A Few Recent Pilots

I haven’t been blogging much these past few weeks, but there has been plenty to watch. Here’s just a quick look at a few pilots I’ve caught recently.

Alcatraz

In case you haven’t heard, this is the latest J.J. Abrams tale of alternate realities. It tells the story of what really happened to all of the prisoners who were in Alcatraz when it was closed down.  The pilot came with a bonus second episode on the same night. Two episodes were enough to worry me that show is just another procedural. If it’s just going to be about searching out the murderer of the week, we don’t care. Even if said murderers haven’t aged since 1960-whatever. Basically, it’s a cop-with-an-unlikely-partner show. The partner in this case is a comic book store owner (Jorge Garcia), so there’s tons of potential for geek jokes. Continue reading

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Pilot-y Tidbits from Comic-Con

H+

This new web series, produced by Bryan Singer, was teased to minimal fanfare–actually, lumped together in a panel with Mortal Combat: Legacy–but it looks highly promising. The premise is that a good chunk of the world’s population has been tied into some futuristic version of the internet, where information is downloaded straight to your brain. Due to a glitch, a third of those people have dropped dead. Those remaining are left to figure out what the frak happened. Here’s a trailer.

What sounds cool about this series is, you will be able to view the episodes (48 total) in the order of your choosing, organizing them by character, chronologically, or geographically. This approach capitalizes on the uniqueness of the medium, rather than just creating a show as one would for television and throwing it up on the web.

Effin With Tonight

This animated series created by former Tonight Show writer Jim Shaughnessy is set to launch on the web at Crackle.com. They screened a clip and it looks pretty damn funny. It stars Patrick Warburton (The Tick, Family Guy, Venture Bros., etc., etc., etc. This guy is in everything.) as well as Joe Cipriano (the voice of Animation Domination). It’s basically an animated late night talk show that parodies everything that Shaughnessy despised about his old gig. And, in the panel, he made no bones about how much he hated it. They’re hoping to take it to a network, but I can see it being about as successful as the equally irreverent and highly underrated Sit Down, Shut Up.

Writing for TV

This was just a random tidbit I picked up in a panel on writing genre TV. It used to be you needed to write spec scripts of existing shows to break into writing. Now, according to the panelists, there is more demand for scribes who have written their own pilots. Still no solid advice on how the hell you get that script into the hands of anyone who gives a damn, but one writer had an interesting story about how she wooed Joss Whedon.

Archer

This was not a pilot, but the first of three-part story arc that will run this September. It was too awesome not to mention. This mini-story takes our hero, “Duchess,” out of his usual surroundings at ISIS and places him on the high seas, and introduces a new character, played by–you guessed it–Patrick Warburton. There are pirates. ‘Nuff said.

Partial or complete pilots of a number of other shows were screened during the Con, including Terra Nova, Alcatraz, Person of Interest, The Secret Circle and Locke & Key. Reviews and opinions abound so I won’t rehash. But the fall season is looking up.

Archer

You can literally blink and miss things in this pilot*. Watch it twice. Or three times. First just let the absurdity of the situation wash over you, then go back and soak up all the sight gags and the often casually tossed-off hilarious dialogue. Then absorb the animation; it’s amazing, with remarkable depth of field and subtlety of facial expressions. In the scene where Archer is eating breakfast, pause it and just look at the detail of the food on the table; it’s gorgeous.

The first moments of the pilot give you the idea you’re watching something really dark. Our hero, Sterling Archer/code name Duchess (H. Jon Benjamin), is about to be tortured for information by an old guy with a vaguely Russian accent and a golf cart battery. But the female face that appears on the far side of the observation window looks far more intimidating.

Thus we have our set-up. Archer is a super spy who works for his mom (Jessica Walter). As evidenced by their first scene together, they’re a solidly matched in toughness, narcissism, and vitriol.

