Pilot Review: Outcasts

There’s a sorry lack of proper science fiction around at the moment. There’s a fair amount of things that are nearby on the genre scale – supernatural stuff, superheroes or just playing with science fiction ideas and concepts and making them more ‘mainstream’. But if you want an honest to goodness spaceship or alien, they’re pretty few and far between these days.

That’s why I was pretty delighted to see Outcasts appear on the radar a few months back. Then clips started appearing in “2011 on the BBC” adverts, and eventually full trailers. Things were looking good! Not only was it proper science fiction in the sense that there was a spaceship and an alien planet, but the plot seemed full of science fiction ideas about humanity and what happens when normal people are put in extraordinary circumstances? Thank you BBC!

The first episode aired last night and I really wanted to get this review out before the second episode airs tonight. Unfortunately that pesky day job got in the way so I’m cutting it pretty fine; airing two episodes next to each other is great when it comes to maintaining the pace and the intensity, not so great for reviewers with other commitments.

As it was science fiction I got to watch this with my house-mates. We were pretty silent for the majority of the show and when it finished they went “wow, that was great!” and I went “really? I thought it was a bit naff”. After a bit of conversation they brought me round to their point of view a bit more, but I was fascinated that we came away with such different instinctive reactions.

We both thoroughly agreed that the concepts and the story were fascinating and well told. It was doing everything I love about science fiction – taking fairly unremarkable people, and making ‘normal’ for them something that’s completely alien to us. So on top of the usual hassles of love, life and Murphy’s law, they also have to deal with setting up the next home planet for the human race. It reminded me a lot of Earth2, a little seen 1 season wonder show from the 90s about humanity’s less than successful attempts to colonise another planet – a show I loved and still miss 15 years later.

The show also looked great. It looked lived in and gritty (literally, there’s a lot of sand). It didn’t look like everything was blue screened and except for some overuse of lens flare at times, for the most part it was smoothly and unobtrusively directed.

What I got hung up on was that the acting and dialogue didn’t live up to the quality of the rest of the show. While the high level story was well written with little twists and turns carefully integrated, the line by line script felt forced and un-natural. In turn that made the acting feel hammy and overblown, but I don’t think it was actually the actors faults, I think they were just struggling to chew through some clumsy writing. For example there are a lot of secrets bubbling around, but everyone seems to feel the need to tell everyone that there are secrets and endlessly drop hints that they “know something you don’t know”.

That was a shame, because I was genuinely intrigued about the plot, what had happened in the past to get them to their current predicaments and mental states, and how the immediate mysteries would unravel. It certainly kept me entertained and engaged for the full hour and I’m very glad that SOMEONE is producing this kind of science fiction. Hopefully they’ll tidy up the writing and improve a bit in tonight’s episode to move it from the “entertaining” category into “actually pretty bloody good”.

There seem to be 8 episodes total, and next week at least is repeating the Monday/Tuesday pattern. Episode 1 is available at iPlayer, and episode 2 airs tonight.

Links: Official site, wikipedia, imdb.


Pilot Review: Being Human

The US SyFy channel have remade the BBC series Being Human. When that was announced, a lot of people made snotty remarks and asked “WHY?”, and I was one of them. But SyFy channel begged people to have an open mind, an arguement which its hard to object to. So I dutifully bit my tongue and waited until I’d seen the it before I said “well that was a waste of effort”.

This isn’t a re-imaginings, SyFy have done a straight-up remake from the plot down to the costuming while the original show is still making new episodes and airing them on a widely available channel (BBC America). Isn’t that basically just saying that your country’s audience is too insular to get past strange accents?

I didn’t enjoy watching the double-episode pilot, but I was struggled to work out why. The humour seemed a bit too reliant on embarassingly stupid choices by characters and the plot and dialogy a bit heavy handed, but nothing terminally wrong.

As I haven’t actually seen the UK series for a couple of years (I really liked the first series, but for various reasons haven’t watched any more) I decided that I’d go back and watch the pilot of the BBC series so that I could make some nice sweeping statements for this post about how the US series missed the magic of the UK one. But re-watching left with with exactly the same sensation as the US one and I have only just worked out why – I know what’s going to happen. I know how the relationships will develop, I know why the Ghost is still around, I know what the Vampire organisation is doing, I know what issues the Werewolf will wrestle with… I know all of it and am just bored.

