Here a Pilot, There a Pilot, Everywhere a Pilot Pilot (Part the First)
Fall Pilot Roundup / The TV Whore
July 25, 2006
TV Reviews | July 25, 2006 | Comments ()
OK, the new fall season slowly kicks into gear in about a month (although it really doesn’t pick up, full steam, until well into September). Earlier this summer, we took a look at the upfront network schedules. Well, to further tide you over, I thought I’d share my thoughts on some of the pilots I’ve been able to get my hands on. No long introductory jibber-jabber, let’s just get to the first batch (as the title suggests, nee, directly indicates, we won’t be going through them all on this go-round).
Smith (CBS, Tuesdays, 10 p.m.). I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again, I love me the heists and capers, so I’m very willing to embrace this show if it’s embraceable. After watching the pilot, the verdict’s still out. There is certainly potential here — the show has a very cinematic HBO/Showtime feel to it, which is obviously a good thing. It’s kind of like a sort of “Thief”-lite, trying to have a dark side without being too bogged down by its own darkness (i.e., trying to make itself network and viewer friendly). There are two things a show like this will generally live and die by, of course — the cast and the capers.
They should be all right on the cast side of things, at least from a performance perspective, which is helmed by Ray Liotta (dubbed the titular “Smith” by a Fed trying to track him down). As we all know, Liotta is at his best when he’s playing likeable-crazy, with a little bit of pathos and scare-the-shit-outta-ya thrown into the mix (see, e.g., Goodfellas). It’s hard to tell what we’re ultimately going to get from him here based just on the pilot, but all those aspects showed up at some point — there was lots of friendly Liotta, some lovey-dovey Liotta, one nice outburst-of-anger Liotta, and a quick glimmer of I’m-bitch-crazy Liotta. I have to admit that, for as long as I keep up with this show, I’ll actually be sorta rooting against Liotta and his crew, just to see Liotta have outbursts and tear it up. From an acting perspective, I think the show lives or dies on Liotta’s shoulders, and it looks like he’s up to the task.
He wasn’t the only one who showed the potential to carry their acting burdens, however, and I think just about everyone else is up for the challenge. Jonny Lee Miller, as a just-paroled member of the gang, was great. Ditto for Simon Baker (one of those guys whom I’ve seen in things but I could never tell you what, exactly, he’s done), who plays a charmingly twisted guy who’ll sniper-kill some surfers for no reason other than they got in his face. And then there’s Shohreh Aghdashloo, who’s been knocking it out of the park now for a couple of years and really deserves some acclaim; anyway, she appears to be a recurring character as Liotta’s bankroller/fence, and looks fantastic.
The biggest question mark on the acting side of things is Amy Smart. Now, I’m a fan of hers, but playing the sexy-cool college girlfriend in Road Trip is one thing, and I’m just not convinced yet that she can pull off the cold-as-ice/tough-as-nails criminal that this role seems to call for. But I guess we’ll see. The other question mark is Virginia Madsen, as Liotta’s wife who knows more than he thinks she knows and who has a little bit of a double life of her own. She actually seems like she’ll be great, from an acting perspective. But I’m very worried about the material she’s going to be given to work with. At the end of the pilot, I felt like we’d been given yet another television wife who’s been burdened with television contrivances to make the character feel as important and weighty as the boys. To me, it felt sort of lazy and manufactured, and I hope the writers are up to the challenge of giving Madsen good quality material that rises above the crap so many of the women’s roles seems to get these days, giving us viewers a strong and believable female character. But again, I guess we’ll see.
Looking to the other key for this show’s success, the caper, I feel pretty good. The heist that went down in the pilot was solid yet basic, although there was one aspect of the getaway plan that just didn’t make any sense (this could easily be fixed with one edit, however, so here’s to hoping it gets cleaned up prior to airing). The whole thing was also a little anticlimactic, as the episode played as a flashback — although the second time through the heist at the end filled in some gaps from what we saw at the opening, you’ve known the major bits for an hour already. But again, I suspect this can be fixed with editing, which they’re going to have to do anyway, since the pilot runs too long for an hour premiere but too short for a two-hour premiere. Anyway, the point is this — nitpicks aside, the caper was good enough. Now, I don’t know if they’re going to try to pull a one-per-episode like this, or do some more extended-type heists, but if they can keep them smart and clever, it will obviously go a long way towards the show’s success.
