Fall T.V Pilots: The Dramas

As I had previously teased, here are my reviews of the five drama pilots I’ve watched. Some potential award-worthy dramas are here, as well as one huge waste of space.

Dramas of Interest

Terra Nova, Mondays @8pm on Fox

A sci-fi pilot is probably the most difficult kind of episode you can make. You must at least begin building an entire world, establish what the rules of this universe are, and on top of that tell a compelling story with fully fleshed out characters. Terra Nova does a lot of things right in its pilots, but some threatening rise out of it as well. I instantly thought of Lost while watching this pilot, considering that both shows are character-driven, those relationships are embedded in a mythology heavy premise with plenty of monsters and enemies to vanquish. In fact, for loyal Losties you may feel like Nova rips off the idea of a competing civilization. Instead of being referred to as The Others, this tribe goes by the moniker of the Sixers. Since the show is so contingent upon its premise let me break it down. It’s the year 2149, and humans have effectively destroyed Earth’s delicate ecosystem. The air isn’t safe to breathe without wearing a filtering mask called a re-breather. A selective few though are given the privilege to become apart of the social experiment called Terra Nova, a colony that is located 85 million years in the past. For any sci-fi fanatics, the issue of the butterfly and/or grandfather paradox is explained by saying that scientists discovered a “time rip” which is essentially an alternate time stream. I found that contrived logic completely unnecessary, I would have enjoyed it without the explanation.

The first twenty minutes of the pilot are the most thrilling I have seen in quite some time. When we are first introduced to the Shannon family they seem pleasant, and well-adjusted. But then there is a threatening knock at the door. Apparently, having three kids in 22nd century America is a no-no, and they are coming for number three. Then daddy, Jim Shannon (Jason O’Mara) goes macho and assaults an officer putting him in jail. Two years pass and wife, Elisabeth (Shelley Conn), has news that she has been recruited as a doctor for the latest “pilgrimage” to Terra Nova. She and her husband plot to break him and his daughter out from the fascist government facilities and join her and the other two kids in the colonial paradise. The ensuing action is gripping and had me transfixed with its ability to create doubt despite the inevitable.

This premiere was two hours and incredibly dense. We are introduced obviously to the main focus of the series, the Shannon family and Commander Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang), the colony’s leader. As mentioned we are introduced to the “enemies” called the Sixers. These members of the Sixth Pilgrimage are shrouded in a jungle overgrowth of mystery much like The Others of Lost, but the fact that they are introduced much earlier on bodes well, because as heart-racing as the dinosaur sequences are, I would not be compelled to watch Jurassic Park with subpar special effects every week. The strength of the show is going to lie in the relationships built in this community. I’m a big fan of Stephen Lang, who plays a more benevolent military man than his comparable role in Avatar, but he gives you reason not to trust him as he hides things from Jim and other colonists. Shelley Conn is delightful and appropriately maternal and she plays well off of O’Mara which is comforting. But O’ Mara by himself doesn’t seem suited for his role as action star, which seems to be his billing for this show. He could be waiting to break out in future episodes, but I am gonna need convincing.

The eldest daughter, Maddy, plays a quirky science nerd who already has a crush. This may seem like a stock way to keep her involved, but I like the character enough that I won’t mind watching her try and snag the hot guy. Her brother, Josh (Landon Liboiron) on the other hand is awfully angsty. He dials down once he meets his love interest Skye (Allison Miller). Miller plays Skye organically with an electricity that suggests her character is as dangerous as she is alluring. She lost her father to disease residing in Terra Nova, and Commander Taylor has become her adopted father. She is adventurous and fearless, quite refreshing for a female teen on TV. She reminds me of Katniss, from the novel, The Hunger Games.