Some television series can be watched over and over again, either because you find new little elements and perspectives that weren’t obvious the first viewing, or just because it’s so entertaining you don’t mind taking the journey again. It would appear that Being Human is not one of those series. That’s absolutely fine for the UK series, or even for people who are encountering the US version fresh. But if you’ve seen one, there’s no need at all to see the other.

Harry’s Law: Pilot Review

David E. Kelley, the brain that brought you Ally McBeal, The Practice and Boston Legal brings you… a quirky comedy/drama legal show. In other surprising news – the sun continues to rise and set every day. It’s astonishing.

Kathy Bates is wonderful. She’s won an Oscar and stuff like that, she also habitually pops onto the screen and steals the show, so it’s really no surprise that someone would finally give her the lead in a show and that she’d be utterly wonderful. She’s grumpy and curmudgeonly, but also passionate and inspiring and I love her already. The show around her almost doesn’t matter, she’s an actress who could make reading the phone book hilarious and touching.

Thankfully the writers do show slightly more imagination than that and the show built around her, while not spectacular, is absolutely fine for a star-driven concept. The pilot launches you in so fast, I thought I’d missed the fist section, there’s no time for subtlely in the writing to introduce the characters and explain why the hot shot lawyer is throwing it all away to start a practice in a shoe shop in a poor bit of town. The main case of the week started off a bit ropey, but did eventually present an interesting question – what if the fact that your client is guilty is never a doubt in anyone’s mind, just whether or not they should be given another chance? The second case asked the related question of when is it ‘right’ to commit a crime? Both plots gave excellent opportunities for some impressive and moving speechifying.

Any lead-driven show is going to result in a collection of supporting characters – there to make the lead look good and most of them do a really good, but unspectacular job. Oddly though in the first episodes Nathan Corddry is given almost as much material as Kathy Bates, and I’m not sure whether it’s my residual love for anyone who was in Studio 60, but I thought he was pretty amazing . He’s introduced like someone you’re gonna hate – rich slimey lawyer with a patronising attitude, but then he goes and defends a client and he basically bludgeons the judge and the audience into adoring him. Seriously, I wanted to give a standing ovation.

The only problem I have with Harry’s Law is a little difficult to describe, and possibly all in my own head. I felt a bit uncomfortable watching it. If you look at the show in one way it’s uplifting, people joining a community and helping the people within it. But if you look the other way – it’s implying it takes a bunch of white rich folk going into a poor black neighbourhood like they’re knights in shining armour. Both the defendants this week were black, the “I’m the first person in my family to go to college” and “the police don’t help in this neighbourhood” angles were laid on pretty thick. But for all the comments on the dodginess of the neighbourhood, it just looks like a nice tree-lined street dressed with the occasional homeless person. It can also apparently support a designer shoe shop. The liberalness is laid on so heavily meanwhile that it’s at great risk of toppling over into patronising condescension.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it, maybe I’m thinking too hard about what should be (and mostly was) a lighthearted comedy with a good heart behind it. If the writers avoid becoming patronising, go easy with the cheesy voiceover and don’t go too over the top with the quirkiness, (i.e. it doesn’t turn into Boston Legal) I think I could really love the show.

LinksOfficial website, wikipedia, imdb, TV.com

Clique-Clack – So I was excited to see the pairing of [Kathy Bates] and legendary producer and writer David E. Kelley on NBC’s new offering Harry’s Law. What a great pair up, I thought. And after watching the pilot, I’m really pleased.

TVSquad – After watching the first two episodes, I definitely agree with him. It has all the hallmarks of a Kelley series: quirky characters and setting, cases that touch upon current societal issues, long courtroom speeches. Unfortunately, in this case, that’s not such a good thing.

Pilot Review: Off the Map

My relationship with Grey’s Anatomy is a troubled one. I love it, yet it causes me pain, letting me down over and over, just to charm its way back into my heart every time I vow that this is its last chance. When it is good it makes you fall in love with the characters and actually makes you feel a bit better about the world. But when it’s bad, it feels like it’s personally letting you down, somehow breaching your trust and forcing you to accept that this world is not real.