So the long and the short of it is, in my mind, this show is worth a shot. It’s going up against the respectable “Law and Order: SVU” and “Boston Legal,” but with “The Unit” as its lead-in, I suspect that it’ll initially be the king of the hill. If it wants to keep that position, it’s going to have to show us some strong and clever writing. Time will tell.
Nine Lives The Nine (ABC, Wednesdays, 10 p.m.). The premise of this show is simple. There’s a bank robbery that results in a 52-hour hostage stand-off, and at the end of it all, the lives of nine folks become intertwined and changed forever. As ABC has explained it, each episode will have a 10-minute flashback segment filling in a little more of what happened during those 52 hours, while the rest of the show will be in the present, following these folks around now. So the first segment of the pilot basically gives us a quick introduction to the various characters, leading up to the start of the robbery. When we come back from commercial, it’s 52 hours later and the ordeal is over, although it’s very clear that a lot of shit went down in that missing hunk o’ time.
Now, overall, I think the cast is great. I’m a big fan of post-“Wings” Tim Daly (especially in the tragically short-lived “Eyes”). Ditto that for Chi McBride (who looks great here, playing a softer role than he usually gets). Although I didn’t really like Kim Raver all that much as Audrey on “24,” she looks fantastic here with a meatier and stronger role to work with. The only one I had some trouble with is Scott Wolf, and that’s probably because I’m just waiting for him to reveal that he’s an alcoholic (there’s also some joke in here about the fact that he’s on the same night and network as his “Party of Five” brother, but I didn’t watch that show enough to come up with the requisite clever joke, so I’ll turn to my faithful commenters to help me out). As good as the cast is, the characters are all pretty rote, and the dialogue sometimes mundane. They do a fantastic job with what they were given, it’s just that the source material could’ve been stronger.
That being said, however, I’m fucking hooked anyway (for the moment, at least). The opening 15 minutes of the pilot were pitch-perfect, and even the rest of the show ran at a good pace and kept me interested, even with the rote characterizations and some stiff dialogue. I’m not sure that I’m going to ever care about the “what happens to these cats now,” which is really the focus of the show, but I’ll tune in just to find out what happened during that bank robbery. The information we’re presented with immediately following the freeing of the hostages, plus a few tantalizing nibblers that are thrown out during the episode, leave the whole thing very compelling (to me at least).
At the end of the day, however, this is a gimmick show. That gimmick may give it a season, but if it’s shooting for long-term success, it’s the other 50 minutes of the show, the “what now” bits, that are going to have to carry the load. With the psychological angles that follow from such a hostage ordeal, and the relationship framework the characters have been placed into, the potential is certainly there. But as with “Smith,” we’re going to have to wait and see if the writers, producers, directors, etc., can pull off the potential of this pilot and get over its hurdles. I know ABC is hoping they do, as it’s desperate for a proper timeslot follow-up to “Lost,” and I’ll be rooting for these guys along with ABC.
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (NBC, Mondays, 10 p.m.). OK, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you about this show, Aaron Sorkin’s much ballyhooed return to network television, revolving around a behind-the-scenes look at a “Saturday Night Live”-type show. In fact, this show had so much hype built up around it earlier this year that by the time it showed up at the network upfronts in May, I can’t say that I’m surprised that the critics only received it with lukewarm malaise. But fuck the critics. This pilot isn’t a homerun and, actually, it wasn’t even as compelling as the pilot for “The Nine.” But of the three dramas discussed so far, it’s the one I have the least doubts about.
For example, I have no doubts about the cast. Bradley Whitford, Matthew Perry and Timothy Busfield (whom I’m really excited about) have already steadfastly proven that they can handle Sorkin material fantastically. Sarah Paulson was able to handle “Deadwood,” so I’m pretty sure she can take whatever Sorkin throws at her. And Nate Corddry and D.L. Hughley look like they’ll be solid, although they were relegated to relatively minor parts in the pilot, so one can’t say for sure. The only possible question mark here is Amanda Peet as president of the show’s parent network. I’ve always enjoyed Peet, although that’s largely been for the pure sexist reason that she’s “attainable hot.” She was good in the pilot, but I’m not sure that she necessarily sells “president of a network.” But I probably would’ve had similar concerns about some of the folks on “The West Wing” after that pilot, and they all worked out just fine, so this is a benefit of the doubt situation for me.
