Killer Women

Hats off to the first cancelled new show of 2014! If you can still catch an episode of Killer Women before they stop airing it, you have to watch it to believe how unbelievably bad it is. Sophia Vergara is a brilliant comedienne, but I don’t know what she was thinking when she put her name on this soapy western/procedural drama.

Killer Women Molly Parker

Don’t blink, or you’ll miss those micro-mannerisms.

In the show’s opening moments we meet Texas Ranger Molly Parker (Tricia Helfer of Battlestar Galactica), and she’ll be on screen pretty much from here on out. Don’t worry; she has enough costume changes to keep her interesting to look at if not listen to. Continue reading

25 Years of Fox Pilots

Since the Fox network is celebrating its 25th anniversary on April 22, I thought I should write a blog post in honor of it. First I thought I’d pick a show that Fox prematurely cancelled, but that would be like shooting zombies in a barn.

Then I realized, I have already blogged about enough Fox shows to keep the inhabitants of Omicron Persei 8 entertained until someone decides to reboot Single Female Lawyer. So, here’s a list in roughly chronological order. Some selections fit squarely into the “cancelled too soon” category while others, deservedly or not, continue to air. I’m up for suggestions as to others I should cover — just leave a comment. Continue reading

Will It Fly?

Source CodeWhen I first heard that the movie Source Code, which I haven’t seen but which looks pretty cool, is being developed for TV, my instinctive first question was, “What network?” (The answer is CBS.) Because, with sci-fi and genre TV, the network is everything. It will largely determine how the material will be handled and whether it will succeed. Continue reading

Manhattan, AZ

I decided to look at Manhattan, AZ and Eureka* back-to-back since they both center around police officers finding themselves in strange, new towns. Both fit squarely into the Town with a Dark Secret trope. (See also Haven.) The similarities go even further; both Daniel of Manhattan, AZ and Jack of Eureka have teenage children with bad attitudes and are recently separated from their wives (one by death, the other by choice). Each meets a series of oddball people including a hard ass female law enforcement official. And yet, these shows could not be more different.

The first word that comes to mind in describing Manhattan, AZ is “wacky.” It’s wacky in the way that Pushing Daisies was wacky, but with an irreverence reminiscent of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia with a dash of My Name is Earl. Unfortunately, Manhattan, AZ predated all of these, so I can’t image how it would have been described in the fall of 2000.

The clash of serious subjects and ridiculousness is almost confusing for the first 2-3 minutes of the pilot. The protagonist, Daniel Henderson (Brian McNamara), narrates certain events but what is seen on screen doesn’t quite match up. Once you get the hang of this, you can’t help but wonder where it’s going to go next.

Daniel describes his perfect life in the perfect house with his perfect wife, perfect son and perfect job. The job is as an under cover officer for the LAPD, where we see Daniel and other officers prepping for “Operation Thong Sausage,” a prostitution sting. The seriousness with which Daniel treats this assignment juxtaposed with his ridiculous appearance in an evening gown and wig is one example of the show’s exercise in contrasts. His wife, Charlie pursues the “insignificant little hobby” of chasing down Dolphin poachers. When she dies in a diving accident and is canned as tuna (her name is Charlie, get it?), an event to which he reacts by watching “anything with Alec Baldwin in it” while his son stuffs his face and plays video games.

As Daniel continues his narration, describing his decision to move to Arizona and take a new job he tells us, “everything looked different,” and suddenly a different actor (Vincent Berry) is playing the kid. This is the kind of apropos-of-nothing joke that litters the script. As father and son land in Manhattan, Arizona about six minutes in, the show shifts from voice-over to ordinary dialogue. They meet the mayor, Jake Manhattan, played by Chad Everett (for whom the town is named… I guess?) and learn about Area 61, essentially just Area 51. (The name is trademarked… I guess?)

Daniel soon learns that a lot of the neighborhood pets are turning up with missing right hind legs, a scandal the townspeople blame on the “government guys over at Area 61.” In an absurd town hall meeting scene, Atticus returns the missing animal limbs and takes responsibility for the crimes. The town of Manhattan has the same small town feel of Eureka, but the people are strange, not in a like-able way but just plain strange. It is hard to sympathize with these characters–even the son, who we know is struggling with major change.

