Sunday, September 29, 2013

Pilot Season - Fall 2013

It has been a long summer with record heat and almost nothing to distract me from it. On the plus side, I have subscribed to a lot of new YouTube groups. Fortunately, I no longer have to rely solely on talented amateurs because the new fall season has begun!

I was actually completely unprepared for this season with all of my attention on just one show. So when pilot season came around, I was entirely surprised by how many intriguing new shows were available.

I picked the best of the lot, six shows that sounded most interesting, and decided to review them. Since this is a pilot season review, I will be evaluating the series more for its potential rather than how the episodes stand on their own.


Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
   starring Clark Gregg
   created by Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon, & Maurissa Tancharoen

This is the one show that I had been looking forward to since it was announced months ago. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is Marvel Studio's first foray into live-action television with a spin-off series set in the larger, cinematic Marvel universe. The show stars Clark Gregg reprising his role as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson who appeared in all of Marvel's "Phase 1" films.

In the pilot, Agent Coulson has recently returned to duty following his death in the Avengers. His rebirth is left a mystery. He seems convinced that the entire thing was all a deception created by him and Nick Fury, yet an enigmatic conversation between Maria Hill (Colbie Smothers) and Dr. Streiten (Ron Glass) indicates a darker secret that he can never know.

Aside from Coulson himself, the episode centers around superstar Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) and a well-meaning cyber-anarchist named Skye (Chloe Bennett). Ward is clearly the young alpha male hero, but the script is quick to show that he is also sensitive and caring through a clever reverse-interrogation scene. Skye herself is a mystery even to S.H.I.E.L.D. as she has deleted all trace of her original identity. This makes me wonder what sort of dark history she had. Perhaps a super-criminal parent?

Rounding out the cast are Melissa May (Ming-Na Wen), an experienced field agent who has voluntarily taken herself out of action, and the technical genius duo of Fitz and Simmons. They both work in a support capacity with Fitz as the chemist and Simmons the engineer.

The plot revolves around Mike Petersen, a hard-working, blue-collar single dad who volunteers for an experiment that gives him superhuman powers. Despite his good intentions, the experimental device that has been grafted to his arm is increasing his anger and paranoia. Since it is based on unstable technology, if Mike doesn't calm down, he will literally explode.

After watching the episode, I have to admit that I'm a little disappointed. Sure, the dialog is clever, there are some great gags, and I like all of the advanced sci-fi spy tech that reminds us that they are actually in the Marvel Universe and not a contemporary intelligence organization... but I can't help but feel like this is the junior team.

Aside from Coulson and Melissa May, the rest of the cast is really young and I can't get that out of my head while I'm watching it. It just screams "television." Unfortunately, Colby Smothers was only in the pilot as a guest star, but I'm hoping that Dr. Streiten will become a regular part of the show, if only to increase the median age of the crew.

The script immediately sets romantic and sexual tension between the two most charismatic young people on the show. He's a tough, pragmatic government man; she's a smart, anarchistic woman. It works a little too well and you feel that inevitable magnetic draw of two polar opposites... and yet I'm already tired of it.

All in all, I would recommend Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. if you are a fan of Marvel Comics, Marvel Films, or high-tech spy adventures a la Mission: Impossible. The script is clever and the characters are familiar yet unique.

To close out, I would like to acknowledge a response from S.H.I.E.L.D. artist Jim Steranko who said the the show “needs to be much tougher, much stranger, much edgier to reach it’s potential.” I would agree with this. This story tepidly uses elements from all Marvel films to inform the powers of its hero. I can see a lot of reasons why this is a good idea, but ultimately, Steranko is right. I want the show to be weirder in both plot and structure. I want the reality bending, sci-fi pinnings of Star Trek, Doctor Who, and X-Files. Not merely a "freak of the week" but a science fiction mystery that makes the viewer question their presumptions of reality. Fortunately, I see the potential for just such a show.

