On Preview Night, Comic-Con screened five Warner Bros. Television pilots that will premiere in the upcoming television season: Revolution, The Following, 666 Park Avenue, Cult, and Arrow. Naturally, the disparate collection of shows is hit or miss. But overall, this was a solid package of genre TV to kick off Comic-Con. A couple of the shows exceeded my expectations, and I will definitely have to check in with most when they premiere in the fall (or midseason in the case of The Following).
I will be attending the Arrow screening and Q&A tomorrow at Ballroom 20, so I will hold my thoughts on that show for a future article. In the meantime, hit the jump for my brief thoughts on Revolution, The Following, 666 Park Avenue, and Cult.
As a big-budget post-apocalyptic series directed by Jon Favreau and produced by J.J. Abrams and Supernatural creator Eric Kripke, Revolution is one of the more intriguing shows that will premiere in the fall. Will it live up to the hype? Maybe, but the genre element that will draw many of us in is off to a muddled start in the first episode. I will let NBC try to explain the premise:
“Our entire way of life depends on electricity. So what would happen if it just stopped working? Well, one day, like a switch turned off, the world is suddenly thrust back into the dark ages. Planes fall from the sky, hospitals shut down, and communication is impossible. And without any modern technology, who can tell us why?”
Or as the requisite scientifically nerdy character (played by Zak Orth) puts it, “Physics went insane!” That gives you a good idea of how the writers are treating the central premise. They are truly interested in “Why?” and “Who can tell us why?” But to ask those kinds of questions with a show like this is to enter into dangerous territory. In all likelihood, there is no possible unifying and satisfactory answer to “Why?”, in which case your best-case scenario is Lost and your worst-case scenario is The Event (shudder).
In its first hour, Revolution is somewhere in between. This is not a coherent depiction of a post-apocalyptic world, and I am not immediately invested in any aspect of the Why. Perhaps that is too much to ask for a first episode, but make no mistake: the writers want to hook you now, want you to ask the questions with the characters. At least with me, they failed.
But if you set the mythology aside, Revolution could succeed if it offers engaging character moments and cool standalone stories. And I think the show is effective by this measure. They cast it really well. Billy Burke is solid as the Rick Blaine of the new world, a reluctant hero who is convincingly menacing and funny (no easy task for an actor). I really like Tracy Spirikados as the emotional throughline—she is asked to carry certain melodramatic scenes, and she does so in such a way belies her relative newcomer status. JD Pardo is charismatic as her would-be love interest/technical foe. Graham Rogers stays out of the trap of annoying teenagers in shows like Revolution. Everything stops when Giancarlo Esposito (playing a captain of the evil Monroe Republic) comes on screen—in a good way. This all adds up to a cast of characters that I could enjoy spending time with each week.
The danger is that the mythology will get in the way, if they continue to address the Why without doing so in a captivating way. So I am discouraged that they end on a mythology cliffhanger rather than a character moment, and a truly frustrating one at that. It’s the worst kind of genre storytelling, dependent entirely on pronouns. It is too vague to actually spoil anything, but just to be safe, highlight for the offending final line: “Did they find it?” Ugh.
Given the national fascination with serial killers, there is definitely room in the market for more than just Criminal Minds on network television. And with that opening, the first episode of The Following accomplishes everything a pilot needs to. Kevin Bacon is—believe it or not—a competent leading man as the former FBI agent who is called out of retirement to hunt the newly escaped serial killer he put in jail nine years ago. James Purefoy is clearly having fun as the evil villain. The way Bacon and Purefoy match wits will be enjoyable to watch as their cat-and-mouse game plays out over the series. As you might expect, the women are secondary in a show like this. Yet Maggie Grace connects as the scream queen in the first episode. Natalie Zea has a much trickier role, playing Purefoy’s ex-wife who has complicated ties with Bacon. It is not too dissimilar from her role on Justified, which Zea was great in despite limited screen time. I am curious to see what she can do with the role going forward.
