Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2016 Edition, Part 2
This year's fall pilot season is shaping up to be rather muted. Which, to be fair, is an improvement on the dreck of previous years, but also not much to talk about. It probably tells you all need to know about the fall pilots of 2016 that there are two different time travel shows--Timeless and Frequency--and neither of them are worth saying anything about. Nevertheless, here are a few series, good and bad, that I thought were interesting enough to write about, even if I'm not sure I'll be sticking with all of them.
- No Tomorrow - Over the last few years, I've come to trust the CW and its programming instincts. Not only does it air some of my favorite shows--iZombie, the smartest superhero show on TV; Jane the Virgin, still going strong and finding real drama at the heart of cheesy soap opera plot twists; Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, one of the funniest, most original, most heartbreaking shows in existence--but its DC superhero block is easily the most rock-solid, self-assured iteration on the genre on either the small or big screen (and I say that as someone who has given up on The Flash in disgust, and might let go of Arrow by the end of the year). So I came to No Tomorrow with a lot of goodwill. Yes, the premise is absurd--high-strung Evie (Tori Anderson) meets her dream guy, Xavier (Joshua Sasse), falling in love as much with his free spirit and determination to seize the day as with his rugged good looks, only to learn that he genuinely believes that the Earth is going to be destroyed by an asteroid in eight months. But the CW has made meaty, emotionally resonant fare out of even sillier (not to mention potentially offensive) premises, so I was willing to let No Tomorrow win me over. In the end, what I've found is both less ridiculous, and less promising, than I'd hoped.
Sasse and Anderson are both extremely charming, and do a great job of selling their nascent relationship as something that is based not only on attraction and zaniness, but genuine connection. No Tomorrow has the good sense not to hang its every plot twist on Xavier's belief in the coming apocalypse, and the challenges that he and Evie face in their relationship are often as much about their differing lifestyles, or her fluctuating comfort levels with his carpe diem worldview, as they are about this fundamental disagreement. At its best moments, No Tomorrow is about building a relationship with someone who is very different from you, whose differences are sometimes intriguing but just as often concerning (to its credit, the show faces head-on the very real possibility that Xavier might be dangerous or unhinged, and has Evie and her friends investigate this possibility with all due seriousness). But it lacks the core of emotion that has made Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend--both shows that are ultimately about very serious things, such as family, or dealing with mental illness--so compelling. There doesn't seem to be as much beneath the surface of No Tomorrow's quirkiness as there is in those shows, and it's hard to imagine the show finding more than a few notes in its premise, or in Evie and Xavier's relationship. For the time being, those notes are still quite enjoyable--especially since the show is wisely developing Evie and Xavier's worlds, introducing friends, coworkers, and family members for them to interact with--but I doubt that No Tomorrow will join the pantheon of weird-yet-oddly-wonderful CW shows.
- Pitch - In the first installment of this year's fall show reviews, I wrote about the dreadful This Is Us. As several commenters on twitter pointed out, you can feel Aaron Sorkin's influence on that series, particularly its fondness for overheated speeches and general air of self-satisfaction. Pitch feels like good quasi-Sorkin to This Is Us's bad quasi-Sorkin. Like the earlier show (with whom it shares a creator, Dan Fogelman), it is fond of melodrama and speechifying. But unlike This Is Us, Pitch has a premise that is semi-plausible and convincing, characters who are compelling rather than off-putting, and, most importantly, the ability to reach for something raw and real beneath its stylized, self-conscious surface. The show begins with rookie Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury) taking her place as the first woman in major league baseball, and charts her journey in the clubhouse, and as a new national icon to women and girls. Along for the ride are Ginny's agent Amelia Slater (Ali Larter), eager to push her charge to stardom, fading player Mike Lawson (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), coach Al Luongo (Dan Lauria), and general manager Oscar Arguella (Mark Consuelos).
My biggest issue with Pitch is that it veers unpromisingly between the most blatant sports-movie clichés--in the pilot episode, Ginny chokes during her first game, and is then inspired to make a comeback by an inspirational speech from Mike--and the most obsessive kind of inside baseball details that I have trouble parsing, much less caring about. What keeps the show together despite these plotting issues are its characters, and even more than that, the relationships they forge--the growing friendship and mutual appreciation between Mike and Ginny, the surprisingly mature romance between Mike and Amelia, and the political machinations between Al, Oscar, and the team management. But Pitch wants to be more than a workplace drama--it wants to comment about the intersection between entertainment, celebrity, gender, and race--and at this it is only intermittently successful. An early episode in which Ginny must navigate an insensitive but ultimately innocuous comment from Al, a heavily-publicized case of locker-room sexual assault, and the needs of her own career, makes a powerful point about the constant pitfalls that lie before her as a trailblazer, a celebrity, and an athlete. But there doesn't seem to be much life in these topics--four episodes into the series, it's already repeating points, about the weight of Ginny's celebrity, the difficulty of her relationship with her overbearing father, or Mike's ambivalence about his waning career. There are a lot of great ingredients that go into Pitch, but the stew that they make up is already losing its flavor, struggling to justify itself as a story rather than an idea.
