Sunday, October 10, 2010

TV Pilots, Day 5 — Hellcats, Terriers, Nikita, The Whole Truth

I said back in my first TV pilot review post that "this review series will probably have three entires," but I confess I undershot. I didn't realize how many damn TV pilots there really were this fall! There's still a few more to go this month (most notably the October 31st debut of AMC's potentially awesome The Walking Dead), and that's before midseason replacements kick in. That's a whole lot of probably bad television to suffer through.

But I did make it to the light at the end of the shitty tunnel that was my recent CBS marathon, so for completion's sake I figured I might as well hop on over to the video section of the CW's website and check out their pilots too. Couldn't get any worse than CBS, right? This is the part where for comedic purposes I'd love to be like "turns out it could, fuck everything!", but to my surprise neither of CW's two new shows are so bad. Neither are overwhelmingly good, either, but at no point was I in agony. I also discovered two shows on Hulu I'd overlooked the premieres of, one of which was agonizing and one of which actually kind of rocked.

Enough foreplay. Today we take a closer look at CW's Hellcats, FX's Terriers (by the way, I just love that a show named after a cat and a show named after a dog premiered on the same day), CW's Nikita, and ABC's The Whole Truth:


The premise in ten words or less? Pre-law student is forced to join the cheerleading squad.

Any good? I wouldn't go so far as to use the word "good," but there is a strange watchability to it, like televised cotton candy. In the interest of full disclosure, I actually watched two episodes (which isn't an endorsement; just acknowledgement that the pilot ends in a cliffhanger), but episode two didn't change my perception of the pilot so much as cement everything I had suspected.

First off, I have to say that for a show categorized by Wikipedia as a "comedy-drama," Hellcats really isn't very funny at all. I chuckled maybe two or three times in 84 minutes. The tone is simultaneously too earnest to be wry and too trashy to be dramatic, watering itself down into something rather lukewarm. And, like almost every show centered around teens, or, in this case, just-beyond-teens, there's way too much unwelcome and unwarranted focus on parents and teachers, especially the protagonist's irritating, drunken mother. No offense to any parents out there, but no wants to watch you in a teen show (the exception being Friday Night Lights, which is less a teen show and more a brilliant work of art, but even in the great Freaks and Geeks I was always kind of "eh" when the focus shifted over to Mr. and Mrs. Weir).

Unless you really love cheering sequences, the show's secret weapon is unquestionably Alyson Michalka as the protagonist Marti Perkins, a pre-law major at a Memphis university who loses her scholarship and has to join the same cheerleading team she routinely mocks for their cheering scholarship. She's hot, yes, but in an off-kilter way with a unique energy to her screen presence that makes her fun to watch. The downside is that the rest of the cast falls far behind and every scene without Michalka is a drag. Hellcats joins 24 and Monk in the club of TV shows whose best characters by far are their protagonists.

Will I watch again? I doubt it. By the end of episode two the soapy theatrics were already enough for me. But I don't really blame anyone who does, either. It's got dancing and cattiness for women and gays and wall-to-wall hot chicks in skimpy outfits for straight men (to pretend is the reason they were watching when their friends walk in on them and they don't change the channel in time).


The premise in ten words or less? Ex-cop and ex-criminal are private investigators.

Any good? To my endless shock for something resembling a procedural, yes! It's kind of great, in fact, coming flabbergastingly close to dethroning Boardwalk Empire as my favorite new show of the fall after watching the first three episodes. Why is Terriers great? Let me count the ways. One, it's the funniest new show of the fall, including all actual sitcoms. The dialogue is hilarious and plenty of moments made me bellow with laughter, something yet to happen at Running Wilde. Two, the chemistry between the two leads is awesome. Three, I actually cared about said leads by the end of the pilot. They have emotional depth and unlike a lot of shows about cops and detectives Terriers actually convinces me these guys are smart. Four, the mysteries unfold in unique, occasionally bizarre ways, with nothing being what it initially seems by the end of the episode. Five, there's serialized elements and an overarching plot (think Veronica Mars, which had individual episode mysteries combined with a bigger narrative spanning the season).

