Sunday, October 25, 2015

Welcome to the Fall Season

It’s September, time for the weather to get cooler, the leaves to turn colors, and the big tv networks to release all their new fall shows. This week saw the introduction of a whole new slate of series attempting to grab a chunk of the viewing audience numbers.

“High-concept” seems to be the watchword for developing new tv shows lately, and I watched the premieres of three new high-concept series, all of them from NBC: Blindspot, Heroes Reborn, and The Player.

Since I wrote this five weeks ago and never got around to posting it, I'm not going to warn you about spoilers. If you haven't watched these shows yet and are planning to, it's your problem if you don't stop reading.

Blindspot on Monday evening aroused a certain amount of resentment in me. Its premise is very similar to the sadly short-lived 2002 Fox series John Doe. In John Doe, a nude man with an unusual symbol branded on his chest falls into Puget Sound. Although he’s unable to remember any personal information about himself, he proves able to speak numerous languages fluently, hack computers, play the stock market successfully, and remember all sorts of obscure facts. He starts helping the Seattle police solve crimes, all the while being pursued by a mysterious organization with apparently nefarious plans for him.

Now look at what happens in the first episode of Blindspot: A large duffle bag is found in New York City’s Times Square. Inside is a nude woman, her body covered in tattoos. She has no memory of personal details. Tattooed prominently on her back is the name of an FBI agent. As the FBI investigate this “Jane Doe” she reveals she’s able to speak and read Chinese, including an obscure dialect, and that she has skills that would make her eligible to be a Navy SEAL. She helps them stop a terrorist plot to blow up a national landmark – a plot which is bizarrely indicated by one of Jane’s tattoos. Meanwhile her progress is observed by a mysterious bearded man, who murders a man who might have been able to provide some information about who Jane Doe is and what happened to her.

After I got over the initial irritation of Blindspot’s plot seeming so familiar to me (I really enjoyed John Doe and was very disappointed when it was canceled), I made an effort to look at this show objectively. Like far too many new tv shows, it tried to give the viewer too much information all at once. I miss the days when new shows often had two-hour season premieres to allow them to provide all the character and premise introduction gradually. Blindspot raced through this at a breakneck pace, throwing stock characters and situations at the audience one after another. One hopes that all of the standard FBI characters will get some development that makes them interesting in subsequent episodes.

The show’s best feature was the presence of Jamie Alexander as Jane Doe. Her performance was great, nicely touching on how frightened and confused Jane was when she realized she couldn’t remember anything about herself, not even her favorite foods, and that someone had covered her body with tattoos possibly without her consent. The performance of Sullivan Stapleton as FBI agent Kurt Weller wasn’t bad either. I’ll probably watch again, just to see if they develop anything interesting about the mysterious bearded man. But I expect my disbelief will struggle to remain suspended as the characters leap to conclusions without evidence and Jane conveniently manifests whatever special skill or knowledge is necessary to resolve that week’s conflict. I hope I’m wrong, though, and the show gets over these typical flaws of pilots to make something better of itself.

My second new series pilot this week was Heroes Reborn, the 13-episode miniseries sequel to the 2006-2010 Heroes series. I have to confess that I never finished watching Heroes, and I don’t know what happened at the conclusion of that series. I enjoyed the first two seasons of it but found the third season disappointing. But I liked what I saw of it enough to be excited by the thought of a sequel, particularly since it features some of the best characters from the original series.

Heroes Reborn starts a few years in our past, in a world where people with superpowers, known as “Evos”, actually exist and their recent appearance has caused some social upheaval. Noah Bennett (aka HRG, 'Horn Rimmed Glasses'), former representative of the nefarious Primatech and adoptive father of the nearly invulnerable Claire Bennett, is now living an ordinary life as a car salesman. He believes his daughter was killed in a terrorist attack for which Mohinder Suresh (another character from the original series) has supposedly claimed responsibility. Suddenly Bennett is contacted by a man who claims to have information about the terrorist attack, which leads Bennett to a disturbing encounter with his old friend, the memory-manipulating Haitian.

In the meantime, the audience is introduced to a new group of “Evos”. Most Evos are in hiding, as they are blamed for the terrorist attack and many of them have been arrested or killed. As Heroes did, the show introduces the new cast one at a time, skipping back and forth between their stories and that of the non-powered Bennett and his new companion. The powers in the original series were interesting and handled in a fairly original way, and that holds true for Heroes Reborn as well. One of the first characters introduced is Tommy, a teenage boy on the run with his mother. Tommy narrowly misses being killed by a duo of assassins who are dedicated to eliminating all Evos as vengeance for the death of their son in the terrorist event. A mysterious man who carries a briefcase full of pennies helps Tom avoid being caught by law enforcement, as well as preventing him from being exposed after he unwisely allows some schoolmates see him using his power. The other two main plots besides Tommy’s and Bennett’s are those of a Japanese girl named Miko Otomo, and Carlos Gutierrez, a decorated veteran. Miko is an Evo, while Carlos is not, but his brother and nephew are Evos.