Acher’s uniqueness is its successful mash up of spy action with workplace comedy. It’s like if the chick from Alias went to work at Dunder Mifflin. At ISIS, we get pithy axioms like, “When your co-workers put food in the refrigerator, that’s a bond of trust.” They worry about expense accounts and break room etiquette.

Natch, there’s intra-office schtuping. Archer used to date machine gun-toting uber-bombshell Lana (Aisha Tyler). They broke up over–you guessed it–his mommy issues. This woman scorned is now with Cyril (Chris Parnell), who has no earthly business dating the likes of her. He is so painfully dull that his scene with Archer is literally the only boring moment of the episode.

Archer is sleeping with the secretary, Cheryl or Carol. He can’t get her name right. Remember that–the joke lasts beyond this episode.

Archer pretends he thinks there’s a mole in the office, as a ploy to gain access to the ISIS mainframe. When he is forced to break in, he reveals how painfully inadequate the company’s security is. It turns out there is a mole in the office and he is only caught by complete accident.

This thing is just packed with oddball lines ranging from the unexplained “that thing with the mayonnaise” to the twice-used “Johnny Bench called.” (Look it up. I had to.)

The pilot gives a taste of what every episode will be about; It’s not that the agents are complete bumbling idiots. That would be too easy. They’re totally cool and skilled, it’s just that their extreme self-interest blinds them to half the stuff going on around them. And they hate each other, but it’s as a team that they somehow win the day.

And, whether Archer loves his mother or hates her, he does so too strongly to be healthy. At any rate, they’re eerily alike from their piercing blue eyes, revealed in the pilot’s first moments, to their peculiar vehemence about ants, revealed in the last.

*This is actually episode 1.1, “Mole Hunt.” There is an unaired pilot available on DVD through Amazon.

Breaking In, or Trying to Speak Geek

Some pilots want nothing more than to convey to the viewer what the creators imagine to be the unique style and tone of the show. Breaking In, which debuted last night on Fox, wants you to know it’s for geeks. They really, really want you to know it. I can just hear the pitch meeting: “It’s a show about smart geeks who work together to foil security systems and have a crazy boss. It’s like Chuck, meets Archer, meets The Office! With a dash of The Big Bang Theory!”

I won’t rehash the entire plot since there are any number of reviews out there. Basically, a smart but understated guy named Cameron (Brett Harrison of Reaper and The Loop) is not so much recruited by as coerced into working for a security company. The gang at the company, led by Christian Slater as Oz, pull off creative and highly challenging heists for a living.

Star Wars references seem to pop up in everything these days. How I Met Your Mother and Bones incorporate them really well, making you believe the characters think of Star Wars as part of their lives. (Marshall will cut a Thanksgiving turkey with a light saber one day.) In Breaking In, the character Cash (Alphonso McAuley) is introduced wearing a Han Solo costume. His first joke wraps up a nerd joke with a race joke–about how black guys don’t always have to play Lando. It would have been funnier if he just went around dressed as Han Solo with no explanation, leaving it for the audience to notice. (Does it matter what race he is? Meg played a freaking worm in Family Guy’s Star Wars universe.)

That bit is quickly followed by one in which Cash references Avatar then asserts that he speaks Klingon. We get it-you’re a geek!

As the New York Times points out, Christian Slater’s leering coercion of Bret Harrison looks an awful lot like the goings-on on Harrison’s previous geek-friendly show Reaper. Another more subtle geek reference, and one of the episode’s bright spots, was the appearance of the nearly-unrecognizable Michael Rosenbaum (Smallville’s Lex Luthor) as Dutch. He is hilariously doofy in his trailer trash-duds and monster-sized truck. When this show crashes and burns, he could have a future on Raising Hope.

It’s not that this pilot wasn’t entertaining or have it’s funny moments. It just seems like it’s trying way too hard to tell us what it is and what it is not, without allowing us to figure it out over a few episodes. It wants geeks to know they’re the intended audience, but it doesn’t know how to talk to them.

I feel pandered to. Raise your hand if you feel pandered to.