Friday, October 7, 2016

Pilot Talk 2016: Week 4 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.

Conviction (ABC, Mondays at 10:00 PM)
Hayley Atwell is above Conviction. She's got endless charm and charisma, none of which she gets to use in this show. She's got a fantastic British accent, which she doesn't get to use in this show. She's just an all-around great actor, but you wouldn't know it from this show. Really, the only thing Conviction seems to know is that Hayley Atwell has large breasts. In this stinker, she plays the daughter of a former US president who now leads the Conviction Integrity Unit, a group of lawyers, detectives, and forensics experts who help wrongly accused individuals. If that sounds too convoluted, then don't worry, the fact that she's a former First Daughter plays no role in this pilot. Conviction comes off like it's trying to emulate the slick, stylish tone of a Shonda Rhimes show, but it doesn't realize that for all their flaws, Shonda shows are never as boring and straightforward as this is. Let's hope this sucker gets cancelled quickly so Hayley Atwell can move on to better things.
Grade: C-

Frequency (CW, Wednesdays at 9:00 PM)
It's a little weird to have made Frequency into a TV show.  If its plot, about a woman (Peyton List -- no, the other one) communicates with her dead father 20 years in the past via an old ham radio, feels like it's better suited for a movie, that's because it already was one in 2000.  Weirder still is that it's on The CW, since it doesn't quite fall on either side of the genre show (Arrow, The Vampire Diaries) or offbeat dramedy (Jane the Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) binary.  But either way, I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed this pilot.  Bolstered by a terrific, assured performance from List, the moments of Raimy Sullivan interacting with her father will tug even the stiffest heartstrings.  And the idea that Raimy knowing the details of her father's murder allows her to try to help him avoid it is an interesting setup.  However, somewhere around the halfway point the strong legs holding the show up begin to buckle, as the episode wanders away from that central idea and goes wild with its butterfly effect ramifications.  There's still a chance that the show could turn itself back around, but low ratings for the premiere indicate it won't have much time to do so.
Grade: B-

No Tomorrow (CW, Tuesdays at 9:00 PM)
Between Jane the Virgin two years ago and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend last year, the CW is on a hot streak with their non-genre shows, so No Tomorrow has alot to live up to.  It doesn't quite meet that high bar, at least not yet.  Tori Anderson is a little bland as Evie, a woman who decides to make an "apocalist" when her path crosses with a man who genuinely believes the world is going to end in about 8 months.  And despite that corker of a premise, it doesn't feel as special or stylistically unique as Jane or Crazy-Ex.  Still, it's got a breezy zaniness to it that's very charming.  Creator Corinne Brinkerhoff used to write for Jane the Virgin and she brings some her sensibilities to the pilot's handful of very funny gags, including one involving Evie's milquetoast ex-boyfriend who speaks so softly his dialogue occasionally has to be subtitled.  (Another one including a pogo stick is too hilarious to spoil.)  This grew on me more and more as it went along.  Let's hope the whole show has the same trajectory.
Grade: B

Timeless (NBC, Mondays at 10:00 PM)
NBC's Timeless is deeply silly stuff.  This is a show where a team consisting of a historian (Abigail Spencer), a soldier (Matt Lanter), and a scientist (Malcolm Barrett) use a time machine to attempt to stop a criminal with another time machine who's hopping around the space-time continuum trying to change American history.  Luckily, the show is in good enough hands -- Shawn Ryan (The Shield, Terriers) and Eric Kripke (Supernatural) are co-creators, while Neil Marshall directed the pilot -- that it moves along at a rapid enough speed that you just kind of go with it.  There's a flailing, hurried quality to everything in the show, which is both a good and bad quality.  Mostly though, the pilot is a fun time, despite how daffy and convoluted it all is.  One of the most interesting things Ryan and Kripke have said is that they don't plan on getting bogged down in serialization, preferring to have the episodes function mostly as time-travel-of-the-week standalones.  Refreshing, if true, but judging from what we've seen so far, I'm skeptical of whether they can keep that promise.
Grade: B

Westworld (HBO, Sundays at 9:00 PM)
On paper, Westworld seemed like a sure bet all the way: big budget, airing on HBO, co-created by Jonathan Nolan, an absolutely stacked cast.  But things seemed dicey for a while as word of production issues got out and the show was delayed over and over.  I really wanted this to be good and I'm relieved to report, at least for now, that I'm very happy with it.  Based on the 1973 film of the same name penned by Michael Crichton, Westworld tells the story of a futuristic theme park where guests pay large sums of money to inhabit a world populated by extremely lifelike androids called "Hosts" and play out the numerous scenarios that have been programmed for them.  Nolan is right in his wheelhouse here.  He loves the kind of twisty puzzle box plotting that's on display, and the pilot proceeds with an elegance and grace of someone who is right at home with the material.  The episode constantly upends itself, veering away from expectations and pulling out to reveal another layer folded around what we previously knew the story to be.

"The Original" leaves the viewer with alot of questions, but not the frustrating kind.  It's the kind that indicates the show has set up an interesting world and dramatic blueprint that fosters that specific questioning.  And the episode doesn't just raise questions about its mysteries, it probes the audience with questions about what it means to be human.  If we create beings and only select the attributes we want from humanity, is it inevitable that they'll also develop the attributes we don't want?  Is committing violence upon the Hosts truly harmless?  Where do we draw the line between human and inhuman?  These are the things Westworld is truly interested in.

I also love how the process of maintaining Westworld the theme park feels alot like the process of running a TV show.  It's not a coincidence that the scientists overseeing the park make so much mention of "characters" and "storylines."  It's a delicate balance, just like television.  So many moving and interlocking parts -- if one thing goes wrong, everything is thrown out of whack.  There's a great moment where one of the programmers who writes the Hosts' dialogue is excited to see a new speech he created for a character, but then one of the visitors shoots him before he can deliver it.  It feels alot like a writer getting his or her favorite lines cut in the showrunner's final pass at the script. There are even more overt nods too, as Evan Rachel Wood's Host character gets described by a scientist as "a hooker with hidden depths."  How many times have we heard that archetype, even on HBO?

If there's one complaint so far it's that the story feels a little too on rails, much like the Hosts who unknowingly play out the same arcs over and over.  That's the flipside of Nolan's careful precision -- you can time the moments where things slowly being to go wrong to a tee, which can make it all feel slightly soulless.  Still, this was an exciting and suitably creepy hour-plus of television.  More than pretty much any other new show this year, I'm excited to see where this one goes.
Grade: B+


  1. We've all been loving Westworld too. This is honestly the first one that I've shown to her that she has instantly liked and been drawn into (we didn't even get past the first episode of Person of Interest; for some reason she hates Michael Emerson, mostly because of Lost).

    It really feels like Jonathan Nolan is just picking up where he left off with Person of Interest and exploring artificial intelligence to a much greater degree; the lead actress is great, Ed Harris is suitably chilling, it's great to see Anthony Hopkins on something continuous like this and that lead scientist guy from the Hunger Games is really good here as well.

    It's been maintaining quality throughout the season so far in my opinion and definitely the best new show of the year.

    1. Yeah it seems like Jonathan Nolan is very interested in artificial intelligence.

      This is definitely one of my top new shows of the year too. Some critics seem to be a little less hot on it, but I feel like most of the negative things they say are either nitpicky or coming at the show from the wrong angle.

      Some really terrific acting all around, but especially from Evan Rachel Wood, who is absolutely fantastic here.