Ultimately the longevity of the show will rely on its characters and how invested we are in them. The Shannon family dynamic was interesting until towards the end when Jim and his son had a forcibly sentimental bonding moment after Josh had been reticent of whether he could trust his dad after he had been locked up for two years. If the struggles can seem more genuine and we can continue to stew freely without heavy-handed interference over the motivations of Commander Taylor and the Sixers I will be tuning in. While the dinosaurs didn’t blow me away with their production value, the grandeur of the landscape and its dinos alike are matching up well with its themes and ambition. Except for maybe Commander Taylor, Skye, and the Sixers as a group however, the ensemble isn’t nearly as arresting. = B+

Person of Interest, Thursday @9pm on CBS

Saying I was highly anticipating this show would be an understatement. I adore pretty much every thing that J.J Abrams and Jonathan Nolan have touched and actor Michael Emerson played one of my favorite characters of all time: Benjamin Linus on Lost. The stakes were inevitably high, and I am not quite disappointed by this pilot, but I wasn’t blown away. Jim Caviezel is John Reese, former CIA field op who is trying to drink himself to death as a homeless man in NYC. When we meet our hero he is disheveled with a bottle of liquor and being harassed by a resident Russian gangster and his young flunkies. Reese when provoked eliminates the whole lot of them with military precision. this catches the eye of NYPD’s Detective Carter (Taraji P. Henson). Once he is released from police custody he is whisked into the vehicle of the mysterious  biilionaire/computer genius Mr. Finch (Emerson) who offers him an opportunity. He says he knows a lot about Reese, asking if that is still his name referencing five different identities. Finch says he knows Reese is haunted by the memory of his dead lover that he couldn’t save in time. He also suggests that he can give him what he’s always yearned for as a an agent, and human being riddled by loss; a way to get there before bad things happen.

What follows is a covert mission, given to revinvigorated Reese from Finch, with still much of both men’s intentions shrouded by their separate emotional facades. He says that he knows that a woman is linked to a crime and asks Reese to follow her so that he might prevent anything from happening to her. (SPOILER ALERT) But unexpectedly when he follows her he discovers that she is the criminal mastermind. Strangely Finch’s machine only provides him with a social security number for a “person of interest,” (ah, there it is), as he has reconfigured the system from its original function: to pre-empt massive scale terrorist attacks such as 9/11. Prior to his tinkering the computer would disregard any “non-pertinent” crimes and the connections between P.O.I’s. (SPOILER ALERT OFF).

The shows greatest assets are Michael Emerson and the potential of its premise.  This Minority Report like contraption may be a product of the Patriot Act, but as a true baby of Jonathan Nolan I am hoping that the show gets weirder and darker. Caviezel didn’t bother me as an ass-kicker, but he was stiff when the scene called for emotion. If he remains that robotic, they better re-cast, because this role calls for a strong, silent type with a vulnerable side, and the armor is too pervasive at this juncture. Also in the weekly mission all the villains were annoyingly typical, devoid of dimensions or enateh the surface motives. It isn’t like Nolan to write one-dimensional stock characters who represent our preconceived notions of corrupt law officials, when you account for his work in Memento and The Dark Knight. Hopefully even within the procedural formula this show can break convention. I’m wishy-washy after the pilot. Either we will be treated to a psychedelic sci-fi spin on crime fighting that redefines our expectations of the cop drama with compelling character and thematic depth or we’ll be inundated with a post 9/11 Law and Order where surveillance and hand-to-hand combat specialists replace astute and learned sleuths. The monotony with which the corruption plot was executed has me worrying for the latter when the former is more my bag. Don’t let me down J.J and J-Nol!   = B-

Homeland, Sundays at 10pm on Showtime

So at this point between my comedy reviews and drama reviews prior to this you might have a bleak outlook on the new fall shows. Where is the great standalone pilot? Last season, it was Lone Star, and tragedy of all tragedies occurred and the show was cancelled after two episodes. This season that great drama of the fall is Homeland. Starring Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison, a CIA operative who believes that a recnetly rescued P.O.W has been turned by Al-Qaeda. The tricky part is getting anyone to believe her. The only semblance of proof she holds is a passing comment by an Iraqi prisoner. She decides she will skip the particular and set up illegal surveillance in his home. The Marine, Nicholas Brody, is played by Damian Lewis. Brody doesn’t give much away, but with his uncharacteristic sexual aggressiveness towards his wife, and his temper towards his kids it is clear something is amiss. But the ambiguity is not limited to just the object of surveillance. Carrie is clearly inhibited by some mental issue and as viewers we want to believe her, but we wonder if the caution from her boss and friends is warranted. Will she be that vigilante that rises to the occasion, or a victim of circumstance?

