I wrote a piece earlier this year about the diminishing landscape of quality tv present on broadcast networks. You can read that here. Fox in an unprecedented move, slashed all but its steady mainstays. Every scripted show not bringing in strong numbers was sent to the scrap heap to join Lonestar, Kidnapped, and Drive. It would seem that the big four have realized how grim the horizon was looking for them, opting for strong overhauls of their scripted comedies and dramas. With Lost, 24, and Law & Order gone, along with the CSI franchise finally beginning to bleed viewers it's up in the air who is going to come in and save network tv from AMC and HBO. Modern Family two years ago is trying(quite successfully) to save the dying art of the family sitcom, while Glee(inconsistently) attempts to bring new genres to the forefront of American pop culture. That's only two shows and while shows like Community manage to give us creativity and laughs by the handful, it still fails to escape its niche audience.
So now we are here at the beginning of the Fall season. Shows are beginning to premiere and I wanted to take a look at a few of the high profile gambles that the networks are hoping become the next phenomenon. First up today I want to look at Terra Nova, the time travel and dinosaur family adventure drama from Steven Spielberg, and Person of Interest, the post 9/11 cloak and dagger procedural about a genius billionaire and his ex CIA operative as they utilize the lack of privacy in our modern age to track crimes before they happen from JJ Abrams and Jonathan Nolan.
Let's begin with Terra Nova. The future is a dystopian mega city a la Blade Runner, families are regulated to two kids and from what I could tell, everyone lived under fear of the police and government. Jason O'Mara gets locked away for having a third child and striking an officer, his wife breaks him out so they all can go to Terra Nova, a new colony 85 million years in the past which people can time travel to. Upon arriving there are huge centipedes, a whole batch of "others", and some dinosaurs for good measure, oh and some family strife.
All the stories of troubled production and delays and over priced this and that....seem to have creedence. The show is a mess of over ambition and poor storytelling. First off, I don't think the creators understood how to work in television, rather it seems like they were trying to make a movie. The pilot gives no sense as to what the show will be, aside from one expository conversation to the next were treated to mysteries that are thrown at our face. Constantly the dialogue is like this "what's that?" "Oh that's X its responsible for making Y happen....be sure not to tell Z he has a history with X" Repeat. When its not expository the dialogue lacks any sort of life and wit that would make this a truly compelling show.
The one saving grace was Stephen Lang and Jason O'Mara, they bring some charisma and charm to an otherwise limp cast. I was afraid Lang was just going to be his character from Avatar again, but for now he seems to be on the right side. They are entertaining enough that they manage to sell their situations. The stuff with the dinosaurs is pretty incredible in terms of content, but I'm a sucker for dinos no matter what. The problem is half the time the dinos looks straight out of a video game. I could go on and on but you get the point. This is an expensive mess of a show that I want to enjoy but for now it just lives in its mediocrity. Hopefully this season can pull it in and give us a compelling story.
Person of Interest is a whole other story. This is a story of an ex CIA agent propositioned by a genius billionaire to help stop crimes before they occur. The story is a great commentary on the lack of privacy in the world as well as the necessity for protection and what it costs in terms of privacy as well as the role of responsibility. This is a great pilot that manages to introduce the concept and its main players without ever feeling forced. Why? Aside from the brilliant writing, its obvious the producers understood how television worked. Serialized programming needs to have a plan, and it also needs to not play its cards all at once.
The best example of this is Taraji P Henson. She is billed as third main, but here she is barely seen and has only a brief encounter with our hero. By the end of the episode we get an idea that she will be investigating him, but not much more. We know there will be more to her character but rather than spelling out her whole arc to us the producers give us just enough to speculate on at the water cooler the next day.
Alright back to the show. The pilot keeps the paranoia pretty high by all involved, even cutting to the various security cameras and microphones that are always watching and listening. This begs the question of who is really on the other side and do they have are best interest at heart. A theme that is perfectly represented in the main crux of the show as the names Ben Linus gets are simply numbers, he does not know if they are the victim or perpetrator. As of now Ben Linus seems to have good intentions, but he is kept mysterious and vague throughout. Caviezel obviously lost the love of his life, but this is only shown in brief cuts, a story which I'm sure will develop over time. Again this is TV done right, the A story is the driving force of the episode while the B story deals with the overall mythology of the show. Not to mention the action in the show is top notch, Caviezel brings his Jason Bourne out as he dispatches the bad guys with simplicity and believability.
One last thought - spoiler alert I will be back looking at two female centric shows as a companion piece hopefully up later this week.