The Pilots of Summer
Once upon a time, the summer months were a long, arid stretch bereft of new TV episodes, with only the occasional bit of counter-programming to break the monotony. Then the whole concept of an October to May TV season proved unsuitable to the new, serialized paradigm, and cable channels discovered they could make a profit on a fraction of the networks' target ratings and could do even better if there was nothing else on, and before you knew it there wasn't one TV season but four, and no sooner does one batch of television series wrap up its season but another one starts up. Which is distracting if, like me, you were planning to use the summer downtime to catch up on some older shows and maybe, you know, read. Happily, hardly any of the pilots that have aired in the last six weeks have been any good, so my viewing schedule hasn't gotten much heavier (except, of course, for Futurama's welcome return, though I have to say that the first two episodes were only nice, and that they both featured a nearly-naked Leela much more prominently than I remember the show's previous incarnation doing). Here are some thoughts.
- Rubicon - I'm really not certain why AMC decided to preair the first episode of their new series, whose season won't start until August. I certainly can't imagine it drawing in an audience, because this is not a pilot. It's the first chapter in a story, and as such is slow, expository, and gives only the vaguest sense of what the actual story will be like (I'm not even clear on what the series's name means). It's clearly the work of someone who is banking on pre-loaded viewer loyalty to carry them through at least the series's first few hours, which is not an unfair assumption given the show's description--a conspiracy thriller from the people who brought you Mad Men and Breaking Bad--but makes prereleasing the pilot a puzzling and possibly counterproductive move. What's on display is not completely without potential--the production values are high and James Badge Dale, fresh off a fantastic turn as one of the leads in The Pacific, is also good as the protagonist here, an analyst at at government think-tank struggling with the loss of his family (bit of a low blow, though, making the cause of that loss 9/11--unless it feeds into the series's plot I don't see the reason for it, especially as the story we've been told, that the character's wife had taken their young daughter on a birthday trip to the World Trade Center at 8:30 in the morning, doesn't really make sense) who suspects foul play when his mentor and former father in law dies in a train accident. But that's as far as the first episode goes (it also introduces some of the main character's colleagues and a potential love interest, but this is too low-key a series, at least thus far, for any of them to really pop from the screen). The show's pedigree, and the fact that it is so obviously setting up a slow-burn story, are enough to keep me interested, but I suspect that Rubicon is a show best banked and then watched as a continuous story.
- The Good Guys, Memphis Beat, and Rookie Blue - You can never have too many cop shows, I suppose, and to the credit of all three of these new series they each take a different and more or less original approach to their subject matter. It's a shame none of them are any good. The Good Guys won a lot of credit from me going in by giving Bradley Whitford a job, and a comedic one to boot, then squandered all that credit, and a hell of a lot more it didn't have, with its pilot episode, a broad, unfunny exercise in 70s nostalgia that only seems stranger when one considers that Whitford's character would have been a rookie cop in the early 80s. The show is essentially a comedic Life on Mars without the time travel/coma angle--Whitford is the Gene Hunt character, a throwback who likes to bust heads and leap from moving cars, while Colin Hanks is his uptight, modern and polite partner. The anachronism of the premise might be forgivable if the show were even remotely funny, or if the writing for the crime plots were tight and interesting, or if either character seemed like anything more than a caricature. Sadly, none of these things are true.
Rookie Blue is, as its title obviously suggests, a show about rookie cops, which is a concept with some potential (it nicely drove the pilot for Southland, another summer cop series from a few years ago whose viewpoint character was a rookie), but my heart sank when I caught a glimpse of its model-like cast--no series that casts policemen who are this beautiful, this well-groomed and this well-dressed is actually interested in telling cop stories. And sure enough, Rookie Blue's pilot lays enough groundwork for love triangles and secret romances that its actual story, in which the main character mistakenly blows the cover of an undercover cop and then solves a murder, seems almost like a distraction. Add to that a deeply unpleasant scene in which two rookies' confusion over which of them, the man or the woman, should search a transsexual woman, is played for laughs rather than the unfortunate reality it is, and I'm giving this show a pass.