So it was with some nervousness that I settled in to watch Off the Map, “from the producers of Grey’s Anatomy”. Judging it in its own rights is gonna be tricky, but given the crossover in production teams and the massive advertising push linking the two shows, I figure no one is really going to mind.

The show really is just Grey’s Anatomy in the jungle – for better or for worse. You’ve got the same basic structure of young, cocky, new doctors finding out that they know pretty much nothing about how to practice medicine or about how to function as human beings. Meanwhile you’ve got the more senior experienced medics who have their own relationship, medical and organisational issues. All the characters are surrounded in a fog of flirting and personal angst while bouncing from one far-fetched melodramatic medical case to another. If you didn’t like it in Grey’s, then unless you’re going to be swung by some pretty scenery, you’re not going to like it here.

Independent of whether you like the style of the show, the pilot had a number of other problems. The elements of the plot are all pretty contrived, confrontations feeling artificially created from the start. Our three newbies are supposed to be there to learn, and the elders do talk about teaching, but most of the ‘teaching’ seems to be about patronising them, setting them up to fail and then shouting at them when they don’t know the thing that no one has actually bothered to explain to them. It’s frustrating to watch. They’re also laying it on a little thick with the pan pipes and the strategic use of Spanish when it is convenient for the plot that people don’t understand each other. There’s a few production issues as well that are a bit of a shame – some questionable continuity and issues with time that don’t quite make sense. I suspect it was edited about a bit and some stuff got lost in the shuffle. It’s just a bit shoddy.

Are the characters on a par with those on Grey’s? I think they may actually get there, within a short period of time they three junior doctors each actually have a chance to show that they’ve got histories, strengths, passions, flaws, empathy and talent. I know Caroline Dhavernas and Zach Gilford, from Wonderfalls and Friday Night Lights respectively and they have proven history of being able to deliver the range of comedy and drama that we’ve come to expect from Shonda Rhimes’ characters, but if anything it was unknown Mamie Gummer who made me love her most. (OH! She’s Meryl Streep’s daughter! That explains a lot!) I was considerably less impressed with the older characters, they came across as bitchy, authoritarian and smug – hopefully they’ll prove themselves to be human beings in the next couple of episodes.

I’m trying to remember how I felt about Grey’s Anatomy when I first saw it. When I go back to watch the pilot now it seems special, as if the brilliance is already there, but maybe that’s rose-tinted memories. I didn’t see the same spark in Off the Map, but I do see a potential that I didn’t see in Private Practice, the more direct spin-off of Grey’s Anatomy. I’m certainly going to stick with Off the Map for a while, I’m hoping it doesn’t let me down.

TV Addict – If you already enjoy her other shows, GREY’S ANATOMY and PRIVATE PRACTICE, do not assume you’ll like OFF THE MAP – this show is plodding, disingenuous, and a waste of talent.

CliqueClack – I cannot wait to see more, to find out what other interesting cases are lurking on the island. Their space is so confined, and yet completely different than what we have seen in any recent medical shows; seemingly, the sky’s the limit.

Links: Official site, imdb, wikipedia

Pilot Review: The Cape

Mid-season arrives. Christmas has been and gone and the networks are shuffling their schedules about, with about a half dozen new arrivals to lure people away from the gym, or those books and their good intentions and back to their sofas. With seven new shows already cancelled, there’s plenty of space on the schedules and a number of shows that are hoping to fill the holes. The Cape is trying to plug a hole.

The concept immediately made me roll my eyes. A cop is framed for a crime he didn’t commit, he dons a cape and fights injustice. My big question was – what direction is this going to take? Is it gonna be cheesy Superman, or dark Batman? Is it going to be set in a world where superheroes are common place or is it going to be ‘our’ world, where superheroes are only found in graphic novels and comics? Is he really going to have superpowers, or is it just going to be a man dressed in a cape?

