Note: Before I begin, let me just note briefly that with the exception of “Mysteries of Laura,” all of these shows are saddled with seemingly endless voiceover. This is irritating and unnecessary and I wish it would stop, and that’s all I have to say on the matter.
Welcome to the 2014 Matinee Culture fall pilot watch. As usual, this fall Ryan will be watching (almost) all of the scripted network TV pilots and bringing you some brief reviews, hopefully cutting down on the time you might otherwise waste checking out “Selfie.” Shows will be rated on a scale of “Watch it,” “Try it,” “Skip it” or “Avoid it.” Let’s dive in!
This time, we’ll be talking about the two shows that came out this week (“Red Band Society” and “Mysteries of Laura”) as well as four shows Ryan was able to view early: “A to Z,” “Black-ish,” “Forever” and “Selfie.” All times are eastern.
Fox, drama, Wednesdays at 9
One-sentence summary: A bunch of fake-sick kids make friends at a hospital, their actions narrated by a magical comatose child.
There looks to be a lot of shows doomed to critical panning this fall, including some of the shows we’ll get to in a moment, but this is the worst one I’ve seen so far. “Red Band Society” follows the exploits of a group of tweens and teens living in the pediatric ward of a metropolitan hospital – their romances, their car thefts and their procurement of excess amounts of medical marijuana.
If that list of the kids’ adventures didn’t clue you in, allow me: this show has little interest in showing you what life for terminally ill kids is actually like, from the characters’ loony daily activities to only the mildest physical concession that any of them are actually ill. That’s not necessarily bad, as a show about truly sick children sounds utterly depressing, but rather than replace reality with anything interesting, the show instead occupies most of its time listening to characters spout literally meaningless platitudes (example: “When you’re in a hospital, the most important part of you that needs to survive is you.”) and relaying treacly life lessons to each other. The only exceptions are two reasonably competent adult roles by Octavia Spencer and Griffin Dunne, as well as a cheerleader (Zoe Levin) whose “mean girl” persona is played up to such inhuman levels that at one point she blows cigarette smoke directly into the nose of a comatose boy.
Oh, and if you like your sassy, quirky hospital dramas with a dose of magical realism, said comatose boy narrates the whole show, is aware of the hospital’s goings-on even when they are happening elsewhere in the building and can appear and speak to the other patients when they are also unconscious. This is a show made for young people who are too uncultured to know when something is actually profound.
Ryan’s rating: Avoid it
NBC, drama, Wednesdays at 8
One-sentence summary: What if our crime procedural about how a woman somehow manages to be both a mom and a cop was actually very retrograde, not feminist as we had previously thought?
As suggested above, “The Mysteries of Laura” is about how a police detective (Debra Messing) balances being both an officer of the law and a semi-single mother, and how crazy it is that that’s even possible. I won’t dwell on how stupid it is that television shows are still marveling at how a woman could possibly both parent and work other than to say that the show doesn’t even integrate its premise into the show very well, other than a somewhat subtle moment in the opening scene. For the majority of the pilot, the show switches back and forth between cop scenes and mom scenes, and rarely the twain do meet (for example, at one point Laura’s kids are kicked out of daycare, causing her to wonder how she will find child care, but then she goes out on a case and leaves her kids… somewhere? The show is uninterested in finding out).
Though its premise is dumb, the show’s worst crime is that it’s completely dull. None of the jokes land, all of the mothering story beats are utterly predictable, and while the murder case’s denouement is somewhat clever, it is undercut by the boring journey to get there and by its insistence on relying on emotional stakes that haven’t been developed. However, at least there’s no voiceover.
Ryan’s rating: Avoid it
ABC, comedy, Thursdays at 9:30, premiere on Oct. 2
One-sentence summary: It’s a sometimes-effective combination of “500 Days of Summer” and early “How I Met Your Mother.”
“A to Z’s” pilot purports to begin the complete chronicle of a finite relationship: that of Andrew (Ben Feldman) and Zelda (Cristin Milioti). That setup immediately brings to mind the sort-of rom com “500 Days of Summer” – the narrator even states the amount of time the titular A and Z date – and the narrative’s after the fact treatment combine with the male protagonist’s belief in destiny and true love to conjure a distinct “HIMYM” vibe. Doing nothing to shake the comparison is the fact that Milioti played the Mother of the previous show’s title.
The show’s pilot plays out like a typical rom com – and, again, very, very similar to “HIMYM’s” pilot – with Feldman playing the role of the hopeless romantic and Milioti filling the shoes of the too-sensible love cynic. It’s highly formulaic, and as such its premise doesn’t do any of the heavy lifting to give you a reason to watch; it’s all on the performances and the jokes.
