Continuing my look at the new shows for the fall TV season…even if most of them aren’t new and we’re rapidly heading toward winter. Ahem…
The superheroization of all media continues and, as usual, television gets the members of the B-Team. Not a bad thing in this case, as we can celebrate getting a series with a female lead. Network television always embraces diversity…eventually.
Melissa Benoist plays Kara Zor-El, cousin to the big guy in the blue suit. Sent to Earth to watch over her younger cousin, Kara, for reasons I won’t bore you with, gets stranded along on the way and arrives on Earth significantly younger than Superman. Feeling she has no mission, Kara disguises her powers and eventually becomes an assistant to media mogul Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart). Fate, as it will do in network TV series, intervenes and Kara takes on the identity of Supergirl.
Benoist is a real cutie pie in the lead role. Normally, I would feel like a sexist tool for saying a thing like that, but Benoist works so hard to play up the adorable, innocent side of Kara that the description feels more accurate than condescending. Still, her enthusiasm and openness makes it nearly impossible to dislike her, even if the performance feels a tad forced at times. Greg Berlanti serves as the show’s executive producer and co-developer, a role he’s also taken on for Arrow and The Flash. He brings along some familiar tropes from The Flash that are both good and bad. To the good, there’s the wink-and-a-nod style casting, as Dean Cain (Superman from Lois & Clark) and Helen Slater (Supergirl back in the 80’s) play Kara’s adopted parents. To the bad, there’s the same formulaic approach The Flash uses: superhero goes up against supervillain, supervillain gets the better of superhero, superhero gets all depressed and angsty, superhero’s friends provide emotional support and a new game plan, superhero defeats supervillain, all is well, but wait, there’s a tag that hints at darker events to come. Wash, rinse, repeat 23 times over the course of a season.
The pilot episode, in fact, is a bit of a mess. It feels as if they wrote a script for a two hour premiere then discovered the network was only giving them an hour, forcing a hasty rewrite. Kara’s origin story is handled in a rather quick montage with the old familiar voice over. When it’s served its purpose, the voice over is quickly dispensed with and never heard again. Once Kara decides to use her powers, her transformation into Supergirl and her growing celebrity take about four minutes of screen time. Then we spend the second half of the episode hastily dealing with an organization that doesn’t want Kara to use her powers, a group of aliens who want Kara dead and a power mad boss who wants ownership of Supergirl. If that sounds like a lot, well, it is. And the show doesn’t successfully attack all of it.
In general, there’s something a little over the top about the acting and the writing, as if everyone’s aware they’re doing a comic book and they’re playing to that. While I appreciate not having to like Calista Flockhart (I never bought that Ally McBeal nonsense), her performance seems like a color not found in nature. Beyond constantly reminding us she’s rich and powerful, there isn’t much to her. Making things over the top would be a pretty big mistake on the part of the creators. Both Arrow and The Flash have been successful because the performances are always rooted in reality. Absent the heroic daring do, these are still shows about people. It’s why we’ll follow both of them into increasingly unbelievable realms. If Supergirl STARTS from a point of caricature, it’s only going to get sillier.
All that said, Supergirl still has quite a bit of potential. It’s a likable enough cast, the creative team has proven itself on other shows and the more lighthearted touch provides a necessary contrast to darker fare like Arrow (and actually gets much closer to the heart of the Superman universe than the Man of Steel film did.) The pilot episode was hardly a disaster. It’s more a case of a show that hasn’t found its footing, but is certainly not beyond redemption. Personally, I’m rooting for it.
(One gripe, though, because I have to get this off my chest. By the end of the pilot, three supporting characters already know Supergirl’s secret identity. This is in keeping with Arrow and The Flash where all of the supporting cast were in on the main character’s secret before two seasons had expired. This drives me nuts. The aspect of superhero stories that I find most fascinating is the notion of a secret identity. Imagine the tension of trying to live a normal life and balancing it with this other side of yourself. Picture having coffee with your best friend and you’re chatting about dating or work or hobbies and all the while you’re thinking, “This is my best friend and I can’t tell them that I really need this coffee because I was up all night fighting a friggin’ alien!” And yet, EVERY superhero movie and TV show seems in a rush to dispense with that part of the story. I think that’s a huge missed opportunity.)
