2014-15 Pilot Roundup

I’ve had something of a blitz catching up on pilots from the 2014-15 season, just slightly in advance of the influx of 2015-16 pilots! Fortunately in the UK (I guess) there’s a bit of delay though so there should be a bit of a window.

iZombie
izombieI’d been looking forward to this show from the creators of Veronica Mars, one of my favourite shows, but it hasn’t found a UK broadcaster yet. I chased up the pilot episode through slightly dubious sources just so that I could include it in my end of year round up. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s clearly a relation to Veronica Mars, sharing the same style of sarcastic voiceover and strong yet ‘human’ young woman trying to find her place. The pilot had to deliver a lot of exposition which didn’t always feel entirely natural, and I’m not sure whether having the character find peace with her situation so quickly was brilliant or limiting, but I’m pretty optimistic that the rest of the series will settle down and be thoroughly entertaining. I did like the graphical references back to the comic source as well, it gave it a nice design theme. iZombie has been renewed for a second season in the US on the CW where it fits nicely alongside the superheroes and monsters of the rest of the schedule, so here’s hoping a UK broadcaster (or Netflix or Amazon) picks it up.

Constantine
constantineI know this is based on a long running popular comic book and there’s already been a film adaption, but I’ve somehow managed to pretty much avoid it. The pilot does an efficient job setting up the mythos and the characters powering through with just enough style and energy, intrigue and charm to hold my attention. The only problem really was that even without having seen any of the previous iterations, it all felt a bit ‘been there done that’, it felt a lot like Supernatural season 5 without the same heart and soul. I think it’s probably watchable and might have gone somewhere interesting, but it was not renewed for a second season. You can watch it in the UK on Amazon instant video.

State of Affairs
state_of_affairsI actually like Katherine Heigl, I know she gets a lot of stick but I generally enjoy her performances, and I enjoyed bits of her performance here. The problem wasn’t her, it was the writing which seemed to have no grounding in reality. Basing a series on the writing of the CIA’s Daily Briefing for the President is an interesting one, but not when professionalism gets swallowed up by petty personal politics. Heigl’s character is painted as a rogue in the CIA but close personal friend of the president, while those around her either blindly follow her or are completely incompetent and/or corrupt. If that’s the way the top levels of the CIA work, then the world really is doomed. I found Heigl quite watchable, particularly in the lighter moments and Alfre Woodard as the President is great, but overall it came across as dumb with delusions of thriller. It was cancelled after the thirteen episode first season.

Daredevil
daredevilWhat everyone is saying at the moment is “there just aren’t enough comic book superheroes on the big and small screen”. This one set in the main Marvel cinematic universe I think (it references the events of The Avengers) but aires on Netflix so is independent of SHIELD. That’s about as interesting as it gets. Daredevil is a standard non-super super hero, guy in a costume with some kind of higher mission. Basically Batman. The USP here is that Daredevil is blind and he’s able to fight incredibly well because… well I’m not entirely sure to be honest. I mean, the whole thing was perfectly fine, but there just wasn’t anything particularly great about it. It wasn’t as broody and dark as Batman, but it was nowhere near as smart or funny as Iron Man. There were no gadgets, no super powers, no whizzy special effects. Just some fighting sequences that really did nothing for me. In a crowded genre, Daredevil makes no impression. Season 1 is available on Netflix and season 2 will arrive next year sometime.

