Arrow and Revolution

It’s official. Bows and arrows are the hottest accessory for fall. I don’t know if Darryl from The Walking Dead started it, or if we can credit Katniss Everdeen, but two of the fall pilots screened at Comic-Con last night heavily featured this handy but rustic weapon.

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Roswell

Although it spent its 3 seasons with less than stellar ratings, Roswell not only helped put the WB network (now the CW) on the map as a destination for teen girls, but paved the way for another show about an attractive high school student from outer space.

Roswell was based on a series of books called Roswell High, and the title itself serves as back story. The name of the New Mexico town is synonymous with UFO cover-ups. We all know what happened there in 1947. Don’t we? Seriously, do you know what happened? Because other than a vague idea of something about a crater, I didn’t. There may or may not have been an alien crash landing and the U.S. government may or may not have conducted autopsies on the victims. Read more about it here.

Even supposing the viewer knows nothing about Roswell, the show spells it out visually right away. We open with teen narrator Liz (Shiri Appleby) writing in her diary, introducing herself via voiceover. “Five days ago I died,” she says. “After that things got really weird.” Intriguing, if a bit cheesy. Then we find her at work in the Crashdown Café, a 50s-style, UFO-themed diner.

 Liz and Maria (Majandra Delfino) are waitresses in schlocky theme uniforms complete with antennae. They clearly enjoy messing with truth-seeking tourists. It’s a special occasion in Roswell, the day of the Crash Festival. Presumably that’s a day when the residents cash in on their fame. (However, this is set in September and the Roswell “incident” happened on July 8.) Isabel points out that the dopey looking Max Evans (Jason Behr) keeps staring at Liz. Indeed, he is the first to spring to action when she is hit by a stray bullet fired during an argument between customers.

Max runs to Liz, where she has fallen to the floor bleeding from the abdomen. He places a hand across the wound, healing it. He breaks a bottle of ketchup and instructs Liz to say she broke it. He and his friend speed off in a Jeep before the authorities arrive. A pair of nosy tourists start poking holes in Liz’s story with the sheriff. Sheriff Valenti (William Sadler), we see, has his suspicions. He takes note of two empty Tabasco sauce bottles on a table where the boys were sitting.

We next meet Liz at school. She’s kind of a plain Jane, a good student, and for some reason dating a douchebag who is—big surprise—Sheriff Valenti’s son. She confronts Max and he admits with almost no reservation that he is an alien. He swears her to secrecy, but in no time she has dished to Maria. Playing a friend of Liz’s is Colin Hanks, but we don’t get to know much about his character yet.

We get to know two other aliens, the only others, Isabel (fresh-faced Katherine Heigl) and Michael (Brendon Fehr, aka Jared Booth on Bones). They put Tabasco sauce on everything; definitely a detail that is going to get them in trouble. Alarmed by Max’s revelation to Liz, the alien trio debates whether to flee. We get just enough details to understand their background. They were the only survivors of a crashed spaceship. They have been raised by regular human families for the past 16 years. Prior to that, they were in some kind of hibernation.

Mid-way through, the Liz voiceover returns unexpectedly and unnecessarily. It’s as if the vehicle we’ve been cruising along in hits a big puddle of teen romance molasses. It may be moments like this that led the show’s creators to focus more on the science fiction as the show progressed.

The plot then plunges from character description into a plot where Liz and the aliens have to outsmart the Sheriff. Though it seems the most natural thing for the aliens to leave town, that wouldn’t leave much of a television show. So we know they’re hanging around. We’re left to see how Max and Liz will get together—because of course they will—and how the aliens will continue to allude the authorities. The pilot balances the mystery and the romance pretty well, so if you like either you might just tolerate the other.

Hellcats

You might call it lazy to have the entire setting and premise of a show laid out via voiceover from the protagonist right at the start of your pilot, but it’s not as bad as having cheerleaders practice in front of a really obviously green screened college campus. Hellcats does these two things in its first minute. Not a good first impression. The protagonist in this case is a gorgeous blond law student who we should take seriously because she rides a bike everywhere and helps her mom make ends meet during these rough economics times. But we’re shown that she has a heart because she acts slightly concerned when a cheerleader eats it during practice.

Lest you think that I watched this pilot just to hate on it, know that I had hopes. I love cheerleader related stuff—Bring It On is one of my faves—and as a huge Veronica Mars fan, I do not believe that a low budget CW show can’t be great. Getting into the predictable story, Hotty McBicycle (still haven’t caught her name) is about to lose her scholarship and has to find a new one stat. She expresses her desperation to someone in the administrative office thus: “You know what gets me through? Hope.” It gets worse: “You kill my hope, you kill me.” The dialogue hurts. It hurts. But not as much as the way she teaches herself to cheer. Are you ready for this? She watches Bring It On. For the uninitiated, this underrated San Diego-filmed movie is all about how cheering should be taken seriously as a sport. Hotty must have fast forwarded to the cheering parts.

