Ballet does not get a lot of pop culture recognition, and I love ballet. Like love it. Doing it, watching it, teaching it. So I wanted Bunheads, a show about dancers coming to ABC Family, to be more than Make It Or Break It with tights. It takes about 30 seconds worth of the pilot to see it’s got its own thing going on — though it does share some traits with the network’s gymnastics dramedy.

This new show from Amy Sherman-Palladino, beloved as the creator of Gilmore Girls, forgotten as creator of The Return of Jezebel James, premieres June 11, but a sneak peek of episode 1.1 was briefly available online. Continue reading

The Middleman

On paper The Middleman sounds like an amazing show: young struggling artist and gamer girl gets recruited by mysterious crime-fighting agency to battle comic book-style villains. (So many words to love in that sentence.)

It’s based on a graphic novel by Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Les McClaine, and the production style echoes that origin. It’s got a Scott Pilgrim thing going on, but its tone also reminds me of Wonderfalls or Pushing Daisies. Yet, it only takes about five minutes of the pilot to notice that this show is terrible. That could be why it only lasted 12 episodes in 2008, but then, better shows have lasted even less (e.g. the aforementioned Wonderfalls). And, for all I know, there is a die-hard Middleman fan base out there cranking out fan fiction and tweeting to the network to revive it. So what’s wrong with it?

First of all, it was on ABC Family. ABC Family seems to think it has an audience for campy genre TV (Three Moons Over Milford) yet only succeeds with teen soap operas (Secret Life, Pretty Little Liars). They also tend to keep things in a safe-for-family-viewing zone that doesn’t necessarily work for genre TV.

Middleman banks on its audience’s existing knowledge of comics, gaming, sci-fi, and action movies. It packs in the references like digitally-added TIE fighters. Geeks love them some references (see Tropes are Not Bad), but personally I prefer my references baked into the plot (The Big Bang Theory) rather than flung at me like paper napkin fireballs (Breaking In).

So what makes this hour-long pilot feel like its the length of the bonus footage from LOTR? Let’s back up and look at the plot.

We start at A.N.D. Laboratories (tagline: We scramble your DNA. Get it?) A young dark-haired secretary (Natalie Morales, seen more recently on Parks and Recreation), sits flipping a silver lighter open and shut and chatting with her mother as things go haywire in the laboratory behind her. The mom conversation serves as exposition. The heroine, Wendy, who looks kinda like Hilary Swank, is an art school graduate with a boyfriend her mother disapproves of. Suddenly an amorphous monster with many eyeballs bursts through the glass windows of the laboratory and Wendy fights it off with a letter opener, dropping her lighter in the process.

A clean-cut man in a dated military uniform shows up, makes her promise not to tell anyone what she’s seen. He calls himself The Middleman (Matt Keeslar). Wendy’s lighter is blamed for the ensuing explosion, and she is unable to get another temp job, so winds up getting recruited by The Middleman’s shadowy employer. What we have here is a typical Hero’s Journey. The hero(ine) is seen in her ordinary world, meets her mentor figure, is called to adventure, refuses the call, accepts the call, then faces an ordeal*.

So here’s the problem. I don’t like the hero. Wendy moves through these stages way too easily, without any introspection or suffering. We don’t get to know her in the ordinary world (i.e. pre-hero) for long enough to give a Gungan’s ass about her. Then, when she’s called to join this crime-fighting task force, she doesn’t show anything other than vague annoyance. Is she surprised, honored, scared? Don’t know. The reason that she has a change of heart and decides to join is only that her loser of a boyfriend dumps her for completely superficial reasons. We’ve had no opportunity to see them together as a couple, so we’re not invested in the relationship to begin with. When he dumps her, we don’t know what she’s feeling; should we be sad that her heart is broken or cheer that she is free from a bad relationship? And is the end of this seemingly insignificant courtship really enough to send her running to join “the paramilitary version of Amway,” as she calls it.

As with the line quoted above, this pilot actually has a few nuggets of great dialogue. Unfortunately they’re buried under a pile of crap. I’ll leave you with one more, spoken by The Middleman in the climactic scene and arguably the best line of the whole thing: “The only thing I hate more than mad scientists trying to take over the world is mad scientists trying to take over the world and using the brains of innocent primates in order to do it.”

*If you’re into this sort of thing check out The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler.

Three Moons Over Milford

Three Moons Over MilfordSince the world didn’t end last weekend, a surprisingly fun, light-hearted show about impending doom seems fitting this week. Three Moons Over Milford aired for all of 8 episodes on ABC Family in 2006. Although the pilot has a happy, shiny tone, I suspect the show was too quirky even for the network home of Kyle XY.

We first hear, via radio broadcast (a handy plot device for opening pilot episodes), about how people around the world are increasingly engaging in risky behaviors like skydiving and running with the bulls. Elizabeth McGovern, who has a whole Lauren Graham thing going on, trots out of her ridiculously cool, modern house and jogs around the town to give the viewer a once-over of Milford, VT, founded in 1738.

Milford looks for all the world like Stars Hollow, CT but despite its New England charm we get hints that things are amiss. An elderly man joyously rides a scooter, a woman waters her lawn in the nude, and a newlywed couple displays some fun-with-gender-swapping.

We get the set-up via the opening credits: A meteor struck the moon, splitting into three pieces now hovering precariously on the horizon, threatening to destroy the Earth at any moment. One interesting element of the episode is that, until the climax, we’re only show the moon(s) in reflections. Images of the three jigsaw piece chunks show up in a swimming pool, in puddles and in windows.

