Just to get it out of the way, I Hate My Teenage Daughter is easily one of the worst pilots of this fall. It’s mean, cruel, and it seems like the writers have nothing but utter contempt for the characters they’ve created. It’s a uniquely unfunny and unpleasant show that seems entirely focused on having every character act in ways that are designed to be as off putting as possible. Not every show has to be built around likable characters, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia has been thriving for years with a set of characters that are pretty much the worst group of human beings imaginable. The difference between this show and other shows with unlikable leads though is that I don’t understand why these characters would ever want to spend time with each other or why a viewer would be inclined to voluntarily tune in each and every week. Every joke and line of dialogue seems to be about just how little they like or care for each other, and yet despite the vitriol and cruelty they spew they’re inexplicably bonded to each other.
For as much talk as there was about the ways that the new fairy tale inspired shows premiering this season were attempts by the networks to create a TV version of the comic series Fables, Grimm has a much more obvious predecessor, one that the presence of the show’s co-creator David Greenwalt makes all the more apparent. Grimm is basically Buffy The Vampire Slayer just instead of crossing a horror show with a high school drama this time out Greenwalt’s crossed the horror genre with a police procedural. It’s not a particularly inspired concept, but it’s been done well before in shows like Fringe or The X-Files, and injecting the series with some fairy tale flavoring could have given it just enough juice to stand apart, but the pilot for the series never moves beyond the most basic aspects of its premise.
This is TV by numbers in the worst possible ways, have you seen a police procedural, have you seen a horror series? Yes? Well then, I’m pretty sure you’ll be able to guess just about everything that occurs in the pilot of Grimm. Things kick off when Detective Nick Burkhardt begins seeing strange visions of people’s faces warping into disfigured versions of themselves, and before long his cancer stricken aunt is informing him that he’s one of the last in a long line of supernatural hunters known as Grimms. While Nick’s aunt is also one of these Grimms, I believe that her true power lies in being able to give the vaguest of exposition, even going so far as to slip into a coma so as to avoid having to reasonably explain Nick’s new role in any way beyond dire warnings or unclear exclamations. A nurse even stops by at one point to aid auntie in her cause, proclaiming that visiting hours are over when she might as well be saying that Nick has to leave because if he stays any longer his aunt will have to stop beating around the bush and actually explain something for once.
Once Upon A Time doesn’t have a pilot that’s immediately compelling and it suffers from many of the traditional problems that plague pilots; it’s far too focused on establishing the premise, it doesn’t do enough to shade in its characters who are still more archetypes than unique creations, and it’s filled with vague hints at a mythology that hasn’t really kicked in yet. Basically, it’s a clunky pilot, but despite all that I’m exceedingly intrigued by what the pilot hints at the series being. It’s a strange and potentially unique fusion of a large mythology based show like Lost, where Once Upon A Time’s creators Edward Kitses and Adam Horowitz were writers, and a small town dramedy like Gilmore Girls. I have no idea if that combination will work, and indeed I fear it will be an immensely tricky pairing, but if it does end up succeeding Once Upon A Time could be an extremely enjoyable show.
One of the reasons it’s hard to tell just how effective the show will be moving forward is that the pilot is forced to spend a lot of time in places other than Storybrooke, the small town where the action will take place moving forward. Most of the action focuses either on the fantasy world where Snow White and Prince Charming struggle to protect their daughter against the Evil Queen’s impending curse or on Emma Swan and the son she gave up for adoption’s exposition heavy dialogue. There is a decent bit of exposition to get out of the way so it’s understandable, as this is a story with some mythology it needs to set up. Quickly summed up that mythology is, fairy tales are real, the evil queen vowed revenge on Snow White and Prince Charming, and then she cast a curse that froze time and banished the fairy tale people to a land where time has stopped and there are no happy endings. The conceit is that the real world is the place where happy endings don’t exist and that our main character, played by Jennifer Morrison, is the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming who was protected from the curse but knows nothing of her true heritage.
Man Up is an exceedingly unfunny half hour of comedy that isn’t aided by the utterly frustrating premise at its center, that modern men aren’t truly manly. The thing is, Man Up never really makes an argument for just why this is true, the best it has is that the father and grandfather of a main character fought in World War 2 and Vietnam while he plays video games. The pilot resorts mainly to cheap plot points to further enforce the premise, an overly effeminate son and a hopelessly deluded attempt at winning back an ex-girlfriend are two of the tactics deployed here, but there’s never any real sense that these guys are actually deficient in any major way.