There is a twist near the end of the first hour that genuinely shocked me—enough that I don’t want to get anywhere near spoiling it. The reveal is appropriately grisly, and in general the gruesome details of the serial killer life avoid the sanitization I might have expected from a network. One possible cause for concern is that the episode features plenty of expositional lulls in between the more thrilling moments. That may be unavoidable for a pilot like this, though, and the whole package serves to set up a viable series (not a given with this premise) that I want to watch going forward. Basically, The Following looks to be a fine thriller from the network who brought you 24 and the writer (Kevin Williamson) who crafted the Scream series.
666 Park Avenue
666 Park Avenue takes place at The Drake, an apartment building with unsettling connections to the supernatural. (The address is actually 999 Park Ave., but an amusing shot shows that the shadow when a light shines under the house number reads as “666.”) Essentially, this is a haunted house drama, the network-approved version of American Horror Story. If you shuddered at that description, don’t worry, it is reductive and 666 Park Ave is not as bad as that might sound. On ABC, 666 Park Ave is not able to reach for the insane/nonsensical/delirious heights that American Horror Story specializes in. But in the first episode, the former has a much better handle on its characters.
The central couple (played by Dave Annable and Rachael Taylor) is a bit bland, but perfectly functional as the straight men amid the horror surroundings. I was a bit fuzzy on the details of why Annable’s income left them with money troubles. Nonetheless, the writers clearly establish motive: the couple is so dazzled by the amazing apartment they get to live in as the new building managers that they are temporarily blinded to the evil lurking around the corner. I disliked Taylor’s character in Charlie’s Angels, but she’s much better here, where she doesn’t have to spout one-liners. Annable is only asked to be earnest and likeable, and he accomplishes that. The true pleasure is watching Terry O’Quinn at work as the owner of the building. O’Quinn conveys the warmth and lurking malevolence that you would hope for from a surrogate devil. The show plays with soap opera melodrama, so Vanessa Williams is a valuable addition as O’Quinn’s wife.
I’ll be honest: I had very low expectations for Cult. I no longer watch any CW shows after I abandoned Gossip Girl in season three. The low-interest level ultimately helped, since I ignorantly did not bother to research the show before I watched it. That perfectly sets up the opening scene, which takes place in the show-within-a-show, also titled Cult. (To avoid confusion, I’ll refer to the show-within-a-show as Cult* from here on out). Cult* follows a pair of detectives who are trying to take down cult leader Billy Grimm (Robert Knepper). It is a very serious affair, and engaging. The scene ends with a shocking visual that hooked me in… and then the camera pans out, revealing the fans that are watching Cult*.
And my, what fans they are! Cult is a bit of clumsy wordplay that ties the devotion to a “cult” TV show and a legitimate cult. Ominous signs suggest that the cult depicted on Cult* has a scary presence and influence in the real world. I don’t have much tolerance for Internet Paranoia, but there is a nice kernel of an idea here. The internet has opened up all kinds of possibilities for fans to obsess over their favorite show.
Cult* often functions in the way that Invitation to Love did on Twin Peaks, mirroring and foreshadowing the plotlines. But Cult devotes a lot of screen time to Cult*, and clearly invests time and effort into making Cult* look and feel like a real show. At this point, I think I prefer Cult* to the rest of the show, though we only get extended glimpses into that world. The remaining portion of the show follows Matt Davis and Jessica Lucas as they investigate the mysterious connection between the production of Cult* and something sinister. Davis is a serviceable leading man (partly due to his fantastic voice) and Lucas is winsome as ever. But the meta aspect of their arc is maybe too clever by half, and sometimes the show is weighed down by the jokey tone.
Unlike Revolution, I do feel like the writers of Cult have a good handle on the mythology. One of the key mysteries right now is based on the great non-sequitir, “Well hey, these things just snap right off.” For reasons I can’t articulate, I really like that, which I imagine is exactly what the writers are going for. I don’t know if they have the answer for what exactly that means, but I am curious to find out.
Which means yes, I will watch the next few episodes. In the show, Cult* is both a) a massive hit and b) on The CW. In real life, those are mutually exclusive, so I don’t imagine Cult will be such a hit. But they have me.
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