Between the superb acting by Damian Lewis and Claire Danes, and the nuanced directing and writing, this is clearly the pilot worthy of a top grade. Danes absolutely nails the right balance between competence and obsession while also leaving that sense of unpredictabilIty. Is she is self-destructive or the genius that will save our nation? Lewis as mentioned does a superb job of conveying the guilt he is being accused of while never doing anything noticeably out of character, which is strange considering this is our first introduction to this guy. The supporting cast is not overshadowed either by these commanding leads. Mrs. Brody (Morena Baccharin) does a great take on a wife relieved to have her husband home, but terrified of the consequences. Of course she slept with his best friend and loved every steamy moment of it, but now what does she do? Have her di—, I mean cake, and eat it too? ALso stellar is Mandy Patinkin as Saul, Carrie’s ally, and former boss. He straddles the line between enabler and stalwart resistance. Clearly they have a past, or it was at least alluded to and that is clouding his judgement, but he recognizes that and is choosing to let her go on with this venture anyway. She was at least able to snag a shred of proof for him by the episode’s end, but it isn’t exactly proof of terrorist ties, it is proof he is hiding something. The suspenseful portrayals and inherent tension of the plot grab hold of you and don’t let go.

The two main producers of the show worked on 24 and it shows. They took all the elements of how to portray counterterrorism, and combined that strength with a subtler tone of intrigue, in the process creating the next great cable drama. I cannot overstate too how revolutionary this show could become. For the past decade we have been treated to compelling male anti-heroes like Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Don Draper(Mad Men) and Walter White (Breaking Bad), and now with the advent of Carrie Mathison, may we finally have the female anti-hero to join their ranks? Danes certainly possesses the acting chops, and if the writers don’t go overboard in terms of revealing or justifying her psychology, she could become the femme fatale to rival those lovable villains.  = A

Feminist or Revisionist?

The Playboy Club, Mondays @10pm on NBC

If that was the high, here’s the comedown.

I have no problem with trying to emulate past triumphs. Obviously, Terra Nova being a genre show, has some similarities to Lost, a critical darling, so trying to capitalize on the 60’s glamour that Mad Men exposed and endeared audiences to is not a crime by any means. It is a blatant offense, however, when as a period piece you start to rewrite history. Claiming that working as a Playboy Bunny was a step towards female empowerment is precisely that: a revision of rampant 60’s sexism. During Heff’s narration, he quips, “At the Playboy Club, a woman could be anybody, or any bunny.” Besides being excruciatingly groan-worthy, it’s also a fabrication, a distortion of the truth. Yes, being a bunny was an opportunity for girls to be something besides a housewife, but the fact that the choices were bake cookies or flaunt your body for profit is awful and there’s no way around it. Women were sexualizing themselves in order to make money, but mostly objectifying themselves to make more money for men! How is that progressive at all?

It’s an embarrassment how the show contradicts itself when it shows in the pilot’s first ten minutes how objectification lends itself to desensitizing men towards sexual violence by having a mob boss attempt to rape newcomer bunny, Maureen (Amber Heard). And there is an obnoxious amount of wrong within that scene. Let’s go down the short list: 1). An attempted rape within the first 10 minutes of a show’s first episode? It’s insane. 2) Since when was it okay to insert a mob boss to create stakes. I am not saying it isn’t plausible that a crime lord would be at the club, but we don’t even know it until after he is dead that he is involved with The Family. 3) When the bunny tries to defend herself, the rape turns into manslaughter?! 4) The autopsy report will reveal a heel to the juggular is the culprit. Possible? Yes. Ever happened by accident? Perhaps. A cheap way to get us to care about this character and have us trapped into waiting for a resolution? Absolutely.