As for the substance of the show, it’s pretty much exactly what you would expect, feeling rather like an amalgamation of the weight of “West Wing” and the humor of “Sports Night” (in fact, the similarities to “Sports Night” are made rather vividly obvious early on, since the show’s set necessarily features a studio control room, which was where much of “Sports Night’s” action took place). The timing and pacing of the pilot felt a little off, but I hear there were similar problems with the original “West Wing” pilot, and it’s understandable, as folks are trying to get their grips on things (plus, there’s no doubt that editing plays a big part in making Sorkin’s material work).
The only real problem with the pilot, and a wrinkle which I’m not so sure will get ironed out in the final editing, is the heady seriousness of it all. Sorkin has carried over the weight and seriousness of “The West Wing” even though the substance of this show is considerably lighter. As a result, it feels a little melodramatic and downright preachy at times. I’ll take a little preach, but if the show’s not careful, it’ll implode as a result of its own weight. But “Studio 60” is rife with potential, and if Sorkin and company can find the happy medium here, it could be a real winner. And based on his prior two outings, Sorkin’s given us every reason to believe that he will get the tone and timing right. Even if this show doesn’t soar to “West Wing” heights, I expect it’ll be a worthy successor.
30 Rock (NBC, Wednesdays, 9:30 p.m.). When I’m watching a show that I plan to review, as opposed to watching purely for my own amusement (or lack thereof, depending on what the electrons are spitting out), I frequently have to pause the show to take down notes. And generally, the more notes I have, the worse the show, since I tend to right down bad lines of dialogue, snarky barbs, etc. So it’s probably a good sign that I only took one jotting-aside while watching this pilot.
As has been discussed ad nauseam, this is NBC’s other behind-the-scenes-of-an-“SNL”-type-show show, this time in the form of a half-hour comedy with several actual “SNL”-ers in tow (including Lorne Michaels, Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, and Tracy Morgan). For me, the star of the show, though, isn’t one of the former “Live” actors, it’s Alec Baldwin. Don’t get me wrong, Tina Fey has perfected a sarcastic awkwardness that shines in this show, and realistically, the weight of this show’s success is probably on her shoulders. And even though I usually can’t stand Tracey Morgan, his Martin Lawrence-like character is quite amusing (of course, Morgan swears the character bears no actual basis on Lawrence, evidence quite to the contrary); the test will be whether his character grates on you with time. But as I say, Alec Baldwin is what made this show for me. In recent years, he’s developed a new onscreen persona for himself — the schlubby, crass, former playboy-type who can get away with everything because there’s just enough charm under his sarcastic gruff. And he’s playing all of that to perfection here.
Simply put, this show had clever wit and solid jokes, built from an interesting premise. I didn’t laugh as much as I generally do during an episode of “Scrubs” or “The Office,” but I certainly laughed enough to be willing to watch it again. In fact, the biggest tragedy of this show is its terrible scheduling. With the atrocious-looking “20 Good Years” as its lead-in, and going up against the second half of “Lost,” “Criminal Minds” and (in the spring) “American Idol,” NBC is going to have to accept small numbers if we’re going to see this show remain on the air. Yet again, I’ll offer my networking services to NBC free of charge — put this and “Scrubs” on Thursday night and you’ll have a real chance at regaining what you had for about 20 years, i.e., the best night of network comedies.
And for what it’s worth, there is no doubt that this show and “Studio 60” can both survive, and maybe even thrive, at the same time. While they boil down to the same one-sentence summary, they’re very different creatures (and that difference is more than Sorkin’s joke that his is 30 minutes longer). To be sure, there will be folks who will pit the two against each other, claiming love for one and something less than love for the other. But if they live up to their promise, I suspect that I will be a big fan of both shows equally.
Anyways, tune in next week for a breakdown of some more up-and-coming pilots. And in the meantime, if you haven’t seen it yet, go see “Clerks II.” Snoogins.
Seth Freilich is Pajiba’s television columnist. He lives in Washington, D.C., and couldn’t be happier that summer “intern season” is finally here.