That’s a pretty big problem, but the show might have been able to survive it if the characters and actors proved to be enjoyable or funny, and good lord are they not. The three main men are mostly unlikable and the group doesn’t have much chemistry to speak of. They consist of Will, a married husband with children, Kenny, Will’s best friend and ex-brother-in-law, and their overly sensitive friend Craig. The cast is rounded out by Will’s wife Theresa, her sister and Kenny’s ex Brenda, and Brenda’s new boyfriend Grant, who Brenda may be dating solely to make Kenny jealous. Theresa gets roughly nothing to do asides from being smugly superior to Will and Brenda’s mostly grating as she exists primarily to antagonize Kenny. Grant proves to be the most problematic character though because he’s the most “manly” of all the guys on the show and instead of being an appealing presence he comes off as essentially a crazy person. He’s overly intense, far too reasonable at times to the point of creepiness, and launches into a completely unnecessary fight with a battle cry of barracuda. It’s a strange character without any real core and the fact that he’s representing what the men of the show are fighting to be more like is more than a little odd.
For a show that’s at times offensive, mostly unfunny, and has a premise that’s not particularly logical or appealing, Last Man Standing ends up being oddly decent TV. It’s not good, but the cast is strong and the writing has just enough good jokes in it to carry things along amiably. Enough so that I think there may be a legitimately decent show somewhere down the road if it shirks its awful premise of a father standing up as a bastion of manhood in an all female household. What works here works mostly because of the cast and creators who are all either seasoned comedy veterans, likable young actors, or long time sitcom writers/directors. Everyone just has a way with the base materials of a sitcom, so even though the material isn’t particularly good it’s handled with grace and humor, which makes everything go down smoothly even when it’s unoriginal or just unfunny.
It starts with the creator of the series, Jack Burditt, who has worked on sitcoms that range from Mad About You to 30 Rock, and the director John Pasquin, who has been directing sitcoms since 1982. Both manage to bring just enough style and grace to material that’s pretty dire at times, the second of tonight’s two episode culminates with a character peeing in a baby’s training toilet when they can’t overcome the childproof lock on the regular toilet if you need to know just how bad it can get. The same goes for the actors, Tim Allen and Nancy Travis are the husband and wife team here, and while Tim Allen is a well-known star and comedian, Nancy Travis has been acting away on mid-level sitcoms for quite some time. Both can sell a joke and they also have a nice chemistry that makes their scenes pleasing even when their banter fails to hit on any particularly funny notes.
If there’s one thing you don’t have to worry about while watching American Horror Story, it’s being bored. The pilot features co-writers and creators Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy swinging for the fences and trying to make some sort of weighty statement about contemporary American family life through the metaphor of a haunted house. It’s a potent and apt metaphor for the struggles of life, the ghosts and sins of previous occupants haunt a spooky old home while transgressions and slights plague a fragile, reconstructed marriage and family. The only problem is, this pilot is one mess of a show, full of plots, characters, and tangents that never add up to anything resembling a cohesive whole or a solid statement on the subject matter.
That’s not the end of the world since this is a TV show, which is a marathon to a film’s sprint. We don’t need to know exactly what this show is trying to say about marriage yet, but the pilot doesn’t lay out how American Horror Story is a television series either. I’m not sure how the plot we get here lasts for the long term, presumably we’ll be digging into the history of the house, its owners and its previous occupants specifically, but almost everything in the pilot ended up leaving me confused and distanced from the show rather than intrigued.
Homeland premieres tonight, October 2nd, at 10pm on Showtime and the pilot is currently streaming for free on their website.
Homeland has a great pilot, certainly the best of this current fall season. It’s fantastic at slowly developing its characters without resorting to info dumps or clunky exposition and also does the hard work of taking them to places that are not pleasant to follow without making them repellant. Its narrative is well paced and tightly structured to give the viewer exactly what they need by the end of the pilot story-wise without forgetting to focus on the characters involved. The only potential stumbling block now seems to be the fact that Homeland’s premise doesn’t particularly lend itself to the long term, a season or two most certainly, but beyond that it might start to hit some issues. That’s compounded by the fact that it’s on Showtime, a network that isn’t shy about keeping shows on the air well past their prime if they’re still pulling in ratings, yes that means you Dexter and Weeds, but luckily that’s a problem for another day.
The story begins with Claire Danes’s CIA analyst Carrie Mathison rushing against time to stop the Iraqi government from executing a terrorist who claims to have information about an impending attack on US soil. She’s shut out by her boss David Estes, but bribes a guard to get inside the prison and brokers a deal to protect the terrorist’s family if he’ll give up what he knows, and he consents, telling Carrie that an American POW has been turned by an Al-Qaeda leader named Abu Nazir. This is a strong early sequence, particularly when Carrie refuses to leave without the information even though the prison guards catch her. It causes an international incident, as we later learn, and also does major damage to Carrie’s career. The moment nicely establishes how dogged and uncaring Carrie is when it comes to her work, willing to sacrifice others and risk anything if it furthers her goals, and that it does so without having to resort to someone saying as much is impressive.