Memphis Beat is the best of the three. It stars Jason Lee as (naturally) an over-involved maverick cop just trying to keep his home town together, clashing over his unorthodox methods with his new lieutenant (Alfre Woodard). Both actors are good (Woodard in particular rescues her character from settling into the stereotype of the domineering black woman), and the show is clearly interested in giving its viewers a feel of Memphis as a city with its own traditions and history (something that, I've noticed, cop series show a particular affinity for: Justified may be the only series on TV to take place in the rural South, and The Mentalist acknowledges, as hardly any other show set in that state does, that there are parts of California that are nothing like LA). But the pilot is slack and the actors can't make up for the inanity of the script, which quickly plumps for the cliché of the over-invested cop who is warned off a case, pursues it regardless, and suffers no consequences. There's nothing really bad here, but also nothing good enough to keep watching for.
- The Gates - I had perhaps unreasonably high hopes for this series given that it was billed as a supernatural Desperate Housewives, and even having watched the pilot, which is a complete dud, I find myself wishing that another writer had been given this concept to work with, because there is some potential here. Or, more precisely, there's some potential in one of the stories told in the pilot, which sees a new police chief arriving at the titular community and immediately becoming suspicious of his neighbors, who are, unbeknownst to him, vampires, werewolves, and witches (no, this premise doesn't make the least bit of sense--you would think that such creatures would police themselves rather than putting an unwitting human in a position of authority). Most of the characters, including, sadly, the policeman and his family, are forgettable blanks whose dilemmas--the policeman's son steps in the middle of a couple in his new school, unintentionally angering a werewolf, his mother buys herbal remedies from a witch who may be trying to control her--are either boring or badly written or both. The one story that really works features Rhona Mitra and Luke Mably as a vampire couple raising a human daughter. They're desperate to stay at The Gates because the child would never survive among their own people outside of it, but Mitra's character, bored with suburban housewifery, has been killing humans, which might get them expelled. It's not only a nicely played family dynamic, but it hints at the existence of an underside to The Gates that the pilot doesn't let us see because it's locked in the policeman protagonist's point of view. The series would probably have been stronger ditching him and the obvious mystery angle it's aiming at and telling a straight up story about a community of supernatural creatures who want to be safe from humanity, but aren't quite willing to let humanity be safe from them. Alas, it was not to be, and I don't think I'll be bothering with The Gates just to see where Mitra's story goes.
- Persons Unknown - Starting out with two major strikes against it--it is not only yet another attempt at crafting a Lost clone but its release appears to have been delayed to the summer (I saw a trailer for it as early as last fall)--Persons Unknown has, quite unexpectedly, won me over. The premise sees seven strangers waking up in an empty hotel in an abandoned town, provided with food and clothing but prevented from leaving by various security measures (at present count, subcutaneous drug caches that release when the characters cross a specific barrier, microwave guns, and poisonous gas that is released when they try to tunnel out), observed by omnipresent cameras, and set various sadistic tasks--in one episode, a character receives a note in a fortune cookie promising her freedom if she kills another character; in another, the characters receive three gas masks to share between them, or fight over. This is all sufficiently creepy that by the end of the pilot the associations I was making were more with The Prisoner than with Lost, and the show does Lost and most of its imitators one better by allowing its characters to talk to one another, revealing themselves and developing relationships through conversation rather than flashbacks. Most of the cast is nicely drawn, if occasionally shading into stereotypes (the one black character is a devout soldier who witnessed torture in Iraq, but he's winningly portrayed and bucks slightly against his type by being a devout Muslim rather than Christian), and the lead, a woman desperate to get back to her daughter, who is now in the hands of her abusive mother, refreshingly avoids the trap of passive niceness that so many female leads on such TV shows fall into. What I like best about Persons Unknown, though, is that it doesn't assume that its characters will immediately devolve into savagery. Though we've seen them behave angrily and even violently towards one another, their baseline remains one of decency. To my mind that's a more interesting kind of story than the ones that assume that in the absence of law enforcement and creature comforts, people will immediately begin raping and killing--it actually asks the question of how normal, moral people will behave when pushed to extremes. Of course, this could all go to pieces (and may already be doing so--after two strong episodes, the third relied too strongly on most of the characters losing many IQ points, and even showed them trying to signal for help by building a bonfire on main street) and it's unlikely that Persons Unknown will make it past a single season, but for now I'm enjoying what I'm seeing.