The Michael J. Fox Show
   starring some guy
   created by that same guy

Michael J. Fox plays Mike Henry, beloved New York City news anchor who left the air after he was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. From the start, it is clear that the show is semi-autobiographical. We are introduced to Mike Henry at home with his family. It is clear that he has been retired for too long because he is annoying his family by being overly involved in their life. Consequently, they are always on the go and never sit down to a meal. When Mike bumps into his former segment producer, he is easily convinced to return to work where he is all too enthusiastically welcomed.

The emotional core of the story is how Mike Henry and the people around him deal with the effects of Parkinson's on their lives. Everyone is supportive, but they all handle it in their own way. His close friends joke about it and his children seem oddly used to it. At one point, his daughter even tries to exploit her father's condition (both physical and societal) to get an easy grade on a project. The plan fails only due to her complete insincerity and she is forced to redo the project more honestly, but the fact that she would try this at all makes her instantly unlikeable. On the other hand, Mike's segment producer, Harris Green, uses his condition to sensationalize their promos and bump up their ratings.

If you can't tell already, I didn't like this show. The premise has promise, but the issue is with the execution. Michael J. Fox seems to have the only fully developed character and even he isn't that interesting. The situation is interesting, and certainly original, but none of the characters around Mike Henry are particularly memorable.

What's curious is that the show knows that we love Michael J. Fox, but in the character of Mike Henry, it questions whether that love is sincere. Do we like Michael J. Fox for who he is, or because he is a celebrity with a debilitating condition? I find that premise very compelling and personal, but there is also a dour tone set over the series. Characters are always negotiating around Mike Henry and his condition, so there is an inherent awkwardness. Awkwardness can either create a comedic situation (The Office) or drain any semblance of humor from a scene (The Office), and unfortunately, the awkwardness in this show is more of the latter.

The Crazy Ones
   starring Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar
   created by David E. Kelley

Available on

This show came completely out of the blue for me, which is surprising since Robin Williams is such a prominant actor and David E. Kelley is one of my favorite writers. In fact, I didn't even know Kelley was the showrunner until his name popped up in the opening credits

But the theme tonight is "Not funny enough to be a comedy; not serious enough to be a drama." Don't get me wrong. Blending comedy and drama has been used to great effect since before Shakespeare, but goofiness undermines the tension in a dramatic scene... and that brings us to our main actor.

Robin Williams plays Simon Roberts who runs an ad agency that he is in the process of relinquishing to his daughter, Sydney (Sarah Michelle Gellar). In this episode, they are in danger of losing their top client, McDonald's, unless they can pitch them a great idea. Evoking one of their own classic commercials, Simon promises a major talent to sing the jingle. This leads us to a cameo appearance by Kelly Clarkson as herself eager to change her image to something sexier. Simon agrees to change the wholesome family jingle into a sexy pop song, then tries to convince her back to the original idea.

Honestly, Robin Williams is given too much screen time and too little to do. He ends up running his mouth with constant jokes and voices which are funny about... 30% of the time... and I'm probably being generous. If you are already sick of Robin Williams, this show won't help.

I can't help but compare this show to Boston Legal, David E. Kelley's previous show and one of my personal favorites. That show starred James Spader and William Shatner, with Spader as the protagonist and Shatner as an enigmatic crazed savant. Simon Roberts has the same qualities of Shatner's Denny Crane and Williams certainly has the acting ability to deliver that, but he lacks a competent foil. Zach Cropper (James Wolk) is his dashing and charismatic protege, but he never gets a chance to show much genuine character. Lauren Slotsky (Amanda Setton) is a typical David E. Kelley female archetype of a sexually forward yet self-possessed woman. There is a brief hair sniffing moment between her and Simon that is typical of Kelley's playfully fetishistic humor and she sells it well, but aside from this moment and the occasional off-camera laugh at Simon's jokes, we don't get much out of her.