Daniel soon figures out that Atticus is just creating drama to convince his dad to move them back to L.A. and hasn’t actually harmed any animals. The mystery of the week is wrapped up pretty quickly and easily. Being a comedy and only half an hour long, this pilot focuses more on introducing a tone and style, with a few laughs–if you’re into it’s particular brand of humor. The single-camera style and absence of a laugh track differentiate it from the typical sit-com, so it takes a little adjustment. It doesn’t have the benefit of Eureka’s two hours to subtly build character and setting. Based on the presence of Area 61 we’re expecting some type of alien plot, yet aliens don’t figure into the pilot at all. It’s a little hard to see where this is all going. It didn’t go far, in fact–the show only lasted for eight episodes. From this, it doesn’t appear to have been any great loss.

*I’ll be posting about Eureka within the next few days!

Birds of Prey

With excitement building for the Wonder Woman reboot this fall, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at some other DC Comics heroines, the ladies of 2002’s Birds of Prey.

In a nutshell, a blonde, a brunette and a redhead live together looking hot and fighting crime. The pilot is the story of how they got together. The show, or at least the pilot can be appreciated at face value, if the viewer has no previous knowledge of the characters. It could even be accused of ripping off Charmed, with its story of three powerful women joining forces and a suspicious cop on their trail. But there is ton of back story—at least 40 years worth of comic book lore.

Alfred, of Batman fame, narrates the opening. The story is set in New Gotham, and Batman has disappeared from its crime-ridden streets. The voiceover lends a storybook feeling, a bit like the tone of Pushing Daisies.

Barbara Gordon (Dina Meyer), formerly Batgirl, is confined to a wheelchair since The Joker shot her. She now lives in a clock tower—a set that looks like the same one Smallville used—surrounded by computers. By day she works as a school teacher. Living with her is Helena (Ashley Scott), the daughter of Batman and Catwoman. She was raised by her mother, killed by a henchman of The Joker while her daughter stood by, helpless. She has grown up to be The Huntress, a hero who runs across building tops by night, fighting crime while The Oracle oversees from her tower. In the comic world, The Huntress had completely different
origins, but did turn to heroism following the murder of her parents. (This according to The DC Comics Encyclopedia.)

As these two women experienced their personal tragedies, a third girl dreamt their pain. She is now teenage Dinah (Rachel Skarsten), and she has travelled to New Gotham to seek out the women from her dreams. On her way to find them, she witnesses a man being hit by a bus. She runs to his side and, when she touches him, she sees a vision of him being attacked by rats. Her power, it seems, is the ability to share people’s thoughts or fears. The comic book Dinah became The Black Canary, though that name isn’t mentioned in the pilot.

The man’s death sparks the women’s investigation into a series of related murders disguised as suicides, which leads them to some dockyards and the lair of the killer. Among the three of them they get to combine supernatural, or metahuman powers of an X-man with the high tech gadgetry of Batman.

As the women investigate these deaths, the police are also on the case. Detective Jesse Reese (Shemar Moore) is one officer who believes that something bigger is happening beneat the surface. He’s the “the truth is out there” character of the show. Sums up what may be the message-of-show with the awkwardly worded adage, “Myths are just the truth a few generations later.”

Another significant introduction in this pilot is that of Helena’s psychiatrist, one Harleen Quinzel (Mia Sara – remember her, Sloane Peterson from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?), whose name reveals that she’s an enemy-in-waiting.

With its roots in death and destruction, this pilot promises a fairly dark show. There are small doses of humor, with lines like, “This place is supposed to be a secret. That’s the whole point of a secret lair.” Barbara and Helena argue about lighter things, too, like being out of groceries. There’s also a quick Superman/Smallville reference: “There’s been some really weird stuff with meteor showers.”

This pilot does a nice job of tying together the episode plot with a longer-term plot, when Harleen interacts with the episode villain at the end. There’s both resolution and reason to keep watching.

UPDATE 2/17/2012: In case you’re a big fan of the Black Canary character, you may like to know that Katie Cassidy has been cast to play her in the forthcoming Green Arrow series on The CW. And, in case you haven’t been paying attention, that Wonder Woman reboot never happened, but I’ve since blogged about the pilot of the 1970s series.

New Amsterdam

Since I tend to love shows cancelled by Fox, I had to check out New Amsterdam, which I vaguely remember being advertised. It’s about a cop with unique knowledge due the fact that he’s been alive a long time… like, a supernaturally long time. If John Doe and Journeyman didn’t last, what made them think this would?

From the get-go the city is a character. We open with a noir-ish voiceover by the main character, John (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) describing New York and all that he’s seen happen in it over the years. It’s reminiscent of Angel describing Los Angeles at the beginning of that pilot.

The show sets up a juxtaposition of romance and violence that could become a theme. While John tangos with, and then makes love with, a woman we don’t really meet, flashbacks of a battle scene are interspersed. In the battle, which appears to be set in colonial America*, John is run through with a sword while defending a Native American woman.

