Fall Pilots, week two, part one: Easy as ABC

Welcome to week two of Matinee Culture’s fall pilots in review. As we’re a bit stuffed this week, I’ll be bringing you this week’s Monday and Tuesday pilots today and the Wednesday and Thursday shows later on this week.

As Fox got most of its heavies out of the way early, the beginning of this week was home to many of the high-profile pilots of CBS and ABC, including Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., perhaps this fall’s most anticipated drama. The inaugural foray of the Marvel cinematic universe onto the silver screen wasn’t the best thing I watched during these two days, but it certainly wasn’t the worst, either. Read on for details. All times are eastern.

Mom

CBS, 9:30 p.m. Mondays, Comedy

Would Watch Again? Probably not

Premise: Anna Faris stars as the middle generation of a rusty chain of women, all of whose unwise sexual practices, substance abuse and self-centeredness have led to frayed relationships between mother and daughter and mother and grandmother. If this doesn’t sound like a comedic setup, keep in mind that it’s meant to played with a wry “oy vey” mentality and that cult comedienne Faris’s mother is played by Allison Janney, who is nothing if not wry (and quite talented, to boot).

How Was It? If I was to saddle this show with only a gerund and its accompanying descriptors, I would have to go with “trying too hard.” Mom ping-pongs about, throwing premises at the wall to see what sticks but barely checking to see if they do before moving on. Faris gesticulates and emotes almost manically, and even for a Chuck Lorre show, the studio audience is too willing to laugh at anything even remotely resembling a joke.

The show settles down immensely when Janney is onscreen, but her grounded comedic presence can only solve so many problems in the frantic proceedings. There are some good jokes here and better ideas – in particular the show’s willingness to show a family’s vicious cycle and portray Faris in a strikingly unflattering light – but I don’t know if I’m willing to stick around and hope it gets better.

Hostages

CBS, 10 p.m. Mondays, Drama

Would Watch Again: No

hostages still

Premise: Toni Collette stars as a top surgeon who is selected to perform a surgery on the US President. The night before the operation, however, her family’s home is invaded by several armed toughs, including (gasp!) a brilliant, plays-by-his-own-rules FBI hostage negotiator (Dylan McDermott) who demands that the doctor kill the president during the surgery, unless she wants her family to be killed. If you’re wondering how that premise is supposed to sustain 12 more episodes, let alone potential additional seasons, well, that makes two of us.

How Was It? It’s probably a bad sign when your Very Serious Drama pilot about terrorism, coups and the secrets that could tear a family apart has two unintentional moments of laugh-out-loud comedy, but that’s honestly about all Hostages has going for it. If the rest of the show wasn’t so dull and formulaic, I’d be tempted to stick around just to chuckle at the show’s ridiculous melodrama.

Alas, the bulk of the pilot is made up of elements culled from the most cliché of thriller plots, from the “we’ve thought of everything” moment to the revelation that each of Colette’s family members harbors the most obvious secret their characters could have. Seriously, you have the distant husband, the seemingly innocent teenage son and the rebellious-but-emotional daughter with a skeevy boyfriend. What secrets do you think they’re fostering?

When the show isn’t entirely cliché, it just doesn’t make sense. Why does McDermott take his mask off in the house, other than the obvious network mandate that he show his face? Why do the hostage takers install cameras in every part of the house except the bathrooms? After Colette clearly indicates that she’s not going to murder the president, why don’t the hostage takers just kill her family? These logical questions are all ignored in order to keep the plot going, but I won’t be going along with it.

The Blacklist

NBC, 10 p.m. Mondays, Drama

Would Watch Again? Yes

Premise: James Spader plays Raymond “Red” Reddington, a career criminal mastermind who turns himself in to the FBI and offers to help them catch the world’s greatest criminals if he can work with new agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone). What’s his game, and why is he interested in Keen? Those are the show’s central mysteries – well, maybe, as The Blacklist is either horrible at foreshadowing or just trying to trick viewers into thinking that Reddington is Keen’s long-lost dad.

How Was It? Surprisingly entertaining. Spader takes the narcissistic shtick that hurt his run on The Office and puts it to good use here, rewarding old Alias fans with a version of Julian Sark who’s just a decade or two older. It’s hammy fun, Boone’s hard-nosed approach plays well off Spader, and the pilot teases enough mysteries to keep fans interested for a while.

The Blacklist’s pilot is reminiscent to Alias in a number of ways, actually, which may be one of the reasons I was fond of it. With the master criminal turning himself in, the tough female agent who may or may not have a familial connection to a master criminal and a series of gleeful twists, this could end up being a slight but fun way to spend an hour for aficionados of J.J. Abrams’s first genre show.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

ABC, 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Drama

Would Watch Again? Yes

SHIELD still

Premise: Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), last seen dying by the hand of Loki in last summer’s “The Avengers,” has been mysteriously resurrected and placed in charge of SHIELD, the Marvel Universe’s super-secret black ops organization designed to monitor and contain superhuman threats. He’s joined by a group of crack operatives, including hacker Skye (Chloe Bennett), SHIELD veteran Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) and new recruit Grant (Brett Dalton).