We get to know Laura Davis (McGovern) and her family, which looks like it would be perfect in a world with an intact moon. Only now, her white collar husband Carl (Henry Czerny) parks his Porshe in front of his yurt, where he is getting in touch with… something. It’s not quite clear, as his lifestyle seems to be a generic jumble of Eastern and new age mysticism. When Laura goes to see him, the two debate which one of them is “missing mankind’s last, greatest opportunity.”

Back story on the family is parcelled out little by little, but we learn the most when Laura goes to see a small-time lawyer about her daughter’s indiscretion with a open flame (more on that in a moment). The lawyer, Mark (Rob Boltin) is destined to be the love interest from the moment we meet him and this point is underscored when we learn that he harbors hatred for the Davis family. (Enemies in the pilot=making out by season finale.) It seems the Davises came to town to launch a company with the nondescript name Syndek in an ultra-modern glass building, bringing a more worldly type of citizen to this backwoods town and driving up the price of coffee (among other things, presumably).

Mark has his own problems. His overbearing mother tells him, “Sarah Louise called for you,” with a strain in her voice warning him against this person. We finally catch a glimpse of her at the very end of the episode. Her mysterious introduction serves as the hook to urge the viewer back for episode 2.

Laura’s teen daughter, Lydia (never-seen-before-or-since-but-not-half-bad Teresa Celentano) is dabbling in witchcraft. She and her friends gather in the school gym to take part in a worldwide ceremony to reunite the moons. Their mission ends in the aforementioned fire. Lydia talks like a Gilmore Girl. (Do you see where I’m going with this? According to the blogosphere, the similarities to Gilmore Girls only got stronger as the series went on.)

The son, Alex (Sam Murphy) is celebrating his 16th birthday and looking forward to owning car. In the meantime he’s lying about his age and hooking up with a neighbor in her 20s, Claire (Samantha Quan). Claire typifies the pervasive worldview. She has vowed to grab what/who she wants in life, but once she throws herself at Alex she keeps repeating, “This isn’t me.” It’s as though everyone is trying to reinvent themselves, and is unsure how, in light of the looming Armageddon.

It’s odd, when you think about it, that someone needed to make a show about a world that could end at any moment. Because, really, the world could end at any moment—whether you believe it will be by an act of the divine, nuclear holocaust or zombie apocalypse. Only a handful of people seemed inspired to act on the warnings of May 21, but let’s face it, the guy behind it seemed like a nut. If the moon was split in three (however physically improbable; I’d love to hear Sheldon Cooper’s take) you couldn’t help but consider the reality. Maybe the premise was too much for ABC Family’s demo to process.

Pretty Little Liars

ABC Family is hyping the heck out of the Season 2 premiere of Pretty Little Liars in January, so time to catch up. This show that looks something like Desperate Housewives for teenagers has a slick look and sinister-sounding previews.

The pilot opens in full-on horror movie mode. A group of cute girls are sitting around a candle-lit barn while the wind howls against the creaky door. They’re creeped out by a sound from outside and stand, as a group, ready to face terror. It turns out to be just their friend sneaking up on them. We do a 180 into a much-too-quick scene of some slumber party chatter. (Is the fact that they like Beyonce important, or is this just an awkward attempt at natural-sounding teen banter?) Then they pass a big cup filled with some dark liquid. There’s a mention of the beverage making people share secrets, and one of them says, “Our secrets are what keep us close.” This last quote is imbued with a kind of weight cluing us into its importance.

In the morning the last girl to have arrived, Alison (Sasha Pieterse, who showed up in the later, less-watchable episodes of Heroes), has disappeared. Up to this point we have jumped from one situation to another with lightening speed and absolutely no chance for character development. So are we shocked that this girl is gone? Not really.

At last we start getting to know one of the girls, Aria (Lucy Hale of Privileged). One year has passed since the opening scenes, and Aria’s family has just moved back to town after her father’s sabbatical in Europe. Aria’s mother (Holly Marie Combs) encourages her to reconnect with her friends, but clearly things have changed. In fact, we are reminded at every turn how much things have changed. This is one example of how this show tells the audience things rather than showing them.

The town is Rosewood, Pennsylvania, the kind of pretty East Coast town with an air of evil reminiscent of Amityville. Aria’s return to school gives the opportunity for exposition and further character introductions. It’s the “Prodigal Son/Daughter” pilot formula. Although Aria’s mother points out for the audience that a year is a long time in the life of a 16-year-old, it feels like the passage of time is treated a little too seriously. “I almost didn’t recognize you,” says a classmate to Aria. “Last time I saw you, you had a pink streak in your hair.”

 The only point about the school social hierarchy that seems important to remember for now is that a formerly geeky girl, who our heroines picked on, is now popular and cute (translation, she got contacts). In scenes with each of the four remaining girls, Aria, Spencer, Hanna, and Bianca, we begin to see that honesty is not a virtue in Rosewood. They lie, they shoplift, and they flirt with sisters’ boyfriends. Each of the girls receives a mysterious message—either by text or note—warning her that someone is watching her unethical behavior, and signed “A.”

Alison’s body is discovered, and a funeral is held. At this point we’ve begun to suspect that one or more of the girls might know more than they’re saying about Alison’s death. Yet, from the cryptic conversation of the girls combined with the semi-anonymous messages, it seems she might not really be dead. Certainly these pretty little liars have a secret, but it turns out that their secret—one of them, anyway—concerns not Alison, but a girl named Jenna.

It’s clear there are a lot of layers here, and while the delivery may not be the most sophisticated, the show promises to ask for some loyalty on the part of the audience. It’s great when a pilot leaves you with no clue what’s going on, and this one does that.