Now to be fair there were a couple smirk-inducers within this mostly god-awful excuse for storytelling. Curious about Nick Dalton’s more infamous assets, a fellow bunny replies to Maureen’s disgust, “Honey you have a dirty mind, I was gonna say penis.” No, I’m serious, that was the best line. Why are you laughing? Jerks. Anyway, there were far more cornballers and expository nightmares than chucklers. I wonder if they thought by going for as ham-tastic as possible they could write it off as self-aware irony, but they just can’t, because even the actors are trying too hard. Eddie Cibrian as Nick Dalton is the absence of charisma. Everyone else, especially the bunnies think he is the deadliest catch, but I think he is a self-important douchebag who thinks that by helping a girl avoid being whacked by the Mafia it entitles him to some sugar. He does not come off deserving of Maureen’s affections, he comes off as deserving a kick to the teeth for his smugness and lack of anything interesting to say that isn’t about himself. Why do network writers have such a hard time with anti-heroes? He can’t just be completely insufferable, he has to be charming, and that does not mean implying he is well-endowed and remarking on how handsome he is when he isn’t proving it on screen!

I suppose the Bunny Mother character (too hard to explain) is worth a second glance as her motives are unclear, but ambiguity does not translate into interesting, sometimes it can just be downright confusing if we don’t know what our options are, which is precisely the case when she dramatically shifts from self-obsessed diva to shrewd, but painfully forthright caretaker. And I am mildly curious about how the other Bunnies will react when they find out one of them is gay, but why is this show so insisting? There’s a black bunny, a gay bunny, a killer bunny, and a married bunny. Wow, Hugh Hefner is such an inspiring figure. To allow women from all walks of life to press their boobs into your face and make money off of the public’s mammary obsession, is a remarkable achievement. For freeing that cleavage from its oppressive fabric confinement, he should be recognized as a prominent feminist! Yes, now I’ve had my fun. In all seriousness, Hefner may be a liberal activist, and a proponent for civil liberties, and that is both noteworthy and legitimate, but that doesn’t excuse how for decades he has flamboyantly reveled in his piggishness. To claim, as this show does, that he was a pioneer for sexual equality is blatantly irresponsible.

Amber Heard is undoubtedly sexy, and she should have every right to embrace that and assert herself physically in the sexual sphere, but the idea that she can “be somebody” because men find her beautiful is infuriatingly regressive to me, and not at all a positive spin. Mad Men is unabashedly sexist, and we know it. It’s shameful The Playboy Club has no clue, first of what female empowerment even means or looks like and second how to construct a compelling story without cliffhanger gimmicks or criminal tropes. It’s horrible that these actresses can’t be a part of a show that honestly challenges the idea of women’s sexuality in America, because that would be a beautiful thing. Playboy Club is sadly just like the bunnies, a desperate attempt to give the people what they want while rendering people as less than they really are. = D- (No “F” because I don’t feel it failed to make something entertaining, but it is entertaining for ALL the wrong reasons).

