Archive for the ‘ Pilot Reviews ’ Category

2010-2011 – New Shows

I watched 30ish pilots this year, most of which I gave full reviews of. Last year I did 27 and this year most of the extra ones come from some random British series that I watched but didn’t pick up. Even with giving up on comedy pilots for the most part it was still a bit of a slog frankly with an awful lot of mediocrity out there.

Things I watched:

  • Blue Bloods – Frankly not very good – an interesting concept, but badly written. Just saved by the wonderful Tom Selleck
  • Downton Abbey – excellent fun, perfect for Sunday evening family viewing
  • Game of Thrones – Very entertaining and an impressive production
  • Mad Dogs – A great cast in a relatively mediocre production, thankfully very short
  • Outcasts – Entertaining, but massively flawed writing and plot holes. Not massively disappointed that it was cancelled.
  • Terriers – Charming, hilarious, interesting, entertaining and criminally cancelled
  • The Big C – hilarious and moving
  • The Walking Dead – The novelty made me watch it, but it was horribly cliché and flat

Two things jump out at me from that list. The fist thing is that genre shows get a bit of a free pass from me in that they only have to be not awful to get me to watch them. The second thing is there’s only one network show on the list, and even that one wasn’t very good. Other than that everything is either British, or on cable in the US; and they’re all short seasons. That’s not good, not good at all.

Might watch

  • Harry’s Law – the worrying preachiness of the pilot put me off, but given it survived a season, Kathy Bates might lure me back again
  • Hawaii Five-O – bright and entertaining popcorn action, I meant to watch it but I failed to catch it as it went past. I do intend to catch up though
  • Falling Skies – I enjoyed the pilot, but haven’t actually got around to watching the rest of it yet
  • Bedlam – Terrible Sky drama where Will Young was the best thing about it. I still have the last two episodes on the Sky box but haven’t quite got desperate enough to watch them.

Might’ve watched if they hadn’t been cancelled, might pick them up on dvd at some point

  • Chicago Code – OK, unremarkable, and then cancelled
  • Detroit 1-8-7 – solidly entertaining police procedural in a sea of mediocrity. Cancelled anyway
  • Hellcats – The pilot at least was entertaining in an awful Glee kind of way, it aired on MTV over here which was deeply annoying. Then it was cancelled.
  • Off the Map – It wasn’t as good as it wanted to be, but I enjoyed the pilot. It never seemed to make it to the UK at all due to its early cancellation I guess.

Not my thing

  • Being Human – not as good as the UK version, and I’m already 2 years behind on that
  • Boardwalk Empire – beautifully shot and acted and all that, but too slow
  • Exile – well acted and intriguing, I meant to watch the rest of the series but it disappeared from iplayer too fast and I wasn’t devastated
  • Nikita – felt like it was trying very hard (and maybe even succeeding) at being the next Alias, but given I never got round to watching that series I didn’t feel like committing to this one.

Just not very good

Body of Proof
Criminal Minds: Suspect Behaviour
Law & Order: Los Angeles
Lone Star
My Generation
No Ordinary Family
Outlaw
The Cape
The Event
The Shadowline
The Whole Truth
Vera

Not a great year
I just don’t think this was a very good year for new television. Looking back at last year’s freshman there are a lot of stand-outs, both critical successes like Justified, The Good Wife and Treme and ratings hits like Glee, NCIS: LA and The Vampire Diaries. There are a few direct comparisons this year (Boardwalk Empire is this year’s Treme, Hawaii Five-O this year’s NCIS:LA), but overall there’s an awful lot of mediocre going on.

Where’s the creativity? Even things that television executives hail as new and exciting aren’t really. The Walking Dead is a remake of just about every zombie film out there, Game of Thrones is a bog standard fantasy epic – Lord of the Rings for the smaller screen with less pointy ears. Next year’s most hotly anticipated show seems set to follow the trend with Terra Nova bringing Jurassic Park to the TV.