The problem is, the answer to all of those questions is ‘yes’. The Cape has utterly no idea what it is, what it wants to be, who its central character is, what the rules of the universe are or what its tone is. It’s all over the place. There are moments of silly comedy (tricks with hypnosis) but also deeply moving scenes. Some shows can blend these together to seamlessly describe the way those contrasts really happen in real life, this one did not. It’s got some of the cheesiest superhero tricks (hammy signature lines, utterly insufficient disguises), but no one comments on the ridiculousness, no one seems to bat an eyelid that there’s a guy in a mask calling himself Chess and killing people with magical explosives. Does that mean that superheroes and villains are all over the place? It didn’t seem like that was the case. Similarly there’s no real indication that any of these people have superpowers, they’re just well trained and well equipped. Well that is until Vinney Jones turns up and has scales and the special effects go to town so that people disappear in puffs of smoke.

The lead character has problems with or without his daft costume. Everything about him felt very flat – he loves his son, he wants to uphold the law in his city and he doesn’t like corruption. But… despite the fact that ‘all he wants to do is be a cop’ when his captain and friend are killed, he doesn’t stay to fight the corruption, he quits and joins the private police force. He doesn’t like corruption but it really doesn’t take much for him to fall in with a bunch of armed robbers. The only thing that rings true about him is the relationship he has with his son.

I’ll admit that I’ve only watched the first of an apparently two part pilot,when the first episode finished and seemed to be self-contained I just couldn’t face watching the second. Maybe the next episode got amazingly better. Maybe it made better use of Summer Glau instead of just having her pout, flip her hair and bring in a certain demographic of view. Maybe it found some confidence to settle on a direction instead of endlessly throwing ideas and themes at the audience like some kind of trial pick-n-mix. I’m not optimistic and I’m afraid I’m not going to keep watching to find out.

That said, as I generally try to do, I avoided the reviews until I’d written my own, and on reading other people’s thoughts I wonder if I have maybe been a little harsh. While I at least have not fallen into the (apparently) popular trap of comparing it to Heroes (I didn’t think they were really comparable to be honest) TVSquad and CliqueClack, reviewers I usually trust and agree with, both liked it a great deal more than I did. While obviously I am right and everyone else is wrong, I’d recommend reading one of their reviews for a balance. And of course feel free to watch the show and form your own opinion ;0) generally a lot more charitable and favourable than I am!

Links: Official website, imdb, tv.com

Detroit 1-8-7

Documentary style procedural set in the homicide department of a Detroit Police Department. I’m not sure what 187 is.

You can probably tell by the slow pacing of my pilot reviews this year that a lot of them haven’t really grabbed my attention. 2 months after the start of the season and I’ve still got about half a dozen pilots waiting for me, and often by the time I get to them the shows have already been either cancelled or picked up, which kind of give away the endings. From my point of view then, the fact that Detroit 187 has been almost completely ignored by the press meant that I could watch the pilot without any preconceptions. My lack of awareness isn’t a particularly good sign for the show given it indicates a complete lack of buzz or publicity.

Based on the pilot at least, that’s a real shame, because despite my utter apathy about the show I found myself solidly entertained for 45 minutes. Solid is a good keyword for the show – it’s neither ‘stunning’ nor ‘awful’; not too epic, not too trivial; not too cheesy, not too gritty. It’s the goldilocks of police procedurals.

The pilot plays to its necessities, introducing each detective as a familiar stereotype (the over-enthusiastic rookie with the reclusive experience partner, the retiring veteran, the hard nosed lieutenant, the pin-up undercover cop) but each is carefully given brief opportunities to hint there’s more to each of them than just the cliché. It’s not a lot to go on, but combined with an interesting case, and an introduction to Detroit itself, that’s a lot of pack in to a 45minute pilot.

According to Wikipedia the pilot was originally filmed as a mock documentary, but then re-filmed to turn it into a straight drama. That would explain the slightly weird tone occasionally, as if the actors were looking at the camera out of the corner of their eye. Hopefully that awkwardness will be gone from the later episodes that didn’t have to be re-edited. I like the hand-held feel – it adds grittiness and intensity, but it was overused in the pilot and felt intrusive.