Hotty gets into it with the head cheerleader, Savannah (Ashley Tisdale) early. This gives the plot a conveniently-placed obstacle. But at the try-outs, Hotty, oh yeah, it’s Marti, wows the coach by ignoring the choreography and busting out her own routine. She doesn’t know gymnastics terminology but can tumble like Mary Lou Retton. She makes an offhanded reference to “training” since she was 16, but it’s not remotely believable that she gets put on a college cheerleading squad. Later it comes out that she did gymnastics in high school, but it’s too little too late.

Marti has to move into cheerleader housing called Cheer Town, leaving her devoted but obviously irresponsible mother behind. This sets up potential future mother-daughter strife story lines. We get to know the coach, her boyfriend, and her ex-lover who is also the new football coach. Their story holds some at least some possibility for being interesting.

Marti makes nice with the head cheerleader, and her real nemesis turns out to be the girl who got injured in the opening. So that’s kind of a twist. Marti attacks her with, “Do you invent your own catty metaphors, or is there like a book?” Ow. Ow, it hurts. At the other end of the spectrum, she catches the eye of strapping male cheerleader Lewis.

Glee has convinced us that cheerleaders live in their uniforms. The Hellcats wear their uniforms to practice. Why is this necessary? Yeah, they look good in them. But do the producers have to spoon feed us everything in the pilot? What’s even more annoying is that they spontaneously, somehow, know a complicated routine complete with lifts, at their first practice. Speaking of Glee, this show is its antithesis. Do we really think that a whole group of high school kids have the pipes of Broadway stars and can learn 3 or 4 songs a week, and always have appropriate costumes at the ready? Yes! Because Glee draws us in and convinces us that we’re watching a musical, where the joy of the moment overrides our skepticism. Hellcats is just plain contrived. I don’t care how plucky you are or how small your waist is, you can’t just be a cheerleader because you watch a movie. Gahhh!

Veronica Mars

This is hard for me to believe, but I had never seen the pilot episode of Veronica Mars in its entirety until today. I started watching in prime time with episode 1.2—with a healthy dose of cynicism—when I was assigned to write about it for a local paper and interview Enrico Colantoni. I had written it off in advance as another Dawson’s Creek-type teen drama. But I fell in love. VM ended up being the first show I can remember that I made sure not to miss, and re-watched episodes, and talked about to friends and co-workers. I worked as an extra on it twice, and an episode was taped where I work. I love this show. And I love pilots. So I have no logical explanation for why I’ve never seen episode 1.1 until now. I write about it with full knowledge of who killed Lily, and all the other secrets that will be revealed, which makes the early hints that much more exciting.

Right away, the theme gritty song, “We Used to be Friends,” grabs you. (Hated when they remixed it for Season 3.) Veronica gives us a succinct and color introduction to Neptune, the town where she lives. It’s populated with the over-privileged and those who work for them.

She’s tenacious: She alone steps forward to help a boy who’s been taped, naked, to a flagpole in front of the high school. She’s smart: She demonstrates thorough understanding of the assigned reading even though she’s dozing in English class. She’s a smartass: When cops come to search her locker, she’s comfortable telling their dog to back off. She’s bitter: Her family isn’t rich and important like the others in town. The bitterness continues as Veronica explains how she used to be in with the cool crowd. Now it looks like her only friend is the new kid, Wallace—the one she freed from the flagpole. There a couple of blue-tinged flashbacks to reveal what her life used to be like, full of parties and BFFs.

After life at school, we see life at work; Veronica’s dad’s P.I. office. Her dad, Keith used to be the town’s Sheriff. (There are lots of “used-to-bes,” in keeping with the theme song.) Currently, V. is trailing Jake Kane on assignment from his suspicious wife. Veronica used to date their son Duncan, and her best friend was their daughter Lily. Lily was murdered, Keith accused Mr. Kane but couldn’t prove anything, was removed from office by recall, and V.’s mom left them. To add insult to injury, people believe it was Keith who leaked a video of the crime scene all over the internet.

The new sheriff immediately found evidence incriminating a Kane employee, and the matter was put to uneasy rest. Also, Lily’s boyfriend, the rich, spoiled bad boy Logan Echolls really, really hates V. In another subplot, V. reveals that she lost her virginity while roofied at some party the year before. This won’t be unraveled until the end of Season 2, but clues are revealed in several episodes along the way. I love when a show asks for a viewer’s long term commitment for payoff.

But wait, there’s more. V.’s mom appears to be shacking up with Jake Kane. The Veronica-Wallace friendship is a little sappy, but it lets the audience see that V. still has a heart, and gives us a look at her mad P.I. skills and twisted sense of humor. She ends up with the local biker gang in her camp, defending her from Logan. It’s a delightfully tangled web. Every little detail will come back in later episodes. Of course, you don’t know that. But the kicker: Keith is still investigating Lily’s murder. That alone lets us know there are plenty of juicy revelations to look forward to.

V. leaves us with this declaration: “I will find out what really happened.” Rest assured, she will.

Weird note: I once saw the first 10 minutes or so of this episode online (in French) and the scene where V. is camped outside the Camelot Motel in her car was the cold open. Here there is no cold open, and that scene takes place mid-episode. Hm.

Here’s an article I wrote about this show early in its run, including an interview with Enrico Colantoni.

UPDATE 8/14/10: For a more thorough analysis of this blog then you probably ever dreamed of, check out this blog.