Superheroes are out – there was a flurry of superhero shows and none of them were any good. People keep trying to find the magic of the early season of Heroes and the massive success that’s being found by Marvel and DC Comics at the cinema, but no one’s managed it yet. Here’s an idea, stop pissing off Joss Whedon and get him to do one, after he’s done making millions with The Avengers that is.

Procedurals ain’t doing so well either. I enjoy procedurals but it’s been a while since a good one came along. Maybe the market is still too saturated, because even the ones that had potential and critical praise couldn’t find enough viewers to make a go of it.

Finally, they’re still all desperately trying to find the next Lost – people keep trying, but the high concept stuff just doesn’t seem to catch. High concept is something that can be explained in a sentence (“Lost: a plane crashes on island”, “Inception: you can enter and control people’s dreams”). This year’s main attempt, The Event, was a little too high concept I think “Something happens” really is a bit too high, I gave up after about four episodes – for a show called The Event – something should bloody well happen.

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Pilot Review: Falling Skies

I’ve watched the first two episodes of Falling Skies, it’s not really a two-parter but that’s how they were shown in the US. Putting the two together is quite interesting as it nicely demonstrates that each episode is stand-alone, with a beginning middle and end, but there’s also a very strong thread running through to give an overall arc.

Reviewing science fiction shows these days poses an interesting dilemma – as a science fiction fan, with so little science fiction on the television, do I give what few shows there are an easy ride? I suspect I do. A science fiction show really doesn’t have to be very good to make me watch it, particularly as my housemates almost exclusively only watch science fiction and we are running desperately short of things to watch. It’s almost a given that I’ll watch at least the first few episodes of an sf show, whereas a procedural really has to impress on its pilot to make me watch more.

So with the bar set firmly at ankle height, it would take a particular level of incompetence to fail to get over it. The good news is that not only does Falling Skies not trip over, it actually manages a pretty good clearance. We’re not talking pole jumping medals admittedly, but it’s off to a solid and enjoyable start.

The concept gives the show a pretty good run up (to extend the metaphor even further) – 8 months after aliens invade and make a real mess of the planet, a bunch of survivors are going about what has become of their daily lives. It’s not about the big flashy early days of invasion, but about the daily trudge of finding shelter and food, and maybe as a sideline trying to come up with a plan to reclaim the planet, but mostly the food bit.

Neither is the show about a particularly remarkable group of survivors, they’re just a bunch of people thrown together. They’re over the shell-shock and grief stage, but that they haven’t forgotten that their lives used to be ‘normal. Their doctor is a paediatrician who finds herself doing emergency surgery on shrapnel and gunshot wounds and falling into a position as leader of the civilians. Their military leader is grizzly and several years out of service, his second is a military historian with minimal practical experience and a couple of kids to worry about. Thirteen year olds are soldiers, teenagers are scouts and everyone has to pitch in.

There’s an awful lot that will be familiar to anyone who’s watched anything in the alien invasion genre before. There’s the conflict between military and civilian; arguments about whether it’s better to fight a resistance or to keep your head down and focus on survival; and the standard collection of reprobates doing things that you’d rather hope the last survivors of mankind would have been above. But there’s also some careful avoidance of cliché, the academic is not only a pretty good tactician but a solid front line soldier, villains are not stupid and everyone is capable of reason, forgiveness and thoughtfulness.

The first episode was a little heavy on the action side of thing, feeling a little bit too much like a computer game at times, but the second episode had a bit more meat to it, making an interesting balance. Overall, I laughed, I cared about the characters, the action wasn’t exactly edge-of the-seat stuff, but it was fast and well done, and there were some interesting dilemmas to ponder and discuss. I’m quite looking forward to seeing what it does next.

Falling Skies starts Tuesday 5th July, 9pm on FX

Pilot Review: Game of Thrones

Based on George RR Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice Series, (specifically the eponymous first book), this is an epic fantasy set in a medieval land full of heroes and villains, although the characters disagree who falls into which category, thereby generating plenty of plot.