Once we have a feel for the character and his story, we learn what he’s doing in the present day. Naturally, he’s a cop. What supernatural being residing in a major metropolitan area wouldn’t spend his days fighting crime? And, naturally, he’s got a mismatched partner of the opposite sex, as TV cops tend to have. She tells us her name twice in the space of a minute: Eva Marquez (Zuleikha Robinson). Perhaps we’re supposed to hate her. We do.

As the odd couple is investigating a crime scene, John takes off after a suspect, chasing him into a subway station. John is doing this whole smooth cop thing, disarming the suspect with his fearlessness, when a certain woman steps off the train. John collapses to the ground for no visible reason, and is rushed to the hospital where the doctors try in vain to revive him. To the resounding ER chants of “clear!” we see a parallel memory of John lying among a group of Native Americans. The oxygen mask in the present is contrasted with the burning sage from the past. The Native American woman who he defended earlier explains that John will never die until he finds “the one” and their souls are wed. In the present, John dies, has his toe tagged, and then wakes up and walks out of the morgue. We surmise this has happened before.

John has a confidante, Omar (Stephen Henderson) who is in on this story. He’s a wise, old, African American bartender… can we have a bigger cliché, please? With everyone else, we assume John’s immortality is a secret, although he is pretty loose with the clues. He casually mentions 609 ex-girlfriends, or five-thousand-some-odd days sober. Apparently he doesn’t care whether anyone knows, either because they wouldn’t believe him anyway, or there is nothing anyone can do to hurt him.

John and Eva (god, she’s a bitch) continue working their case, seeking the killer of a celebutante named Chloe. This mystery-of-the-week is pretty standard, existing to let us, or the network execs, know what to expect in the coming season. John drops bombshells of personal information at the right moments, like when he tells the victim’s mother, “He was six, my son.”

The twist that sets the show apart from other cop dramas is, of course, John’s extensive knowledge of New York. He has a lot of contacts, having been around a while. There is a creepy encounter with an ex-girlfriend, now pushing 90, who holds a clue to the case.

In the meantime, a doctor from the hospital where John died—the woman from the subway—is curious where her corpse got to. She’s doing her own little investigation. Sooner or later the two are bound to meet, and perhaps that will lift the spell. The question is, does the viewer want to slog through cheesy weekly cases to get there?

Some behind the scenes information and interviews can be found here.

*According to the show’s description this scene is set in 1642, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that.

John Doe

John Doe debuted in 2002, airing on Friday nights at 9pm on Fox, a timeslot that is apparently where perfectly good sci-fi shows go to die.

The show opens with a square-jawed, naked man (Dominic Purcell, more recently of Prison Break, and so much cuter with hair) stumbling confusedly around an island. A few quick cuts and horror movie-style sound clips later, he is plucked out of the ocean by a fishing vessel off the coast of Seattle. Despite speaking Khmer and being able to tell the date and time, down to the second, by the position of the sun, he doesn’t know who he is or how he wound up in the water. As the audience, we’re as lost as the character.

Walking aimlessly down the street, Mr. Square Jaw notices a scar or a brand of some sort on his neck (which, although this show came first, reminds me of those marks the characters on Heroes used to find on themselves in Season 1.) It’s sort of a C-shaped thing with a couple of slashed through it. For reasons not yet explained, he sees only in black and white.

The nameless man quickly discovers, as do we, that he is a genius, or a human encyclopedia, or both. He puts his uncanny smarts to work in short order, first dazzling a crowd at a library by answering any question they can imagine. And, I may be over-thinking this, but there is an overhead shot of the library desk and the crowd around it that vaguely resembles the scar.

He gets himself a social security number and names himself John Doe. Before long, John is on his way to financial largesse, putting his brain to work on horse races and foreign currency. But wait, there’s more! Not only is he a brainiac, he’s musically talented, and soon stumbles into a gig playing piano in a bar. So we’re thinking he’s going to land on his feet.

At last through the set-up, we’re vaulted into action when John sees a missing little girl on TV, and her photo is the only thing he sees in color. Figuring that must mean something, he offers his services to the local police. The cop in charge of the missing person’s case lets him help pretty much right off the bat, while maintaining the requisite skepticism.

The mystery unfolds, with John seeing key people and items in color. The question that propels us through is, will John find the girl, or will the girl help him find himself?

With the forensics skills of Temperence Brennan, the learning ability of Chuck Bartowski, and the looks of – wow, I don’t know who – John has it all, as a character. The supporting characters come off as superficial, like the head-scratching cop and the really annoying-yet artistic-young woman who works at the bar with John. Everyone else introduced in this episode is a throw-away.