Sense8
When you attach names like the Wachowskis and J Michael Straczynski to a show there are two ways things can go. Either you’re hoping for The Matrix meets Babylon 5 or you’re scared of Cloud Atlas meets Crusade. For me, it was more the latter. The pilot was a complete mess, massively over packed with characters most of whom got very little time and therefore very little depth. Most of the limited time available in the pilot was in fact completely wasted in attempting to build tension around the mystery of what was going on and how these threads were connected, but the pilot just dawdles its way towards revealing… well, absolutely nothing. That might just about work if you literally knew NOTHING about the show going in and don’t mind building the tension, but if you’ve read even the one sentence description of the show (and why would you be watching otherwise?) then all the pilot does is tell you “something odd is going on with several seemingly unconnected people”. Multiple times I found myself shouting at the screen “just get on with it!” (not least at the world’s slowest burglars). Also the choice to have all the characters speak in English when they’re spread around the world was cowardly, lazy and makes me think that the writers have little faith in their audience’s intellectual capacity if they think we can’t even manage subtitles. Oh and there was the usual unnecessarily gratuitous sex scene that did nothing other than say “woohoo, we’re not on network, we can show whatever we want, look boobies!”. Really disappointing. Mind you, my housemates really loved it and it’s been renewed for a second season on Netflix, so what do I know?

How to Get Away with Murder
howtogetawayI’m usually a big fan of Shonda Rhimes, but this one just didn’t grab me. In Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, Rhimes created a set-up, characters and relationships all bigger than reality, full of complexity and shades of grey, occasionally ridiculous but generally somewhere you want to spend more time. But in How to Get Away with Murder I found all the characters irritating and most of the storyline elements tired and predictable. The trick of showing a key development in the storyline and then jumping back in time to show how they got there is potentially interesting, but also a bit risky. In this case it just sort of made me roll my eyes a bit at the thought of spending any significant amount of time watching the inevitable play out over who-knows-how-many episodes. Maybe some subtlety will emerge in future episodes, and things will go in unexpected directions, but the pilot certainly didn’t leave me wanting more. The series has however been picked up for a second season and will be showing on Universal Channel.

Bloodlines
Another Netflix original series, another show that shows you how things are going to end and then flashes back, this time with the addition of a pretentious voice over. It’s about a family in Florida, four grown siblings and their parents all of whom have complicated relationships on top of their own issues. It reminded me most of Brothers and Sisters, although it lacks most of the lightness and a good chunk of the heart. I wasn’t really enjoying it that much by about half way through, but towards the end of the pilot I got more into it as they started to set up the stories. Unlike How to Get Away with Murder I was more intrigued by the future that we’re shown and wondering how they’d get there. I may actually watch a few more episodes of this, not least because I do rather love Kyle Chandler. Bloodlines is available on Netflix and has been renewed for a second season.

Wayward Pines
wayward_pinesJust like the Wachowskis and JMS, a series by M Night Shymalan comes with some baggage attached, is it going to be Sixth Sense or is it going to be Lady in the Water? Wayward Pines has a classic set up – a stranger arrives in an inescapable town full of seemingly happy shiny people. Why are they trapped? Who is controlling the town? Who is part of it, and who is just pretending? It’s a rather by the numbers set-up and it’s slightly lacking in charismatic characters. It is very solidly put together and sticks quite close to the classics, but that means if it’s meant to be surprising, it utterly fails. There is some element of mystery to it, I do want to know what is going on and now that the exposition of the set-up is out of the way, the rest of the series could do something interesting, but it might be a slow burn. Mind you it’s only a ten episode mini-series so it doesn’t have that much time to mess about and will actually come to a managed end, so I may well watch it through. It’s available on Amazon Prime.

Empire
empireThree very different brothers are put in competition to take over their father’s hip hop music empire, and things are further complicated by their mother finally getting out of prison and re-entering their lives after 17 years. It’s sort of like Nashville meets the Sopranos. I’ve no real interest in the type of music they’re making, but that’s part of the appeal I guess. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this show, but I found myself really drawn in. I think that’s because fundamentally when you break the show and characters down it’s a pretty traditional formula. While that means it’s not exactly original (one of the characters even references the fact it’s basically King Lear) those tropes are still used because they work well, and if you add shiny production values and a talented cast, it’s probably going to work, at least for a while. The pilot certainly worked on me and I’ll try to catch up on the series. Empire has had a bundle of critical acclaim and was renewed for a second season.