I’ve never read the books and know very little about them other than the fact that they’ve won lots of awards, I should probably have read them and they’re all pretty long. I can’t make any comment as to the accuracy of the re-creation, but I’d say it’s a good sign that the author has been so closely associated with production. It certainly felt like a book on screen, in the same way that Lord of the Rings did, that there is a lot more going on and many more layers that are just out of sight of the cameras. If you are to believe the New York Times review written by Ginia Bellafante then there is actually too much going on already:

In a sense the series, which will span 10 episodes, ought to come with a warning like, ‘If you can’t count cards, please return to reruns of Sex and the City.’

While Game of Thrones does have a large number of characters and factions to follow, they’re all elegantly introduced and their stories are very focussed. Yes the series was detailed, rich and even complex, but at no point was it overwhelming or confusing. Maybe my lack of befuddlement stems from the fact that I’m used to watching and reading complex inter-weaving storylines, but I’m far from alone in this if the success of Lord of the Rings, Inception and the multitude of successful television shows on cable channels with similar complexity presented in assorted circumstances. This kind of storytelling requires you to immerse yourself into it and accept that there’s going to be things that you don’t understand immediately – this is what it’s like to be thrown into the middle of a world history and into the middle of peoples’ lives/. Game of Thrones gradually reveals a rich history with large scale wars and political changes accompanied by more personal relationships between characters. Yes, you have to pay attention while you watch, but if you do, rather than feeling confused and overwhelmed at the end of the episode, you feel satisfied and intrigued.

Mind you, Ms Bellafante clearly has a number of issues that she must contend with:

The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.

I’m not really sure what show Ms Bellafante was watching, because just about everything she says is wrong and she tops it off by saying it all in such an offensive way. A quick google will turn up a number of responses, far better written than I can manage, but enough to say that Ms Bellafante seems to have a very limited world view and her so called ‘review’ is not only wrong, patronising and downright offensive, but a terrible piece of journalism which says far more about her than it does about the show she is supposed to be writing about.

Back to the show, the only thing that caused me any pause in the pilot episode was that having been described as epic fantasy, I rather wondered where the fantasy was. Unless I missed something, the pilot was pretty much fantasy free – no magic or weird and wonderful creatures except a reference to some fossilised dragon eggs. I didn’t find that a problem for the first episode, and the characters and scenarios are interesting enough that I’m not sure I’d mind long term either, but I will be a bit saddened if ‘mainstream’ audiences are being led to believe this is fantasy just because it’s not set in our history and there is some weird makeup.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the first episode. There has clearly been a lot of love and money put into the production – it looks absolutely fantastic, more like a movie than a television production. I think it’s going to be one of the shows that people talk about for a very long time and would thoroughly recommend that people get on board even if only for fear of being as ill informed as Ms Bellafante.

Pilot Review: Body of Proof

Dr Megan Hunt was a high flying neurosurgeon, all driven and work obsessed but then she had an accident and was no longer able to operate. So she’s become a really bitter and obnoxious medical examiner spending more time connecting with her dead patients than she ever did with her living ones, or with her own family.

I’m not sure why this pilot has been held back so long. March is a funny time to launch something, everything else is building up for the end of their season, or just desperately trying to not get steam-rollered by the massive American Idol and Dancing With the Stars that monopolise the spring ratings. But here it is, Body of Proof, generally described as a ‘vehicle’ for Dana Delany (Desperate Housewives), meaning it’s a show designed entirely around her and all the other characters are just there to facilitate the plot and give her someone to rant at. Think House, but with better hair.