This isn’t the official pilot of John Doe. There was an unaired version with a different cast. But this one finds the balance needed for an action/sci-fi pilot between giving us enough to be intrigued but not enough to know what the hell is going on. Other shows have done this successfully, only to nosedive (Dollhouse, Journeyman, Defying Gravity) and this show’s fate was no better. Perhaps it was ahead of its time, predating themore successful shows referenced above. Or perhaps it got sucked into the great black hole of cop show stereotypes. I haven’t watched beyond this episode, but if it ended up being just another mystery-of-the-week show, the originality of the premise may not have held up.

Pushing Daisies

Pushing Daisies KeyartWe know in an instant that Pushing Daisies is going to be an unusual show. The first image we see is of an endless field of bright yellow flowers capped by an impossibly blue sky. A narrator with a deep, storyteller voice tells us that the little boy and his dog running through the flowers are Ned and Digby, along with their ages, down to the minute.

Digby is dramatically run down by a truck, but when Ned touches him, more with curiosity than sadness, the dog jumps up fully alive. Ned, we are told, has the ability to bring dead things back to life. Now pay attention. His mom is struck dead by on the kitchen floor by an aneurysm. Ned brings her back to life. Exactly one minute later, the man across the street drops dead. The dead guy’s daughter is Chuck, the apple of Ned’s eye. When Ned hugs his mom good night, she dies. Again. It’s a complicated gift, and if you missed this first three minutes, I doubt you would make much sense out of the show later on. One touch brings someone back to life, a second kills them. If the person is kept alive for more than one minute, someone nearby dies is his stead.

Fast forward to present day. Ned (the adorable Lee Pace) owns a pie shop. Emerson Cod (Chi McBride), a customer and a private investigator, has recruited Ned to help him investigate murders. It’s a big—and refreshing—leap from the normal cop-with-an-unusual-partner show. Kristen Chenoweth plays the pixie-like waitress Olive, who has a thing for Ned.

Soon, we see Ned and Emerson in action, as Ned sets his watch alarm for one minute and wakes a dead guy to find out how he got that way. Bam, the mystery is solved, and the audience has a sense of how the show will go.

Things become more complicated, however, when the next murder victim turns out to be Chuck (Anna Friel, kind of a British Zooey Deschanel–that’s a good thing), Ned’s childhood crush. He wakes her; she’s spunky, she’s charming, and reveals that the two of them were each other’s first kiss. Awww… Ned can’t bring himself to re-kill her, so after a minute, she is stuck between life and death for good. What really sucks is Ned has found the love of his life and he can’t touch her. Great dramatic tension, if difficult to believe.

The rest of the pilot (titled “Pie-lette”) involves solving Chuck’s murder, and protecting her aunts, Vivian and Lillian, from the killer. The aunt’s back story is that they are former synchronized swimming stars until one lost an eye, and now they are agoraphobics with a penchant for cheese.

To love this show requires buying fully into the premise. You have to treat it like the beautiful storybook that it is and not over-think reality. The characters talk at Gilmore Girls speed, and plays on words fly back and forth like ping-pong balls. Every detail matters. There is a sort of 1950s aesthetic in both the language and the look. Color in this show is a character in itself. Everywhere there are brighter-than-life hues, from the bulbous cherry red lamps in the pie shop to Olive’s floral print wallpaper and matching pajamas.

As with creator Bryan Fuller’s other shows, Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls, not enough people apparently got it. It was, however, nominated for several Emmys, winning for Directing, Editing, Music Composition (2008), Art Direction, Make-up, Costumes, and Best Supporting Actress—Kristen Chenoweth (2009). Honestly, it was one of those impossible to sustain premises, much like in the aforementioned shows, that couldn’t work forever. But the Pie-lette is delicious.

Knights of Prosperity

You can’t help but be drawn in by a show that is just plain weird. A guy wakes up. He gets ready for work in his dump of an apartment, accompanied by the music of Journey. He’s a middle-aged high school dropout who works as a janitor. In the show’s first minutes, he is spurred to better his life by witnessing his co-worker’s undignified demise while cleaning a urinal. And, somehow, by the first commercial break, he has assembled a group of ragtag wannabe thieves to rob Mick Jagger.

It’s like, really? This is a premise for a show? They have T-shirts. They have binoculars. They have an intern. It’s a little reminiscent of the geeks in Office Space trying to get into the embezzlement racket.

The show stars Donal Logue, who is not a household name, but recognizable from a role in the terrible Grounded for Life, and redeemed by roles in some good indie films like The Tao of Steve.