The Upfronts 2014: NBC

nbc network logoIt’s upfront time once again, it does come around fast! For those that are unaware, upfront week is when each of the five major US networks announce their schedules for next year, thereby confirming which shows are renewed, which ones are axed and which new shows will be arriving. What that mean for me is that I watch a large number of terrible trailers, read some awful press releases and get generally despondent about the whole thing. It usually takes me until Wednesday to lose the will, this year I started off pretty far gone.

What’s Dead?
CommunityGiven that it has been on the bubble every single year, it’s more of a surprise that Community got the five seasons it did, I think it’s actually to NBCs credit that they supported it that long, five seasons is extremely respectable. Slightly less impressive are the two seasons that Revolution managed, although to be honest I’m a bit surprised it lasted that long.

Four underwhelming new dramas, Believe, Crisis, Dracula and Ironside didn’t see out the year, the first three at least got most of the way through their (admittedly short) seasons before it was announced at the upfronts they wouldn’t be back, Ironside was abruptly pulled from the schedules after just three terrible episodes. New sitcoms didn’t do much better, Growing Up Fisher, a sitcom I have no memory of hearing about got the plug pulled. The Michael J. Fox Show and Sean Saves the World were both cancelled mid-season and Welcome to the Family equals Ironside and was killed after just three episodes too.

What’s Survived?
Chicago FireOnly three new shows received pickups (3 out of 10), About a Boy based on the book and film of the same name and doesn’t seem to have been drawing a huge amount of attention. On the other extreme The Blacklist has been something of a smash, led by a hugely entertaining performance from the always reliable James Spader. The third pick up is for Chicago PD, which does numbers just about comparable with its parent show Chicago Fire, which is picked up for season 3.

Parks and Recreation and Parenthood have both been given shortened final seasons (7th and 6th respectively), both of which (like Community) lasted far longer than their ratings necessarily justified. NBC also renewed Law and Order: Special Victims Unit for season 16, making it the longest running primetime show on air at the moment, and closing in on Law and Order’s 20 season run. Grimm and Hannibal also get pickups for seasons 4 and 3 respectively.

What’s on this summer?
Crossbones (trailer): Blackbeard (John Malkovich) is a pirate. He does pirate things and is slightly insane. There’s something about him trying to decrypt a code or something, and he abducts some bloke to help him. The trailer starts out with appealing sea battles and ends up with tedious Da Vinci Code cyphers and lots of loaded dialogue. Not exactly blown away.

The Night Shift (trailer): The Night Shift in the Emergency Room is made up of a gaggle of quirky medics with an overabundance of issues. The trailer appears to be from at least two different series, one a budget version of Scrubs with cringey jokes and the other a cheap knock-off of ER with overdone sincerity and mediocre acting. Eesh.

Taxi Brooklyn (trailer): An “action-comedy” New York cop ends up with a French taxi driver as a partner. Bizarely I can only find the trailer in badly dubbed French, which means I don’t think I can watch the show without remembering that and finding it ridiculous.

Undateable (trailer): A group of ‘undateable’ men are taught how to play “the game of love” by some bloke who thinks he’s all that.

Welcome to Sweden (trailer): A celebrity accountant moves to Sweden to be with his girlfriend, cultural hilarity ensues. Or doesn’t.

Working the Engels (No trailer): Sitcom about a widow struggling to try and keep her husband’s law firm running to support the kids, despite her not actually being a lawyer. I’ve heard weaker premises, but it’s not much to go on.

What’s New?
Constantine (trailer): Yup, THAT Constantine, demon hunter and somewhat reluctant fighter against all things evil and weird is brought back in to the fight to save the daughter of an old friend who’s got the ability to see supernatural stuff. It’s a strong story, that’s why it’s been done so many times, and it sits nicely alongside Grimm on NBC’s schedule. I’m not sure the balance of dry humour and biblical epicness is quite right in the trailer, but it may even out in the show.