House has clearly made writers realise that it’s possible to create an obnoxious character and yet still have the audience root for them. Hunt is a bit of a cow – rude and abrasive, ignoring the rules of her job and polite society in a single minded drive to get to the answer. One of the things that this actually does BETTER than House is that the people around her that know her, kind of accept that. On House, particularly early on, everyone told House that he should change his methods, Cuddy shouting and stomping her high heels at him every time he did something crazy sounding. But by the end of each episode, the nay-sayers looked sheepish, only to repeat the rigmarole the following week. Why did they either not learn that he would be vindicated in the end, OR just sack him outright? Body of Proof sensibly confronts that, Dr Hunt’s boss smiles knowingly and lets her get on with it, Hunt herself says “you may not like my methods, but you’ll like my results”. It’s a lot more satisfying than watch people have the same argument over and over.

Unfortunately the writers don’t have quite the strength of their convictions that the House writers do. There’s almost an equal balance between the amount of time spent showing how hard the character is, and the amount spent trying to soften and explain those edges. Her family fell victim to her demanding previous career and now that she’s lost the job , she wants her family back. But of course that’s not easy, so there’s plenty of time spent staring mopingly at pictures and formulating speeches. It kind of works, but at the same time feels a bit too much like an apology.

Critics seem to be a bit harsh on this at the moment. I suspect the comparisons with House may have been too much for them, it’s not House, but then unlike most critics I don’t actually think House is that great a show either. Yes, there is better stuff out there, but Dana Delaney is a talented and interesting actress and this was a lot better than an awful lot of the procedural pilots I’ve seen in the last couple of years.

Other reviews
TV Addict: From its overtly formulaic write-by-numbers nature, to its insistence on beating you over the head with its premise, BODY OF PROOF just about encapsulates everything that is wrong with the way modern day network television works.

TV Squad : Despite all the show’s flaws, she makes some quieter emotional moments work, thanks to her undeniable presence and skills. The by-the-numbers vehicle that has been constructed around her isn’t worthy of her talent, however.

Links: Official site, imdb, TV.com, wikiepdia

Pilot Review: Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior

I can’t really be bothered to do a review of this. I did a review of the backdoor pilot that appeared within Criminal Minds and despite a couple of cast changes that seemed good on paper (Penelope Garcia will be a regular on both series, and Richard Schiff and Janeane Garofalo have joined the cast), if anything the overall quality has gone down.

The episode was packed full of cliché dialogue and direction, no subtlety at all. There’s some big inspiring speeches that made me roll my eyes, some foreshadowing hamminess that made me groan (a little girl taunting her brother that “This time, you’re never gonna find me” as she goes to play hide-and-seek just moments before getting kidnapped). The investigative process was hilariously contrived, jumping to conclusions and blundering their way to the right answer thanks to the amazing super computer search functions.

All the characters were flat and uninteresting, everyone from the main cast through to the guest victims and ‘unsub’ painfully one note and borderline caricature. Of the five person team I’m not sure we were even told the name of two of them, and Forest Whitaker appeared to be having conversations with himself more often than not.

TVSquad have done a much better job reviewing the episode. I feel like I’ve already spent more time and words on this show than it deserves.

Pilot Review: The Chicago Code

The Chicago Code is one of those mid-season shows that has been talked about in hushed tones for months, hell nearly a year since it was announced that the creator of The Shield (Shawn Ryan – also of The Unit) would be creating a new police drama. Since then his other show (Terriers) has been and gone in a deluge of critical praise and a drought of popular ratings.

So. I liked it. I was entertained. It was okay.

You want more? Ah… that’s where it gets tricky. ‘cos the more I think about the show the more problems I find with it.

I liked police detective, a grizzly curmudgeon who never rose above the rank of detective but is smart and good at his job, respected by his colleagues and hiding his values and heart behind a his grumpiness. He was entertaining, he had spark and depth. Unfortunately that was about where the positive characters ended. The younger characters are pretty basic in the pilot, the smart and eager young sidekick, the ‘tough-on-the-outside-squishy-in-the-middle’ beat cop niece and her gung-ho partner.

