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.

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Reaper

reaper_headerThe guy’s soul is owned by the devil. What more could you need to know?

Reaper fits squarely into the dramedy category, shows that follow an hour-long drama formula, but heavy on laughs (Bones, Ugly Betty). It was highly anticipated by the ComicCon set in 2007, thanks to having Kevin Smith on board as director of the pilot.

As in all shows with supernatural settings, we need some rules for how this world works. But first, we start with our protagonist, Sam (Bret Harrison) getting up and getting ready for work in the morning…to the song “Devil’s Haircut.” Nice. His sweet, upper middle class parents wish him a happy birthday, but they seem a little distressed. His jerky brother (who pulled a shark jump vanishing act later in the series but looks like he could really be Bret Harrison’s brother) gives us the 4-1-1: “The guy’s 21, lives with his parents, and wears an apron for a living. There’s no happy in that birthday.” Sam’s mom defends him with, “College made him sleepy.”

I won’t try to document every funny line in this thing, because there are just too many. Sam’s best friend, Sock (Tyler Labine), is your basic slacker clown character. Sam is in the friend zone with the beautiful Andi. Goofy co-worker Ben rounds out the merry band of losers. They all work at a home improvement big box store called The Workbench.

Even before we get to the hocus pocus, we’ve got a solid basis for a funny buddy show. Despite the restraints of network TV, the show’s tone smacks of Kevin Smith; in the midst of adventure, this bunch of co-workers shares glib observations on life, always maintaining their slacker posture. And I’d swear Tyler Labine studied at the Silent Bob School of Acting.  There are so many fun little moments; the Devil drinks orange juice out of the carton. Sock wraps his hand in duct tape for no apparent reason and gleefully declares, “tape hand”! And my favorite touch – the mysterious vessel that Sam must use to catch an escaped soul is a Dirt Devil.

The plot of the show is that Sam’s parents agreed that their firstborn would be indentured to the Devil as of his 21st birthday, working to recapture damned souls who have escaped from Hell. In this episode, the soul is a departed arsonist repeating his crimes. The Workbench makes for the perfect headquarters for demon busting, as hardware comes in awful handy when battling Hell’s esapees.

One unpredictable moment is Sock’s complete and immediate acceptance of Sam’s devil gig. Instead of disbelief or horror, Socks expresses only enthusiasm. The Devil doesn’t seem to have any restrictions on who Sam can share his work with, which does away with the lone hero idea in many superhero shows.

The Devil (Ray Wise) is the icing on the cake. There are no red horns or tail here, but the guy just looks like a bastard. And you see him having an absolute blast being evil.  He’s like a cat who enjoys batting his prey (Sam) around just to mess with it. He is truly scary, dancing between humor and meanness; he heartily enjoys watching a guy get shredded by a zamboni.

You could say Reaper jumped the shark in its second episode, based simply on the fact that it changed directors. It changed direction numerous times, introducing new characters and plot twists all the time, always giving off the scent of a show on the verge of cancellation. Still, the pilot stands out as a purely entertaining 44 minutes of television.