Comedic pilots seem to work well when they move fast, throwing information and characters at you so that you can’t blink lest you miss something. Knights does that. We meet a Middle Eastern cab driver who used to be a lawyer, a big black dude with a broken heart, a wise-cracking New Yorker stereotype, and a hot Latina who invites herself into the group.

The goal, in this episode, is not to complete the robbery. It is to complete phase one of Operation Dick Mick, which is to obtain the key to his luxury Manhattan apartment. Ostensibly, each subsequent episode will lead our antiheroes to another phase of the plan until they succeed (or fail?) at the final heist. Then what? Next year, they’ll rob the Kardashians? Only nine episodes ever aired—and I’ve only seen this one—so I don’t know. (Though it was rumored they would later target Kelly Ripa and Ray Romano.) Apparently the show was originally titled Let’s Rob Mick Jagger, but perhaps that was too limiting??

I can’t say the pilot left me dying to see what happens next. It felt more like a predictable screwball heist movie than a series—the kind of thing you might commit to for 90 minutes but not 22 half-hour episodes. But it’s different, which is why I’ve taken the time to write about it. Oh, and there’s a Star Wars reference. Always good.

Memorable quote: “We’re like Robin Hood. We’re stealing from the rich to give to the poor—us.”

Dead Like Me vs. Wonderfalls

Dead Like Me castThe pilots of Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls warrant an old-fashioned, English class compare-and-contrast. Both were created by Bryan Fuller, who has a clearly defined style and a cult following. Despite being a consulting producer on the awesome first season of Heroes, Fuller seems to have earned a reputation as the creator of brilliant but cancelled shows.

Each of these two shows could be called a “genre” show. Or as an acquaintance of mine put it, “the kind of show that people who go to ComicCon like.” Their premises required a strong suspension of disbelief, which probably would have been strained over the course of three, four, five seasons. (Just look at Heroes. How many times is the world going to need saving, for Christ’s sake?)

Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls both feature young, smart, misanthropic, take-no-shit, female protagonists with male-sounding names. By the ends of their respective pilots, both George of D.L.M. and Jaye of Wonderfalls have acquired super powers. Okay, powers. Neither of them understands why she was chosen to wield these dubious abilities.

Jaye is given assignments by inanimate animals come-to-life. George is tasked with helping souls leave the bodies people who die in grisly accidents. Both start off “refusing the call,” a step in the hero’s journey, but find that acceptance is not optional. Each has the Gen-Y apathetic thing down pat. The pilots find Jaye using her degree from Brown to work an hourly retail job, and George, a college drop-out, grudgingly accepting a job at a temp agency.

Both shows introduce casts of relative unknowns, with the exception being Mandy Patinkin in D.L.M. The supporting characters are all pretty flawed, but you might say the ones on Wonderfalls have more redeeming qualities. Those on D.L.M., being dead, have no incentive to overcome their narcissism, substance abuse issues, or general assholery. (Not that they’re not likeable.) Even George’s parents, still alive, are jerks. This is a good place to mention that each protagonist is completely misunderstood by her upper middle-class parents.

Each show opens with a legend; the Maid of the Mist and the frog that unleashed death. Both skirt religion despite having supernatural themes. (George mentions god in the legend, but specifies that it’s with a lower case “g.”) Both shows achieve, somehow, a moral middle ground. We end each pilot wondering whether the transferring of souls or the obedience to talking chotzkies is good or bad. There are no villains, and our heroes aren’t particularly heroic. Things just are as they are. Destiny. Maybe that is why these shows didn’t generate sufficient viewer interest. People like black and white.

Both shows have a “look” that I don’t know enough about television technology to explain properly. Something about the lighting and camera work reminds you that you’re not dealing with Desperate Housewives.

Now for a few differences. D.L.M. uses a New Kid on the Block approach, where the world of the show (death) already exists, and the character is introduced to it along with the audience. Since the character is clueless, everything can be explained without making the script feel too heavy with exposition. Wonderfalls jumps right in. Something changes in the life of the protagonist on this particular day, and we don’t know why it happens when it does. We don’t understand what is happening any more than she does. You have to stick with Wonderfalls for a while to figure it out, a quality I personally enjoy in a show.

D.L.M. had the advantage of being on cable. You just know both of these protagonists have potty mouths, but only George gets the satisfaction of throwing the “f” word around. And it’s so damn dark. The pilot finds George having to reap a kindergardener. A kindergardener. Yet, amidst all the death—the body count is at least 5 in this one episode—the pilot ends on a hopeful note. In death, George may find a way to make peace with her family and her identity.

Memorable quote: “I excel at not giving a shit.” – George