The biggest problem though is Jennifer Beals’ character, the “first female police superintendent in the history of Chicago”. The moment her little voice-over said that I flinched. I have a loathing for this kind of “first female to do X” thing, particularly given that the key thing about her really isn’t her sex, it’s her disconnection from the status quo. She’s forced on us as someone who wants change, who sits in a posh restaurant eating by herself because she’s so driven that she has no friends, who’s not afraid to rattle some cages, who wants her city to be great blah blah blah. She felt flat and unrealistic. But that’s okay because the evil politician she’s up against did everything but stroke a white cat and monologue his plans to kill puppies.

As I said at the top of the review, I enjoyed it when I was watching it. It’s only writing this review that made me acknowledge the massive weaknesses the pilot displayed. So, thanks for that.

The Chicago Code starts on Sky 1, March 2011.

Other reviews
TV Squad: “The show is more challenging than your typical broadcast cop show, but not so challenging as to alienate viewers as FOX’s last ambitious drama, ‘Lone Star,’ did. So no, ‘The Chicago Code’ is not as great or as compelling as ‘The Shield,’ but it’s already a pretty enthralling cop drama. We can expect nothing less from Ryan.”

CliqueClack: “The long wait for ‘The Chicago Code’ is finally over. Did Shawn Ryan’s latest show live up to the hype? You bet your deep dish pizza it did.”

TV Addict: “it simply packs too much into a single episode, crisscrossing between the two before either gets a real chance to come into focus. And for all its characters, few so far are beyond the standard cop drama fare”

Links: Official website, wikipedia, TV.com, imdb

Pilot Review: Mad Dogs

Sky have a “commitment” to creating new drama, I’m not sure whether the commitment has been imposed upon them by regulators, if it’s a marketing ploy or whether they actually genuinely want to invest in it… but if it leads to more shows like Mad Dogs, then I’m all in favour of it.

At the centre of the show and all of its promotion is a fantastic cast of British actors. It reunites Philip Glenister and John Simm from Life on Mars and they’re joined by Marc Warren (Hustle) and Max Beesley (Hotel Babylon, um.. the job centre ads). They make a great ensemble, it’s utterly believable that they’ve known each other for years but don’t necessarily have a lot in common.

The premise is that these four guys have travelled to the beautiful Majorca to stay with the fifth member of the group (Ben Chaplin) who is rolling in it and a bit sinister. Over the course of the first episode he deteriorates from ‘slightly odd’ to ‘batshit crazy’. The pacing of this descent is beautifully paced, it’s both gradual and rapid, the four guys and the audience start of just a bit unsettled by his behaviour, but as the episode goes on they get more and more freaked out until reaching a level of utter panic.

It’s this pacing that made the first episode absolutely gripping to watch. Thanks to the introductory video segment (and of course the advertising) the audience knows that the fun blokes holiday of drinking and mucking about is going to deteriorate into something more horrific, but watching the characters gradually work their way to the same realisation is fascinating. With lesser actors it may have been cheesy or felt manipulative, but from the minute you meet the characters, even though you don’t necessarily like them, you are completely engaged with each of them. The characters and their relationships also inject a lot of humour along the way, breaking up the suspense with some proper laugh inducing comedy.

I thought this first episode was absolutely brilliant, I was gripped from the very first second, massively frustrated every time it went to adverts and continue to be annoyed I have to wait another week for the next episode. My only concern would be that the high standards set by this gradual build up will be unsustainable through the next three episodes, that it might turn into a bit more of an action adventure than a psychological thriller. But, even if that’s the case, the quality of this first episode has already made this show a stand out of the year so far.

Other reviews: The Guardian didn’t like it much (“Rather than building menace, the snail-like pace dissipated it.”), The Telegraph liked it more though (“like any competent suspense thriller, it made you ask questions throughout. The episode bubbled with foreboding, right up to the cliffhanger”),

Links: Sky1 site (sky subscribers can watch the first episode on Sky Player), wikipedia, imdb.