There’s an old and well worn adage that goes, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” No comedy pilot this season has proven that saying more true than How To Be A Gentleman, it’s a show that’s filled with underrated comedy ringers from Dave Foley to Rhys Darby, not to mention the creator/star David Hornsby and long time all star character actress Mary Lynn Rajskub. These are people who know their way around jokes and how to make even mediocre ones land, and for much of How To Be A Gentleman they do just that. Then there’s the matter of Kevin Dillon, who is basically just playing his Johnny Drama character from Entourage, he’s a leaden premise in the pilot and his inability to hang with the heavy hitters that round out the cast is a mortal blow to this first episode, and likely the series as well.
The premise itself isn’t helping matters as the show is all about David Hornsby’s woefully out of touch Andrew suddenly having to learn about being a macho man when his magazine is purchased and retooled for younger audiences. It’s an annoying premise that postulates that Dillon’s character, Bert, has admirable qualities that Hornsby should seek to emulate. It doesn’t bear much thought since it’s really just a way to push two opposites together and create some laughs, but I can’t help being a little frustrated with just how ridiculous it is. It’s also probably going to get a little annoying before too long as a basic episode will presumably revolve around Andrew being whiny, Bert going overboard in calling him out for it, and then having Andrew make some small movement towards traditional manliness. That’s the basic course charted here in the pilot as Andrew first rejects his new directives but slowly comes to believe that Bert might be able to actually help him.
Suburgatory manages to walk an extremely difficult path, it’s the most exaggerated of any pilot to debut this premiere season, but it’s also the most well rounded too. It takes a bunch of brash characters and forefronts their frustrating and off-putting characteristics for the first half of the pilot. When the final portion of the pilot rolls around though it pushes back against the stereotypes they’ve been built into all while managing not to undercut their characterizations. It’s impressive stuff, and it’s made even better by the fact that this is a funny half hour of television. It’s not perfect, and there are failed jokes here and there as well as a final montage that goes too far into schmaltz, but it’s a surprisingly solid debut that points the way to a strong series to come.
The premise is fairly simple, Tessa, portrayed by a very strong Jane Levy, is moved to the suburbs by her father when he finds condoms in her room. They weren’t hers, but George won’t be convinced otherwise. Jeremy Sisto plays George, and while he’s not quite as good as a few other members of the cast, he’s solid as a straight man. Tessa hates it at first, but after a little while she realizes that just maybe things won’t be all bad. Like I said, it’s simple, but where Suburgatory succeeds is in both going over the top, a woman walks into a pool while texting pretty early on, and bringing in some realistic characterization without undercutting the cynical sheen of the series’ main character.
Hart of Dixie treads well-worn ground by settling itself firmly into the genre of small town dramedies. Rachel Bilson plays the necessary fish out of water role as the driven surgeon Zoe Hart. Zoe’s chasing her dream to become a cardio-thoracic surgeon and then partnering with her father, but everything falls apart when her boyfriend leaves her and she fails to get the fellowship she needs to continue on the path she’s been set on her entire life. You see, it turns out that if Dr. Hart wants to follow her dream of becoming a heart surgeon she’s going to have to stop being so callous and open up her own, wait for it, heart. Zoe falls back on the only thing she can, a standing offer from an Alabaman man she met at her college graduation to come practice medicine down south in a small little town called Bluebell.
Yep, it’s that kind of show, Hart of Dixie isn’t afraid of trite, simplistic character motivations, but it’s also not quite as bad as that simple synopsis might make it out to be. That’s in large part due to Rachel Bilson, who is charming enough to sell some very, very hokey material. She can’t improve all of it, the narration she’s saddled with in the pilot is beyond saving, but she does better just enough of what she’s given to give the show a little more pep than it has any right to based on the rote script delivered by Leila Gerstein. There are quite a few scenes that work because Bilson has a real way of opening up simplistic dialogue, in particular one scene between her and Scott Porter, who also deserves to have a better show built around his talents, does a nice job of undercutting the typical banter that emerges between pretty young people on a show like this. After Porter’s George is hit by a car and brought to Zoe’s office Zoe’s flirtatious dialogue simply gets swept away with George’s very real pain, it’s a nice moment that plays against expectations by injecting just a bit of reality into the show’s heightened version of life. While moments like these are few and far in between, they do exist in this pilot and the actors generally rise to the occasion.