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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Top 5 Character Introductions in Pilots

A pilot episode has a lot to accomplish. It has to introduce a time, a place, characters, and relationships, as well as the tone and style of the show. Every once in a while, a pilot really nails a character introduction. In a moment, an audience meets a character and just knows that character. It might be shocking, it might be funny, but it’s memorable. I am sure there are many, many examples of which I am not even aware, but here are my favorites, in no particular order. If you have other suggestions, I would love to hear them!

1. Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston) on Friends

At this point in the pilot, we’ve had a little while to get to know the other 5 members of the Central Perk gang. You don’t need me to review them. Ross is on the couch in the coffee house, lamenting the dissolution of his marriage. He whines, “I just want to be married,” and in walks this disheveled, rain-soaked bride complete with full-length veil. (Chandler counters, “And I just want a million dollars.”) Rachel hasn’t said a word, but her entry makes its own statement. You see a bride out of context like that and you know you’re in for a story.

2. The Devil (Ray Wise) on Reaper

Sam has already seen some strange sh*t on this, his 21st birthday. But as he’s cruising home from work in his parents’ station wagon, the smarmiest looking guy you’ve ever seen appears out of thin air in the back seat. “Is this a car-jacking,” Sam cries. “For this?” comes the response, “If it was an Escalade maybe.” After a few seconds of this fruitless back-and-forth the stranger reveals, “I’m not a carjacker. I’m the Devil.” Sam wrecks the car, and the Devil vanishes as quickly as he appeared. And that’s the kind of crap Sam is going to put up with for the next 2 seasons. This pilot gets better every time I watch it.

3. Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski) on Chuck

What is cooler than a ninja? A ninja who turns out to be a super hot chick. In the episode, we have already met Sarah when she comes into the Buy More with a broken cell phone, but her true colors are unveiled when she shows up to steal Chuck’s computer. Each and every character on this show is awesome. But nobody makes an entrance quite like Sarah.

4. Bender Rodriguez (John Di Maggio) on Futurama

I don’t what is the best part of this character introduction; that there is such a thing as a suicide booth, that there is a robot in line to use the suicide booth, or that said robot wants to rip off the suicide booth with a coin on a string. On top of that, the viewer is in the same place as the protagonist, Fry: fresh out of the year 1999, with this whole new world unfolding more and more strangely by the minute. It’s funny, it’s bizarre, and it perfectly captures the tone of the show overall.

5. Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) on Glee

“You think this is hard? Try being waterboarded–that’s hard.” This first line by the sadistic cheerleading coach, the first, in fact, of the pilot, tells us everything we need to know. Although some unexpected complexity to the character was revealed later in the season, that uber-bitch, no-mercy exterior never faltered.

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.

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