Although all this jumping around from character to character and plot element to plot element was a feature of the original series, it feels a little more choppy and random in Heroes Reborn. Miko especially lacks any character development that would make me interested in her arc. She and her new friend Ren Shimosawa are reminiscent of the relationship between Hiro Nakamura and his friend Ando in Heroes, and that’s not just because all of those characters are Japanese. But while Hiro was a charming character who had an existing relationship with friend and coworker Ando, Miko and Ren don’t really have any reason to be together except through their connection to an online game called Evernow. Miko also isn’t nearly as appealing a character as Hiro. I’m hopeful that as the miniseries develops she’ll become more interesting. Her power is certainly original. Carlos also lacks some of the appeal that made the characters in the original series watchable. He’s too good-looking, and his presentation as a hero who doesn’t feel like a hero seemed forced. Perhaps his growing relationship with his nephew in the wake of sudden tragedy will make that work better as the series progresses. As with Blindspot, I’ll watch Heroes Reborn again, but I’m a bit worried that the cast from the original series will overshadow the new characters.

My third series premier this week was The Player. I hadn’t originally intended to watch it, but it aired immediately after Heroes Reborn and I left the tv channel on NBC while it ran. You might think that a series about an amnesiac woman whose tattoos predict crimes is pretty high-concept, but somehow The Player’s premise feels even more high-concept than Blindspot. The promo ads for the series looked like they were advertising the latest Hollywood action movie starring Jason Statham. Series protagonist Alex Kane (an action-movie hero name if ever there was) is a former FBI agent turned Las Vegas security consultant. Someone breaks into his estranged wife’s apartment while he’s there and murders her, leaving no evidence, and despite being ex-FBI Kane does a lot of things that make him look guilty. Fortunately he has the obligatory friend on the Vegas police force who doesn’t believe Kane did it. Then he gets an offer he can’t refuse: a mysterious man played by Wesley Snipes approaches him and tells him that he works for an organization that has figured out how to predict crimes. They know that the Middle Eastern billionaire Kane was working for is about to be the subject of a kidnapping. The murder of Kane’s ex was just to get Kane out of the way. Snipes’ character, who calls himself Mr. Johnson, offers to give Kane information unavailable to anyone else if Kane will act for Johnson’s organization. Seeking revenge for his wife’s murder, Kane agrees.

Sounds like a contrived action movie plot, right? The difference is the reason for Johnson’s organization. They have huge financial and information resources, but it’s not in the service of Evil Government Big Brother, or of the Good Guys – it’s just a form of entertainment for some people who are so rich they can’t figure out anything better to do with their money than gamble with it. Someone, somewhere, is literally betting on whether Kane will succeed or fail. There are hints that Johnson’s assistant Cassandra, who acts as Kane’s informant, may have known Kane’s ex-wife and may also be trying to subvert the intent of the “game” in which Kane has agreed to participate. She seems to genuinely want Kane to solve the crimes and stay alive, while Johnson appears to be interested only in satisfying the entertainment needs of his multi-billionaire backers. To give Kane more reason to stick with the game, he’s told that it’s a lifetime commitment. He’s also given a more personal cause to keep working for Johnson: he has evidence that his wife isn’t really dead.

Aside from feeling like I was watching a Bond-style action movie, I was a little disappointed that the hero of this story was a blond white guy, and Cassandra is a pretty blond Brit. The only people of color in this story were Wesley Snipes as Mr. Johnson and the black cop who is Kane’s friend – who will obviously have the thankless task of constantly believing Kane is good no matter what he does in future episodes, since of course Kane can’t tell anyone about the organization he’s working for and no one would believe him anyway. I couldn’t help wondering why Wesley Snipes couldn’t play the lead instead. Hollywood evidently still thinks that white audiences won’t watch a serious show with a non-white main lead.

The Player had a bit of a Matrix feel as well, with Cassandra feeding Kane information the same way that Tank fed info to Neo and Trinity in the first Matrix film. At one point Kane needs to activate the fire alarm system in a hotel without actually starting a fire, and Cassandra tells him the code to enter to set off the alarm. I think I’d actually like it better if Cassandra’s interaction with Kane was more limited and he had to figure out how to achieve his goals without her assistance. This one probably won’t get a second viewing from me. It was just too derivative of every action movie I’ve ever seen, although it was interesting to see all those action tropes playing out on the small screen.

Author's note: It's the end of October now and I'm still watching Blindspot and Heroes Reborn, and still not watching The Player. Perhaps I'll write some reviews of each series individually to follow up on this intro.

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