How Was It? Let’s be honest. This would have had to be absolutely terrible for me to not watch the next episode. It’s set in a world I love, starring a great known entity, and best of all, it’s co-created by Joss Whedon, director and writer of “The Avengers” and the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Dollhouse and “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” – with frequent collaborators Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen along for the ride.

That said, the pilot’s first half is a little dull, with a lot of table setting and reminders that The Avengers exist, even if you don’t actually see any of them in action. Things don’t get kicking until a classic Whedon trope subversion about midway through – you’ll know it when you see it – and after that it’s a relatively fun ride to the finish, with jokes, action and a cursory amount of mythology building.

There are a lot of things to like here. Marvel cinephiles are rewarded for their viewing of all of the studio’s offerings, there are some solid Whedonesque zingers and a few clever comics in-jokes are inserted here and there. SHIELD feels a little neutered and hand-holdy for a Whedon pilot – likely a product of the uber-corporate environment the show was hatched in – but I’m more than willing to give it a little time to find itself.

The Goldbergs

ABC, 9 p.m. Tuesdays, Comedy

Would Watch Again? No

Goldbergs promo

Premise: This is basically The Wonder Years set in the 1980s, following the semi-autobiographical adventures of show creator Adam Goldberg as a young boy (Sean Giambrone) three decades ago.

How Was It? There are a few good moments here, notably Patton Oswalt’s narration as an adult Adam and some fun turns by grandfather Albert (George Segal). Unfortunately, most of the rest is made up of obvious pop culture references and interfamily shouting matches, and that’s a bit tiring to watch.

The Goldbergs might be more tolerable if not for domineering mother Beverly (Wendi McLendon-Covey) and the too-stupid brother Barry (Troy Gentile, overacting his heart out), but both characters are so annoying and hacky that they cancel out most of the show’s few positives. I understand and appreciate that Goldberg is pulling from his childhood experiences for the show – the closing credits even have video of the actors’ real-life doppelgangers from the time the show is set – but I’ve little interest in spending time with his obnoxious family.

Trophy Wife

ABC, 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Comedy

Would Watch Again? Yes

Trophy Wife still

Premise: From the Cougartown files of “shows with terrible and non-descriptive names,” Trophy Wife stars Malin Akerman as Kate Harrison, a young woman who marries a middle age man (Bradley Whitford) with three kids and two ex-wives (Marcia Gay Harden and Michaela Watkins). Kate often finds herself in over her head as a new stepmom dealing with a skeptical new family.

How Was It? This is the best pilot I’ve seen this fall so far, and one of the best network comedy pilots I’ve seen at all in the last few years. There are certainly some flaws, particularly some cutesy narration by Akerman, but the episode gets the exposition out of the way early, quickly immersing the viewer in the complicated but funny world of a charming cast.

Trophy Wife works on many levels, including a refreshing willingness to dabble in both clever writing and broad physical comedy, but perhaps its strongest asset is its decision to not mine its comedy from domestic strife. A lesser show would set Akerman on the defensive against a couple of shrewish exes, but Trophy Wife lets the whole family get along, more or less, with its comedy coming from a well-timed farcical structure that builds and builds throughout the episode.

That’s not to say that there’s no friction – it’d be pretty boring if that was the case – but Trophy Wife is a comedy of skepticism, pointless deception and cultural misunderstandings, not one of shouting and insensitivity. Check this one out if you like your humor more genial, or if you like your sitcoms with a capable ensemble.

Lucky 7

ABC, 10 p.m. Tuesdays, Drama

Would Watch Again? No

Premise: Lucky 7 follows the lives of seven formerly down-and-out gas station employees whose group lottery pool finally comes up the winner, changing all of their lives forever. Unfortunately, money doesn’t seem to get rid of their problems. It just gives them new ones.

How Was It? Lucky 7 certainly isn’t badly made, but it’s not something I want to watch on a weekly basis. Perhaps it’s because most of these characters (besides the mechanic played by Luis Antonio Ramos, who I fear will be relegated to the background for plot-related reasons) are virtually irredeemable sad sacks, all poor, depressed and desperate, and flashforwards seem to indicate that their lives don’t get any less gloomy once they’re filthy rich. Perhaps it’s because I wanted this to play like the Hurley flashback episodes from Lost, with a genial lead trying to make the best of his new life. Whatever the reason, I found watching Lucky 7 to be a singularly unpleasant experience, depressing without reflection and dramatic without inspiring empathy.

Like Sleepy Hollow last week, your mileage may vary. The wish fulfillment aspects promised in future episodes aren’t delivered upon in the pilot, but previews show that those plotlines are coming. The actors are all capable, and the pilot is passably written and shot, so if you’re intrigued by the premise, you may want to check it out. It’s just not for me.

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