Finally, Sarah Michelle Gellar... I didn't like her in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and my opinion hasn't changed much. She plays the stern daughter who had to grow up responsible and serious because her father was wacky and unreliable. By the end of the episode, she learns to get what she wants by being more like him. I'm not sure what it is about her, but Sarah Michelle Gellar makes me feel awkward. When she is in a tough situation, I don't feel sympathy or humor; I just feel uncomfortable. Since she is going to be the heavy in this show, I don't suspect I'll ever get used to it.

Hopefully this show will develop their secondary characters, but I doubt it can last long based solely on the father/daughter relationship of two leads that are both pretty annoying in their own way.

The Goldbergs
   starring Jeff Garlin, George Segal, Wendi McLendon-Covey, and the voice of Patton Oswalt
   created by Adam F. Goldberg

When I heard about this show, I immediately thought it was a remake of the 1949 sitcom series about first and second generation Jewish immigrants trying to adapt to New York City. Then I realized that was stupid and found out that it was like The Wonder Years: an autobiographical, nostalgic family sitcom.

The comparisons to The Wonder Years are obvious from the first line of voice over narration by comedian Patton Oswalt. The show was created by Adam Goldberg and the lead character shares his name, as well as a love for video. He is constantly following his family around and recording their antics. The show is set in the eighties, which really does seem as quaint as the fifties did to us back then.

A large part of my interest in this show came from Jeff Garlin, perhaps best known as Larry David's best friend in Curb Your Enthusiasm. And while he is the best part of the show, most of the humor just doesn't work. The main joke around his character in this episode is that he doesn't say what he means, but just says something insulting instead. This is then subtitled for those of us who don't "speak dad." Unfortunately, Garlin's good-natured presence kind of undercuts the joke. Not to bring up The Wonder Years again, but the father in that series, played by Dan Lauria, was a far more threatening figure. He was a mean, scary dad who you had to struggle to relate to while Murray Goldberg is more like Homer Simpson. He is a good-natured oaf who loses his temper and it plays out pretty predictably

The grandfather, Albert (George Segal), takes Adam under his wing in order to play the cool grandpa, teaching him things like how to flirt with girls. It's a nice relationship and, with proper development, I could see this being the strong point of the series.

Beverly Goldberg is played Wendi McLendon-Covey (Reno 911, Bridesmaids) who is the strong matriarch of the family. She reminds me a lot of Lois from Malcolm in the Middle but without the high-strung intensity that made her stand out. Honestly, McLendon-Covey has never been a standout actress/comedian to me. I liked her well-enough in Reno 911 as the trampy woman who thinks she has class, but as a mother of three, I'm not so sure.

This show has potential, but like the others on this list, I found it awkwardly straddling the line between comedy and drama. If they focused more on one or the other, I could see it becoming much more interesting.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine
   starring Andy Samberg, Andre Braugher, Joe Lo Truglio, Chelsea Peretti, and Terry Crews
   created by Dan Goor & Michael Schur

I have to admit, I wasn't expecting to like this show at all, but it greatly exceeded my expectations.

I've never particularly liked Andy Samberg. I think its that dopey grin of his. It's not that I think he's a bad actor or comedian or even that he has done bad work; he just has a very punchable face. And I haven't changed my opinion, yet I like this show and I'm looking forward to the next episode. That should say a lot about the quality of the show in general.

Andy Samberg is Detective Jake Peralta, the department's lead detective who never managed to grow up. Despite his constant jokes and pranks, he is actually a very good detective and can often spot clues that others might miss. Detective Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero) is his main competition with the two holding a bet over who gets the most arrests. Jake's best friend is his co-worker, Charles Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio), who has a crush on the overly aggressive officer, Detective Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz). Rounding out the cast, we have Sergeant Terry Jeffords (Terry Crews) who left field duty to sit behind desk because he had two daughters, Cagney and Lacy, and the Gina Linetti (Chelsea Peretti) as the civilian administrator.