I always write these reviews before going to look at other people’s, but I’m entertained to see the TV Squad review agrees with almost everything I’ve said, but has a general negative tone rather than positive. They found the un-remarkableness a disappointment, while for me it was a positive thing because it’s just nice to see a new procedural this year that made it that far. In a sea of new shows that are poor through to awful, I found the overwhelming average-ness of this a really nice change.

TV Squad – We don’t take any pride in that prediction, nor is ‘Detroit 1-8-7,’ based solely on its first hour, a terrible show. It’s just not a particularly interesting or original one. Here’s a show that has the fortune of having a fascinating city at a time of transformation as its setting, that has the privilege of actually being filmed in Detroit, and yet it comes across as any other cop drama that can take place in any other urban city, complete with your stereotypical cop characters (mysterious hard-nosed detective, amateurish rookie, crusty vet, tough lieutenant) and cookie-cutter cases. What a missed opportunity.

CliqueClack – The show’s not bad, as cop dramas go. It moves quickly, and contains multiple story lines. The murders aren’t all that difficult to figure out, but hey — it zips right along. I can stand it.

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

Pilot Review: The Walking Dead

Do you like zombie films? If you do, the good news is that you’ll like this. The bad news is, that at least as far as the pilot goes, you’ve pretty much seen it all before.

Give or take a couple of teaser scenes, the pilot starts with a cop waking up in a hospital to find that while he’s been asleep everything’s gone to hell in a handbasket. Deserted streets, blood smeared walls, bodies piled up, doors rattling. Eventually the zombies shamble their way on to the scene, our befuddled hero finds some exposition laden humans and off he trundles with a bag load of shotguns and a snazzy hat in search of his missing family.

The pilot really did feel like a middling-budget zombie film. That’s not to say it was bad, just a bit average. The characters are pretty one dimensional, falling into reasonably tried and tested slots. The dialogue is fine, the writing tidy enough, but it’s all a bit too unremarkable. Waking up in a hospital has been done in everything from Day of the Triffids to 28 Days Later and the plot doesn’t get massively more original than that, each cliché is solid and the transitions smooth, but at the end of the day, they’re all still clichés.

On the positive side, the production values were superb for television, with extremely good direction, make-up and special effects. The zombies themselves were pitched about right – individuals are no real threat, they’re too slow and stupid more creepy in their unrelenting pursuit and vacant stares than anything else. But they flock together in a slightly terrifying way, gradually building in numbers until they just over-run you. Then they eat you. Being on Cable in the US means it can be a bit more graphic, and they certainly make the most of that opportunity.

I was disappointed in the pilot to be honest. Maybe I was being unreasonably demanding, but I was hoping for something more. While zombies are a new subject for television, that’s not enough to make it original over all. I just expect a bit more flavour and originality from my supernatural based tv shows, a bit more self-awareness and spark. I struggle with shows set in the present that aren’t aware of the rest of the media that has come before them – Supernatural just did a vampire episode referencing Twilight the whole way through, Buffy had seen the Dracula movies… but The Walking Dead felt like it existed in a vacuum.

The interest I think will come in a couple of episodes time, when it becomes clear that this is a TV show, that this can run for hours and hours. The frustration with zombie films for me has always been that they are forced to stop too soon. I want to see how they continue to rebuild and deal with long term issues. So I’ll keep watching it, partly to see where it goes (there’s only half a dozen or so episodes in the first season) but mostly because even if it’s not particularly original in the history of the genre, it’s still a more interesting concept than 90% of the rest of what’s on television at the moment.

The Walking Dead is on FX, 10pm Fridays in the UK.

TVSquad -On the whole, I’d say ‘The Walking Dead’ worth a look, no matter what your genre preferences, but horror aficionados are more likely to enjoy this intense, blood-spattered tale, which, like all AMC dramas, is about as aesthetically well-crafted as a TV show can be.

CliqueClack – So far I’m very pleased with how the series has been translated to television. I can’t imagine that existing fans will be disappointed. As for newcomers, you either know what you’re getting into and should be happy with it, or will be revolted and/or frightened to the point that you’ll quickly know the series isn’t for you. I give the first couple of episode high marks, for sure. I cannot say I’m disappointed in the least.

Links: wikipedia, Official site, imdb, tv.com