As you may have noticed, I will watch anything. So once again I’m watching all the pilots that are fit to watch… or at least the ones I was arbitrarily curious about, and that showed up on Hulu.
I love TV. Seriously, I like TV better than movies. It’s a shorter time investment, and then if you like a show, it’s fun for longer, sometimes even years. It figures that I also love pilots. The premise is new, the characters are new; it’s fun to figure out what’s going on. It’s the excitement of a movie, but with long-term potential.
Giant caveat here: a pilot can be totally different in quality and tone from the actual show. Just look at the slowly evolving disaster that was last season’s A Gifted Man. That one was hard to let go.
So here, in no particular order, are my first impressions. Beware of spoilers.
Number of episodes watched: 1
US Navy nuclear submarine goes rogue and retrenches to a tropical island. No, really. They had a good reason, having to do with refusing to bomb Pakistan out of existence. And then one of their own ships tried to kill them. It’s complicated.
The adorable Scott Speedman and the eminently agreeable Andre Braugher star. Also with a minor part, Dichen Lachman from Dollhouse, just in case you need to be reminded of the golden era of Joss Whedon TV.* There’s a NATO station, a local warlord, improbably PC Navy officers, and the leftover scenery from Lost.
So disjointed that I wondered if everybody was scrambling in the editing room at the last minute. It felt like some transitional scenes were just cut completely. But ultimately that didn’t bother me too much, because I just didn’t care about what was happening. How can you make me not care about Scott Speedman and Dichen Lachman, show! Speedman and Braugher are both charismatic, but I didn’t believe for a second that they were military men. This show needs more Michelle Rodriguez. More Lost, less JAG.
But here’s what’s actually offensive: as part of the stand-off between the submarine captain and the Nefarious Shadow Conspiracy in the US government, Andre Braugher detonates a nuclear warhead in the Atlantic Ocean. And the show totally glosses over what an environmental and social catastrophe this would be. So basically the captain’s an asshole, okay? And he actually should be court-martialed, along with everyone who knew what he was doing and didn’t stop him. I don’t think this show is saying anything particularly political; it’s just poorly thought out. Maybe the creators were so blinded by the shiny high-concept idea and cool submarine sets that they forgot to revise the storyline. Shiny! (Not in a good Joss Whedon way.)
This show has got to be expensive to make, and it’s hard to see how they can sustain such a claustrophobic plot over the long term. I give it between 5 and 13 episodes.
“I’m not so sure about this, Billy” “Shhh, just keep gazing enigmatically into the distance until somebody gives us some narrative tension.”
Number of episodes watched: 2
All electricity disappears from the earth. Fifteen years later, one man still seems to have some of the answers. But he hasn’t done anything about it yet, because… plot device?
So in the pilot he promptly gets killed by the Evil Militia, who also take his teenage son prisoner. His daughter and his alienated brother go on a quest to rescue the teenage son. And maybe to turn the power back on. It’s like S. M. Stirling’s “Dies the Fire” series, meets Terra Nova. Oh, and there’s a magic flash drive that turns local power back on. Got all that?
I so, so want this show to be great. It’s the most science fictiony of the offerings this fall. Billy Burke as the hard-case para-military badass uncle; Giancarlo Esposito as the Evil Militia’s right-hand man.
But what the show lacks is… electricity. (Sorry, sorry.) I’m willing to put aside the dubious science for the sake of the plot, but in that case, the plot needs to be compelling. So far, I can’t remember the name of a single character. And all that’s happened is:
Generic Girl** and Badass Uncle roam the landscape ostensibly looking for Teenage Brother. They get sidetracked almost immediately, but there’s not much sense of urgency.
Generic Girl makes a good-looking guy friend who turns out to be working for the Evil Militia. This development has all the impact of when that cute guy you kind of liked in eighth grade turned out to be a jerk.
Dead Dad’s Girlfriend is sad because she’ll never see her kids in England again. Well, yes, that is a giant bummer.
Nerdy Science Guy provides some much needed reality checking and sarcasm. He’s kind of like the Greek chorus of intelligent viewers, and is the only one who seems remotely curious about the magic flash drive. Give this man more screen time, please.
Oh, and Generic Girl’s long-lost mother is Elizabeth Mitchell from Lost. Now, I would happily watch an hour of Elizabeth Mitchell and Billy Burke bitching in the wilderness. And the flashbacks to just pre- and post-blackout are cool. But as it stands, there’s surprisingly little tension for a show that should be, you know, tense. They could all die of sepsis at any moment, for pete’s sake!
Much like Terra Nova, this show seems to have low expectations from its viewers. I didn’t really need them to spell out why Dead Dad’s Girlfriend was sad about not seeing her children, even their photos on her (non-working) iPhone. Nor did I need the lengthy dissertation on why Generic Girl doesn’t really want to kill people. You know what happens when the dialogue spells things out so painfully? My attention wanders. It felt like… I just… I… what was I talking about? How long can you reasonably expect a flash drive to be viable, even a magic flash drive? In a world with no electricity and an apparently mild climate, where did Evil Militia Leader get that bucket of ice? What does it say that I’m more curious about the inanimate actors than the breathing ones?
Now, here’s the caveat: this show is from Eric Kripke, of the well-loved Supernatural. So maybe it will improve dramatically. But in the meantime, here’s a tagline:
Revolution: The most exciting sci-fi show since Terra Nova!
You’re welcome, Hollywood. I will accept royalties.
This one is doing quite well in the ratings. It’s going to be around a while, like its mysteriously stable digital media. And I’m inexplicably going to watch every episode, while slowly feeling my own life force drain away.
The best shows you’re probably not even watching
Show runner Dan Harmon got the boot, but we still have the stellar cast. I would rather watch re-runs of this show than almost anything else on TV. It manages to be smart without being in love with itself, and the characters are imperfect, biased, and completely likable. Saturday Night Live wishes they could top the show’s pitch-perfect homages to Law and Order, Ken Burns documentaries, and Doctor Who. And the friendship between Troy and Abed is one of the most lovely relationships on TV.
The Vampire Diaries
Overlook the silly title for a moment. This show is fun, slightly macabre, and tightly paced. It’s not exactly the successor to Joss Whedon, but it shares a lot of the same attributes. For one thing, there are real stakes and real losses. Drama should be heightened by the supernatural, and this one gets that right.
You can keep Breaking Bad, because I think this is the best drama on basic cable right now. Plus there are three back-seasons at this point. Go watch them and tell me you’re not immediately addicted. Every character has at different moments made me cry and annoyed the crap out of me. Max Burkholder, who plays the autism-spectrum son, does such a good job he can be truly discomfiting to watch. This show’s got what both the pilots above are missing: characters so well-realized you actually feel invested in what they want, even if you think they’re crazy for it.
* It still stings after all these years.
** Generic Girl is played by Tracy Spiridakos. I’m sure she’s perfectly lovely and I sincerely hope this show makes her rich and famous.