- Westworld - Easily the most-anticipated new series of the fall, the consensus that has already formed around HBO's latest foray into genre is that it represents the channel's attempts to grapple with its own reputation for prurient violence, particularly violence against women (see Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker, and Aaron Bady in The Los Angeles Review of Books). You can see how that consensus has formed--Westworld builds on the 1973 movie to imagine a lush and impeccably-detailed theme park in which customers pay lavishly to indulge their every fantasy, which almost inevitably seem to involve murder, mayhem, and of course rape. The metaphor for how HBO's pretensions to highbrow entertainment ultimately rest on the sumptuously-filmed and -costumed violence of Game of Thrones, True Detective, and The Night Of pretty much writes itself. For myself, I'd like to believe that there's more to Westworld than this glib reading, first because I simply do not believe that anyone at HBO possesses this level of self-awareness--this is, after all, the channel whose executives were genuinely taken aback, in the year 2016, by the idea that their shows had become synonymous with violence against women--and second because it's by far the least interesting avenue of story the show could take.
If you want to read Westworld as a meta-commentary about storytelling (and to be clear, I agree that there's a thread of this running through the show, though to my mind it's far from the central one), you also have to face up to how tedious and unimaginative the stories-within-the-story are. Leaving aside the questionable notion of anyone spending money to play cowboys and Indians anymore, the stories that take place within Westworld, in which the theme park's guests are invited to track down fugitives, go on treasure hunts, or just fool around with prostitutes, simply don't seem worth the price of admission. They also take it as a given that the guests' fantasy life is thoroughly conventional (not to mention defaulting to the straight male gaze). Everyone, we're told, wants to rape the comely, innocent rancher's daughter Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood)--this is literally the purpose of her existence in the park. No one seems interested in raping her paramour, the stalwart Teddy (James Marsden), or, indeed, in having a consensual threesome.
If Westworld is of any interest to me, it is because of the parallel story about the robot characters' (known as "hosts") growing awakening into sentience, and into an awareness of the brutality to which they've been repeatedly subjected. That the show comes from Person of Interest creator Jonathan Nolan is the main reason I'm hopeful that it will tell such a story well and in interesting ways, but so far Westworld is being frustratingly slow in building up towards it. Each of the four aired episodes advances multiple plotlines only fractionally, trusting the audience to follow along in hopes of an interesting resolution to some of the more opaque questions that the show has been teasing: what is the elaborate new storyline promised by park creator Ford (Anthony Hopkins), and why has he suddenly given the hosts the ability to remember their past lives (and deaths)? Which, if any, of the park's administrators and technicians are robots themselves? Who is the Man in Black (Ed Harris), a guest who believes that he is about to unlock the game's "deepest level"? The result is frustrating, carried along by the show's magnificent production values and some fine performances (Wood is a standout as a being coming into self-awareness who is also, simultaneously, a woman starting to realize her own power in a world ruled by men, but pretty much everyone in the cast is very good), but not yet coalescing into an actual story. I'm still watching Westworld because I have hope that it will become the story I want it to be--and faith that Nolan is both interested in that story, and capable of pulling it off--but it's not hard to see why so many reviewers are assuming that it amounts to little more than self-reflection. At this point in its first season, the show still hasn't staked out a claim to being about anything but itself.
- Class - It's strange to find the BBC, in 2016, getting back in the Doctor Who spin-off business. It's even stranger for that spin-off to be Class, whose Buffy-esque mixture of genre elements, teen drama, and snarky humor would have seemed derivative and predictable even in the heyday of the NuWho universes's expansion ten years ago. It's particularly strange that Class comes from the pen of Patrick Ness, whose written novels--particularly the Chaos Walking trilogy--are so original and uncompromising. In Class, he has instead plumped for the most familiar of tropes--a group of students discover that their school lies on a hellmouth, and must band together to defend the Earth from the alien menaces that emerge from it--and executed them with so little verve that the characters themselves sometimes seem bored with their own story. There are some original plot points--one of the teenagers is an alien prince, and his slave-cum-bodyguard is masquerading as a teacher--and some nods towards inclusivity--the alien is also gay, and two of the other teenagers are the children of, respectively, Pakistani and Nigerian immigrants, who bond over their shared experience as people of color in a mostly-white environment. But none of this feels sufficiently fresh to make up for Class's familiarity. It could simply be that I've aged out of this kind of story, but even kids these days have so many other alternatives if they're looking for something Buffy-inspired--from Teen Wolf to The Vampire Diaries to Doctor Who itself--that it's hard to understand what sort of need Class thinks that it's fulfilling.