The two lead actors (especially Milioti) do a pretty good job at selling their roles, but the surrounding cast members still need to find their places. Andrew’s roommate, played by Henry Zebrowski, is a particular conundrum, delivering the best and worst lines of the pilot. As far as the writing, it’s serviceable but not knee-slapping; there are a few jokes that are very good and signal potential for growth. I may return to this if I have a lean fall for new comedies, but if I pick up several funny new shows, I probably won’t make time for this.
Ryan’s rating: Try it
ABC, comedy, Wednesdays at 9:30, premiere on Sept. 24
One-sentence summary: Let’s remake “The Cosby Show” but be really self-aware and hackneyed.
“Black-ish” has a confusing pilot. The show is about Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) worrying that his family’s upper class success may estrange the Johnsons from their African American roots. I suppose there is room in the sitcom world for this premise to be mined (after all, good as it was, “The Cosby Show” usually addressed this issue by actively ignoring it), but Andre manifests his worries by embracing stereotypes that are uncomfortable at best.
Throughout the pilot, Andre gets upset that his son wants to play field hockey instead of basketball, holds an African ceremony for his 13-year-old son instead of the requested bar mitzvah and, oddest of all, is mortified that his two youngest kids don’t identify their classmates by the color of their skin (there is also a joke that the family does not eat “real” fried chicken, in case you’re trying to fill out some sort of stereotype bingo card). The show makes gestures toward the idea that Andre is being unreasonable, but his actual fear is treated as justified, even though he has few examples in his life to point to that wouldn’t fit into a vaguely racist comedy set.
At the end of the pilot, Andre realizes that he is being silly, but he gives up on everything he was worried about – including his one reasonable qualm, that he was promoted to a VP spot in his ad firm because the position is catering to an explicitly black audience. Strange views on identity politics aside, however, “Black-ish” also fails its attempts at humor, with Anderson’s high-pitched utterances of disbelief too often standing in for actual jokes.
Ryan’s rating: Avoid it
ABC, drama, Tuesdays at 10, premiere on Sept. 22
One-sentence summary: What if Sherlock Holmes was good at his job not because he was smart, but because he was immortal?
The pilot of “Forever” is bonkers, and I love me a bonkers pilot. Ioan Gruffudd stars as a medical examiner named Henry who studies dead bodies in order to unlock the cause of his own immortality, in hopes that he can eventually slip the mortal coil after more than 200 years on earth. Apparently an incident on a slave ship in which he may or may not have been hit by lightning triggered some mysterious regeneration factor that causes him to reappear nude and in water every time he “dies.”
In case you were wondering, Henry dies three times in the pilot: once by impalement, once by falling off a building and once by injecting himself with a man’s blood to learn what kind of poison he died from. It is most assuredly that kind of show, including multiple flashbacks to Henry’s past life that grow increasingly more outlandish over the course of a rollicking hour.
This smacks of something that could easily grow tiresome as a weekly series, but the pilot has some light humor to go along with its over-the-top sensibility, and Gruffudd is charming in the lead role. I’ll tune in for episode two, but even if the charm fades, that pilot is something else.
Ryan’s rating: Watch it, even if you only check out the pilot
ABC, comedy, Tuesdays at 8, premieres Sept. 30
One-sentence summary: Karen Gillan attempts to squander all of her “Doctor Who” goodwill on a five-years-late show about social media vapidity.
I’m not a “Doctor Who” fan, but I know Karen Gillan has her share of followers. I do like John Cho, though I often question his taste in projects. My questioning continues with “Selfie,” an unpleasant 21st Century update of “My Fair Lady” that casts the Scottish Gillan as an American Valley Girl who is inexplicably famous on social media, despite working as pharmaceutical sales rep and not in any sort of role that would inspire celebrity.
Gillan’s Eliza seeks the “My Fair Lady” social makeover from Cho’s Henry after she is caught in a poorly-explained embarrassing situation on an airplane. It is quickly revealed that she is a vapid, Internet-obsessed jerk, possessing no attention span or real friends.
The show wants to have it both ways, serving up social media buzzwords like “hashtag” and its ridiculous title while also attempting to serve as a critique of a generation with its head in the cloud. Instead, it fails at both, with its dated commentary and Eliza’s abhorrent personality doing their best to overshadow what little chemistry Cho and Gillan scrape together by the pilot’s end.
Ryan’s rating: Skip it, unless you’re a big Gillan fan