**Editor’s Note: The Playboy Club has been cancelled as of this blog’s posting date.

Pan Am, Sundays @10pm on ABC

The natural laws of competition suggest there has to be a winner and a loser. Therefore, Pan-Am earns the distinction of winner in the Mad-Men wannabe sweepstakes, but does it simply win by default? Is Pan-Am merely less offensive than The Playboy Club? Fortunately, I get to be the bearer of good news and tell you we have a legitimate drama on our hands. I still wonder if the female empowerment angle is justifiable, but their approach is not nearly as insulting. Here it is evident women are hired to be symbols of beauty, but the stewardesses of Pan-Am (the politically correct moniker of fight attendant does not exist) exploit the opportunity their sex appeal offers them as a way to liberate themselves from domesticity and to travel the world. Though the final frame where a young girl stares in awe at the women of Pan-Am Airlines suggested to me that they hope to portray the girls as role models troubles me, I like the concept that they can subvert the misogynist system by deconstructing their gendered images from within. Though they may be advertised as mere “sky candy” (I need to trademark this term), some engage in premarital sex, some engage in espionage, and one looks to create a whole new life and self-image, but the emphasis is on options. No one is denying that women aren’t still viewed through the objectifying lens of sexual gratification, but the stewardesses are exposed to more experiences than they could have imagined. Granted, one could argue that being a Playboy bunny offers the same worldliness, but the difference is Playboy is predicated on selling bodies for consumption, whereas stewardesses augmented the pleasantries of air travel with the luxury of “sky candy,” (I will make this a thing, I promise you).

During Pan Am Airlines’ maiden voyage on their brand spanking new Clipper Majestic jet, we are introduced to our four heroines of aviation: Kate (Kelli Garner), Colette (Karine Vanasse), Maggie (Christina Ricci) and Laura (Margot Robbie). Laura is a rookie and the sister of Kate. Kate harbors a bit of resentment for her sister’s recent employment which can be interpreted as a defense of territory. This has been Kate’s world, apart from her family. Of course she loves her sister, but she wanted to define herself apart from her old life, of which Laura is a glaring reminder. She has a burdensome secret she is keeping from her younger sister too; she has been recruited by the government for purposes of international espionage. Colette is mired in an extramarital affair where she is the mistress. This was unbeknownst to her when she slept with the passenger at the hotel after landing. Inevitably, she runs into him, but this time with wife and child in tow. Maggie is a last minute addition to the flight, but we get to experience the privileges of working for Pan-Am as she is rushed via helicopter to the gate. We also get to see her curiously beatnik digs and are left wondering what her story is as we mostly get flashbacks on the Cameron sisters, Kate and Laura. Ricci plays her with an appropriate veteran zeal, but I hope there is a little bit of spunk underneath the sunny exterior and that she’s provided more screen time as she is clearly the most prolific screen presence.

I welcome the implementing of the flashback technique since I am intrigued by their backstories that got them to Pan-Am, but I don’t necessarily want them to spend considerable time away from the friendly skies for me to get acquainted. I was also encouraged by the male cast members, who play lovesick Pilot Dean Lowrey, and smooth-talking wingman Co-Pilot Ted Vanderway. Dean was given a flashback alongside Bridgette (Annabelle Wallis), a stewardess who quit unexpectedly. He proposed to her while they were grounded in Paris, but for unspeakable reasons she declined. You will find out why by the end through Kate as she rendezvouses with her contact in London.

What is most enjoyable about Pan-Am is it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It relishes in its escapist qualities: overseas adventures, beautiful women, spy missions and romance (basically just lots animalistic, lingerie flying everywhere, puff a pack of cigarettes afterwards because it was so vigorous SEX). There is also a clear mission statement. In the climatic scene, Dean and Ted ogle the stewarding sweethearts and Ted idolizes them as “a new brand of women.” If transcending the confines of their tight-fitting uniforms in order to make their mark on the world is what the Pan-Am creators are shooting for I can get behind that. And from what we learn of the fierce foursome I buy that they are ambitious, strong-willed and beyond capable of shattering the delicate baby doll paradigm. Much like the girls they are showcasing the directions this series could go are limitless. This strong pilot positions Pan-Am’s potential as a fun, sexy, smart Sunday cornerstone with a lot to say, but with an airy, network glitz instead the heavy grit of the current cable drama  = A-

Well, I hope you enjoyed my deep analysis of the new fall shows. Now you can avoid the Whitneys and Playboy Clubs and immerse yourself in Homeland, Pan-Am, Terra Nova, Up All Night and New Girl. Just remember, I’m right and you’re wrong, and not at all serious.

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