The first episode features the replacement of the old precinct captain, Captain McGintley (Mike Hagerty), with the new precinct captain, Ray Holt (Andre Braugher). Mike Hagerty is a character actor best known for looking like a walrus and even though he only appears for a single quick scene, it is hilarious and I hope he comes back from retirement soon. But Andre Braugher is magnificent. He brings a kind of gravitas to the role that grounds the entire show. He's the perfect straight man for Samberg, not merely absorbing his abuse, but deftly turning his pranks back around on him.

All that said, this still feels like a show that hasn't found its footing, but that's not much of a criticism since I've only seen two episodes. The jokes are a bit flat. They use cut scene flashbacks to limited effect and its a bit jarring. It reminds me of 30 Rock, but somehow it comes off more cartoony, like Family Guy. Hopefully this is just a result of being a new show and soon they will find their own pace and style.

In the unused potential category, I'll put Terry Crews and Chelsea Peretti. These are both fantastically funny actors and they get very little to do in these first few episodes. You'll probably recognize Terry Crews as Herbert Love in the latest season of Arrested Development, but I'll always think of him as President Camacho in Idiocracy.

If you like Andy Samberg or police comedies, you should check this out. And if you don't like it now, check back in a year or two, if Fox doesn't cancel it. This is a great cast and I suspect the show will be fantastic, if given the chance.

The Blacklist
   starring James Spader, Megan Boone, and Harry Lennix
   created by Jon Bokenkamp

I have goosebumps. By far, the winner of pilot season is The Blacklist. In fact, seeing the trailer for The Blacklist was what started me on this pilot binge in the first place.

If you are the daring sort who likes James Spader and/or intense international crime dramas, just stop reading this review right now and go check it out. You will probably enjoy it more if you just go into it cold without any information. If that isn't enough for you, I'll try to explain without spoiling too much.

James Spader is Raymond Reddington, a former high ranking Naval officer who went AWOL only to become an international criminal who brokers deals with other criminals. After decades on the FBI's most wanted list, Reddington has surrendered, offering information on all of his clients, but only if his demands are met, the most important of which is that he will only speak with Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), a new FBI criminal profiler with absolutely no experience. Keen claims that she has no connection to Reddington, but clearly he knows her quite well. The title of the series comes from a list of names Reddington has compiled of criminals and terrorists so dangerous and sophisticated that the FBI doesn't even know who they are.

The foundation of this show is James Spader's performance as a charismatic, sociopathic genius. It's easy to compare Reddington to Anthony Hopkin's Hannibal Lecter, particularly in his scenes opposite Keen. Although Reddington is usually in manacles and surrounded by armed guards, it is clear that he is in charge of every situation he is in and that makes for fantastic drama.

I like seeing Harry Lennix (Dollhouse) in the role of Harold Cooper, the man overseeing the entire operation. He brings a quiet and reserved confidence that is appropriate for a man in his position. While the other characters are easy to intimidate, Cooper is always cool, calm, and collected. I'm hoping we will get plenty more scenes with him and Spader, despite Reddington's insistence that he will only talk to Keen.

Now, I have to address the action in this episode because it is phenomenal; in fact, it might even be too good. The villain, Ranko Zamani, plans an abduction of a congressman's daughter... and while the FBI arrives in time to get her first, the kidnappers manage to turn the tables on them in a scene that reminds me of Joker in The Dark Knight. At first, the scene appeared absurdly convenient in how well it is organized, but I wonder if this wasn't all planned. The scope of this action scene alone makes me wonder how much the show will conform to realism versus action. Will we be facing realistic criminals or supervillains?

In fact, there is even a scene where Reddington is imprisoned in a giant glass box that reminds me of Magneto at the end of X-Men. I understand that Reddington is dangerous and crafty and all that, but he doesn't have superpowers so it seems unnecessary. On the other hand, it is so visually compelling that I can't really object that strongly.

But ultimately, this was the best show of the new season. It was the only show where all of the characters felt real and complex (save that one blonde agent), and I was completely absorbed from start to finish. I can't wait for what comes next.