A closer examination of the names behind Terriers makes it apparent why the show is so damn watchable: the executive producers include Ted Griffin (writer of Ocean's Eleven), Shawn Ryan (creator of The Shield), and Tim Minear (Joss Whedon's number two man on several shows, including the immortal Firefly). Directors include Craig Brewer (director of Black Snake Moan), Clark Johnson (director of several episodes of The Wire, including the pilot and series finale), and Rian Johnson (director of Brick and The Brothers Bloom). If none of those projects ring a bell, then, well, I'm shocked you read my blog. E-run, don't e-walk, over to Hulu and check Terriers out.

Will I watch again? Definitely. In fact, there's an unwatched episode waiting for me on Hulu that I'll probably watch as soon as I'm done typing these reviews.


The premise in ten words or less? Rogue government agent is hunted by bad guys.

Any good? Well, it ain't bad, I'll give it that much. In fact, it's the best action show to premiere this fall (with the important caveat that that's only stacking it up against Chase, Undercovers, No Ordinary Family, and Hawaii Five-0, not exactly a lineup of kings), and the one with the most original plot. Basically, there's this secret agency called Division which has grown so powerful the government can no longer control them, who kidnap troubled youths, erase their existences, brainwash them, and train them into super soldiers and assassins. Our heroine Nikita is a Division killer gone rogue who aims to jam up their plans and bring them down from the inside with the help of her mole, a girl named Alex who is one of the newest recruits. A decidedly non-generic plot, so it's a shame that incredibly generic chases and shootouts ensue.

The concept for Nikita came first and Maggie Q was cast as the lead through the ordinary audition process, but after watching the show it'd be easy to assume that it went the other way around, with producers deciding to build a show around the actress. I've thought Maggie Q was awesome ever since seeing Live Free or Die Hard and she does all she can to make the fairly bland dialogue and fight scenes she's given pop (not to mention that she spends plenty of the pilot in slinky dresses, bikinis, or lingerie; Nikita is not shy about leveraging sex appeal). Also, at risk of sounding PC, I think it's pretty damn cool to see a mainstream American TV show with an Asian-American as the unambiguous lead, and a show that handily passes the Bechdel test at that. The number of series this can be said of could easily be counted on one hand, if not one finger, that one finger being Nikita. Makes me wish I liked the show more!

Will I watch again? I don't think so — not yet, anyway. This show comes agonizingly close to legitimate goodness but just can't quite make it over the final hump. But I'll skim reviews in a few months and if anyone's saying that it's greatly improved then I just might be compelled to swing back around. Lord knows this pilot season hasn't given me much else to watch.


The premise in ten words or less? Lawyers, lawyers, lawyers!

Any good? Whoa, man! Watch those lawyers! Watch those lawyers do their lawyering thing! Those are the lawyerest darn lawyers I have lawyer laid my lawyer eyes upon. Lawyers, lawyers, lawyers, lawyers, lawyers! God, fuck off, ABC. Are you kidding me? I said a few days ago while reviewing CBS's The Defenders that "I almost admire the balls with which The Defenders doesn't even pretend to put any kind of spin on the generic lawyer procedural outside of setting it in Vegas," but since The Whole Truth shuffles us back to Manhattan and I'm now beyond admiration and just pissed off, let me truncate and regurgitate that sentence: The Whole Truth doesn't even pretend to put any kind of the spin on the generic lawyer procedural.

I would love to be a fly on the wall at the pitch meeting for one of these countless, interchangeable, boring, episodic lawyer shows just to see how it goes down. Does the producer start, "well, you see, there's some lawyers—" and the head of the network just goes "I LOVE IT!!! GREENLIT!!!" and throws a giant bag of money at them? It's so enraging to imagine the great scripts rotting at the bottom of drawers somewhere in Hollywood so we can get procedural after procedural.

Will I watch again? I'm blown away to find myself uttering these words, but I honestly think I'd rather watch more of The Defenders. At least that one has Jurnee Smollett.

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