Here a Pilot, There a Pilot, Everywhere a Pilot Pilot (Part the Second)
Fall Pilot Roundup / The TV Whore
July 31, 2006
TV Reviews | July 31, 2006 | Comments ()
I’ve got two new shows to go over this week, “Friday Night Lights” and “Heroes,” both of which have a similar hurdle to overcome insofar as each show has a built-in niche audience, but may not offer enough broad appeal. Can these shows meet the challenge? Let’s find out.
Friday Night Lights (NBC, Tuesdays, 8 p.m.) While I love me some football and am generally predisposed to like anything that’s football related, my enjoyment of the movie Friday Night Lights is only partially because of this; it has more to do with the fact that the movie is an amazing sports flick, and a downright good movie of any kind. While football certainly played a central role in the movie, it was also about small-town life, troubled families and dealing with the baggage that just comes with growing up. The flick was dark and gritty, with a sentimentality that rose above cheese, and it did all this while avoiding many of the standard sports movie cliches.
All of which is to say that I am highly anticipating NBC’s new drama of the same name, especially after watching the pilot. Created by the movie’s director, Peter Berg, the show moves its setting from a real life 1980s Texas high-school team to a fictional present-day Texas high-school team. But he keeps the underlying premise the same, focusing on a rural Texas high-school football team which, because of its championship caliber, sits as the very heart of the whole town. Berg also keeps the movie’s style, feel, themes and purpose. In fact, the pilot opens with the same type of atmospheric rolling shots, and the same style of background music, so it almost feels just like you’re watching the movie. Throughout the whole hour, the show continued to remain quite faithful to the movie’s pacing, style and musical sensibilities.
This faithfulness and similarity to the flick means that football fans will be all over this show from the get-go. When the big game starts up about two-thirds of the way through the episode, with Rage Against the Machine pumping in the background, it’s impossible for any football fan not to fall a little in love. And overall, the football itself was pretty good (although, to be ever-so-nitpicky, an announcer wrongly refers to a play as the well-known high school trickery, the Statue of Liberty play, when that’s not quite what it actually was). But this show won’t survive on drama-loving football fans alone — it’s going to have to stretch its wings out and find a broader appeal.
On one side of the coin, it’s nice to see a high school drama that’s about something a little more than who’s fucking who and who’s going to the prom and oh-my-god-didja-see-what-that-bitch-did type antics (although I imagine that a little of these types of things will find their way into the show anyway). On the other side of the coin, shows with those type of antics work for a reason - they bring in the young audience (and I, of course, often love them for what they are just as much as those teenyboppers who are 15 years my junior). This show isn’t really a kids show, however, and I don’t think it’ll pull in that many of the younger viewers. So can it make up that missing audience with the intended adult audience?
As much as I’ll be rooting for it, I’m sort of wary about whether it can. It’s got the dark tone, with elements of heart and warmth, that generally works in a modern adult drama. However, this show’s going to need to do more than a build-up to a game of the week to keep a majority of viewers coming back for more. And I’m not sure the show has enough to fall back on to do it — in fact, the biggest weakness of the show in this sense is the same thing I just lauded mere paragraphs ago, namely, its striking similarity to the movie. Virtually every plot point of the pilot came right out of the movie, and it does make one wonder if they’re going to be able to keep things interesting, dramatic and intense enough when the movie storylines aren’t there anymore. And because not a lot actually happened during the pilot, it’s a little early to judge the acting chops of anyone just yet. A lot depends on the kids, obviously, and while none stood out as being a potential rotten egg, none stood out as anything special either. Ditto for Kyle Chandler, playing the new head coach (you may remember him from the season finale of “Grey’s Anatomy” as the bomb squad guy who got blowed up) — he seems capable of doing the job, but didn’t really stand out in any meaningful way.
I’m definitely rooting for this show, but the point is that, despite the great strength of the pilot, it’s just too early to tell if this sucker’s got legs. Hopefully, the writing and creativity will show up to alleviate my concerns, and where they don’t show up, hopefully some of the cast will meet the challenge head on. I’m certainly willing to tune in and find out.
Heroes. (NBC, Mondays, 9 p.m.) This is one of the new shows that I’m probably most anticipating yet most fearful of, all at the same time. I’m an unrepentant geek, and a show about folks discovering superpowers is clearly tailor-made for people like me. But the fact remains that these things are done poorly more often than not. And it’s often just as impossible to even get a majority agreement about whether something like this is good or bad. For example, I love Unbreakable — I think it’s an absolutely amazing movie, in terms of style, direction, story, superhero elements, the works. Yet, I know many people who are ambivalent to it or downright hate it, and I totally understand where they’re coming from.
And it’s particularly apropos to talk about Unbreakable since the movie shares one important element with this show, namely, the attempt to portray the realism around how folks would handle acquiring new abilities. That’s the premise of the show right there — you’ve got people scattered all over the place (from New York to Japan) who have “Lost”-type connections with each other, and who are all learning about newfound powers, ranging from flying, teleportation and prognostication to invulnerability/regeneration, mind reading and a protective “friend” who lives in mirrors. The pilot was mainly concerned with introducing most of the powered folks (although a few, including Greg Grunberg, don’t even show up in the already packed first hour), but it also shows us that there’s some sort of government/secret agency-type that is apparently on to what’s going on and probably has less-than good plans in store for the titular heroes.
As I say, this sucker is tailor-made for geeks. And it will probably leave most us quite pleased. But as with “Friday Night Lights,” the question is whether this will have the necessary broad appeal, and again, I’m just not sure. First, it has a bigger hurdle right out of the gate than something like “Lost” did. The reason for this is that “Lost” didn’t let-on right away that it was really a sci-fi type of show with this big catering-to-nerd mythology. All most folks knew getting into the show was that it was about some airplane passengers stranded on an island; that pulled them in and then, before they knew it, they were enjoying what turned out to be a “genre” show. But with “Heroes,” you know what you’re getting right off the bat, which may turn some folks off because the old preconceived notions and prejudices against anything with a whiff of sci-fi/fantasy elements.
Even if folks do tune in, there’s also the question of whether they’ll stick around. Like so many of the new dramas this fall, “Heroes” takes the cinematic approach to its storytelling and it pulls it off for the most part, although it does feel a tad overblown at times. I wasn’t terribly impressed by any of the actors, although only Milo Ventimiglia actually unimpressed me (sorry “Gilmore Girls” fans — I just found his performance flat and uninteresting). The dialogue was also kind of stiff at times, particularly when repeatedly tossing off outdated Star Trek references.
As with “Friday Night Lights,” I’m willing to stick with this for a little bit, especially to see what they’re going to do with this whole developing powers angle. But for folks who aren’t particularly interested in the powers angle of the show, and are simply looking for a good show to entertain them, I’m not sure this can make the sale. While it’s got grander intentions, I think we’re looking at another cult classic. But you can judge for yourself - the pilot will be available for free download from iTunes on September 1, several weeks before it airs.
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.