State of Affairs (trailer): Charlie Tucker (Katherine Heigl) is a CIA agent, she was also dating the President’s (Alfre Woodard) son when he was killed. Now the two of them appear to be on a crusade to kill whoever’s responsible, which I suspect will turn out to be more convoluted than just killing terrorists. It looks extremely Zero Dark Thirty, which may or may not be a good thing, but with the exception of some stunningly bad romantic comedies, Heigl is always watchable and Woodard brings significant class. However it does feature the painful line (in text) in the trailer – “All the Presidents men are nothing compared to her”.

The Mysteries of Laura (trailer): Debra Messing is the least believable homicide detective ever seen on television, she’s better as a single mother clinging to the edge balancing everything, but every time she holds a gun or tries to act tough I want to die a bit. She deserves better.

A to Z (trailer): Andrew likes Liam Neeson movies and Celine Dion, and Zelda likes cocktail parties and apparently having less back story than the guy. They apparently caught a fleeting glance of each other 2 years ago and now, like it’s destiny, they’re reunited. It’s not offensively bad, but I didn’t laugh either.

Bad Judge (trailer): Kate Walsh (Private Practice) is a judge, a slightly unorthodox one who is a drummer in a band, drinks too much and hasn’t exactly settled down, then she gets a phone call from a kid whose parents she put in jail and now needs some help. I always liked Walsh in Grey’s Anatomy and this could be a good vehicle for her, and I did actually laugh a couple of times!

Marry Me (trailer): Jake attempts to propose to Annie, but she has a meltdown. Then she proposes to him and accidentally gets him fired. Based on the 2 minute trailer, she’s a hateful person, he should avoid her like the plague.

Aquarius (mid season): In 1967 an LA police officer is investigating the disappearance of a teenage girl, the trail leads to a cult led by someone by the name of Charles Manson. Yup, THAT Charles Manson. The series will apparently follow what happens over the next couple of years, “ultimately ending with the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders”. That sounds like they’re pretty confident about how long the series will be, I sense frustration. Duchovny is a draw though.

Odyssey (mid season): A lawyer, a soldier and a political activist, three strangers, are pulled into an international conspiracy about a huge corporation that’s secretly funding Jihadists. There’s an awful lot of terrorists and secret agents on NBC this year and without a trailer to go on it’s impossible to know what the tone of this will be and if it’s going to have some interesting character stuff, or just dull conspiracy wrangling.

Allegiance (mid season): Mark and Katya are Russian spies that have been sleeping in the US for decades. Now Russia is trying to bring down America and they’ve been reactivated and told their son must become a spy for Russia, a bit of a problem, because he works for the CIA. It’s like The Americans: The Next Generation. Frankly it sounds pretty ridiculous, are they really doing a show set in the present day about the Kremlin trying to overthrow America?

Heroes: Reborn (mid season): Tim Kring restarts the hit series of 2006 and flop of 2007 with a new miniseries with new ‘heroes’ just discovering their powers. Did the world really need this? Can NBC not find anything original, or at least old but popular!

Mission Control (Mid season): Dr Mary Kendricks attempts to break into the boy’s club of NASA mission control in the 1960s. The blurb incudes “Houston, we have a problem!” and “They all want… to get a man on the moon. It might just take a woman to get him there”. I predict we are about to lose the battle of the sexes.

Mr Robinson (Mid season): struggling musician takes job as substitute teacher, gets crush on English teacher, clashes with uptight head teacher. Not sure whether it’s actually School of Rock or just stealing everything from it, but Craig Robinson is gonna have his work cut out being Jack Black.

One Big Happy (Mid season): Lizzy is gay, Luke is straight, they’ve been friends since childhood and they decide to platonically start a family together. Then Luke falls in love with Prudence, they get married, Lizzy is pregnant and “a different kind of family is born”. It’s an unsurprising but solid enough setup, will need a trailer to actually make a real assessment.