critics have been using Friday Night Lights as a point of comparison when talking about this new Fox drama about Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury in a star-making turn), the first woman to play for an MLB team.  And that makes sense in terms of how unrealistic and goofy both can be when getting into the nitty gritty details about their respective sports.  The main character throws 10 straight balls (3 of which are wild pitches) in her first major league start!  Her specialty pitch is a screwball!  Jokes aside, this was a great first episode, one that's in contention for being the best network pilot of the fall.  Dan Fogelman (Galavant, Crazy. Stupid. Love) co-wrote this pilot, and he brings alot of his signature spark and wit to the episode.  He deconstructs sports narrative cliches -- the rousing motivational speech, the fierce rival, etc. -- but he's also not afraid to embrace its cheesiness.  Some may not be able to stomach the level of cheese this pilot provides, from its schmaltzy flashbacks to its inspirational tone, but those who can will find that it offers unique delights.

And there is a refreshingly low level of antagonism compared to what you'd expect from a show with this premise.  There are some players on the team who are annoyed by the main characters' presence, and one who especially seems to have it out for her, but it doesn't feel like the whole world is against her.  It's that kind of smart decision-making that puts it ahead of many other new shows.  Plus it already has two strong relationships going for it: the tenuous camaraderie between Ginny and her superstar catcher (Mark Paul Gosselaar), along with the intense dynamic with Ginny and her father.  Who knows if Pitch can satisfy as a sports show, but the strength of the character dynamics is what gives it such great potential.
Grade: B+

Speechless (ABC, Wednesdays at 8:30 PM)
ABC has been trying their hand at diversifying their family sitcoms with great results, as it has given us Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, two of the best network comedies on the air.  This time around, they're applying their "it's an ABC family sitcom but _________" formula and putting "with a disabled child" in the blank with Speechless.  And once again, it seems like they've landed on a hit.  The pilot not only differentiates itself by offering an insight into living with a disability -- the title comes from the fact that son J.J. has cerebral palsy that renders him unable to speak -- but it also isn't afraid to be a little cruel.  The DiMeo family has a mean edge to them, but not in the over-the-top way that some family sitcoms go for -- there's still clearly alot of love there.  Though we may not know what it's like to be in a family where someone has a disability, there's a quality to their interactions that feels genuine.  And most importantly, the show is funny.  It spreads the wealth around, giving everyone in the cast, even the kids, an opportunity for comedy.  After watching Kevin Can Wait, it's nice to know I still have the ability to laugh.
Grade: B+

This is Us (NBC, Tuesdays at 10:00 PM)
One of the biggest surprises of becoming an adult is how much I've grown to love goopy, touchy feely dramas.  I've especially been missing Parenthood lately, the best goopy, touchy feely drama there ever was, so NBC's This is Us has arrived right on time.  I was convinced that I loved this sappy, sensitive drama about a set of disparate people seemingly only connected by the fact that it's all of their 36th birthdays in the first few minutes too.  It turns out I was tricked by the fact that Sufjan Stevens' "Should've Known Better" was playing under the early scenes and I just love the song, no the show.  But I do like it, and could end up liking it even more with time.  There are some missteps in this pilot, namely the fact that it defines Kate (Chrissy Metz) solely by the fact that she's overweight and hates it.  Despite that, the first episode works thanks to the sharp writing of Dan Fogelman, who reunites with Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, his collaborators on the very underrated romantic comedy Crazy. Stupid. Love.  By now, you've probably heard about a big twist that the episode ends on, and it's certainly an interesting one.  But this one would be worth sticking with even if it didn't include that extra wrinkle.
Grade: B


  1. So we've been watching Designated Survivor and it's alright. It's not 24 and it's plotting definitely feels like network television, but it's worth my time for more Kiefer Sutherland.

    What do you think of it so far? Also has the Exorcist been doing well enough in the ratings that it's worth checking out? (heard it might get cancelled) Has it stayed good?

    1. Designated Survivor was solid enough that I might have stuck with it in previous years but I'm trying to be a little more choosy about TV because I'm going crazy watching all these shows lol.

      I've still been liking The Exorcist alot. It's got some surprisingly chilling moments for a network show, and I think the central family are all great characters (the exorcist characters are still a little dull for me). It's hard to tell whether the show is going to get cancelled or not. The ratings aren't great, but they've evened out so they're no longer dropping and it might be enough to stay on since it airs on Friday. I say still wait on checking it out and I'll keep you posted.

  2. Ok sounds good; and I'll let you know if Designated Survivor ever elevates itself from it's current status (which is simply "good" IMO. Jack Bauer has only been unleashed for a single line; the rest has been relatively muted).