Blindspot is another entry in the “we have a central mystery that’s going to take several seasons to solve” genre (or perhaps. sub-genre. I’m not good at classifying these things.) An unidentified woman is found inside a duffel bag in Times Square, her nude body covered with recent tattoos. The tattoos provide a clue that will, as I said, probably take several seasons to solve. The woman in question has no memory of really anything and is dubbed Jane Doe (of course.) As the pilot unfolds, she and we discover she has a Liam Neeson-esque set of very specific skills. Along the way, Jane teams up with Kurt Weller, an FBI agent whose name is among the tattoos.
Jaimie Alexander plays Jane Doe and Sullivan Stapleton plays Weller. The two of them are a tad stiff, but not woefully so. The stiffness may be due to the breakneck pace of the pilot. It hits the ground running and doesn’t allow for much beyond a staccato “Who is this and what’s going on?” style of performance. There’s no real evidence of chemistry between the two, but again, the pilot isn’t really interested in that.
There’s a lot to like about Blindspot, not the least of which is its premise. Go back and read the first paragraph of this review, then imagine you’re a producer walking into a studio exec’s office to pitch that idea. Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but you’d have to like your chances. And the execution of the premise is spot on, at least in the pilot. It’s briskly paced, surprisingly easy to follow and everyone’s committed enough that the proceedings feel authentic. (I’ll have a counterpoint for you in just a moment.)
My concerns about Blindspot are less about what it is than what it could become. Shows that have a central, ongoing mystery tend to fall into one of two categories. Either they give the secret away too quickly (David Lynch NEVER wanted us to know who killed Laura Palmer, but the network pressured him into giving up the ghost less than 20 episodes into Twin Peaks) or they drag it out to convoluted and nonsensical ends (With a gun to my head, you could not convince me that the producers of Lost knew how to finish that show.) Let’s hope that along with the terrific premise, Blindspot creator Martin Gero has a solid idea for where to take the story.
And now for something completely different.
The set up of Quantico is solid enough. Alex Parrish (Priyanka Chopra) is an FBI agent who’s been accused of masterminding a terrorist attack on Grand Central Station in New York. The show then flashes back to Alex’s recent training at the FBI headquarters in Quantico, VA. Apparently, one member of that class is involved in the attack and has set Alex up to take the fall.
Like Blindspot, that’s a very good jumping off point for a series. Unlike Blindspot, Quantico stumbles in the execution. It’s a show in the Wants-To-Be-Serious-But-Is-Actually-Trashy genre of TV that’s sprung up since the debut of Scandal in 2012. (As I’ve pointed out, Scandal is basically what would’ve happened if Aaron Spelling had produced The West Wing.) Quantico is, by turns, gripping and utterly ridiculous. To whit:
The opening image of Alex laying in the rubble of Grand Central Station is certainly captivating enough. She’s then confronted by a group of FBI agents who draw guns on her until she’s able to identify herself. Okay, first thought, where the hell are the first responders? Not a cop car or a fire engine to be seen or heard but the FBI is RIGHT THERE?! And why the hell are they pulling guns on Alex? Were they sent to the scene of a terrorist attack with orders to shoot all survivors?
Later, during a flashback, we see one of the recruits flip out and kill himself during a training exercise. The head of the training center addresses the class and turns it into a teachable moment. Wait a minute, an FBI recruit just killed himself ON THE GROUNDS OF THE TRAINING CENTER! You don’t think the place would be shut down for a few weeks while this was investigated? You don’t think there might be counseling made available for the recruits after they’ve watched one of their own blow his head off?
And, of course, all of the recruits have their secrets. Alex killed her father to protect her mother. Another recruit’s parents were killed in 9/11. One of the guys is actually infiltrating the class, apparently as some FBI covert op. One of the women has a twin sister she’s doubling with, but nobody knows that. (Seriously, they’re stealing twists from Big Brother?!) It’s impossible to look at these people and not wonder, “How the hell did they get into the FBI?” Who’s in charge of recruiting? Clancey Wiggum?
And the less said of Alex’s inevitable escape, the better. Like another trashy series, Blood & Oil, everything about Quantico smacks of ten minutes worth of Wikipedia research. It’s hard to believe the FBI would cooperate with a series that makes them look either incompetent or corrupt at all turns. That ABC could air a show that’s so cavalier with the subject of terrorism tells me how far we’ve journeyed from 9/11.
In the end, Quantico is the anti-Blindspot. Where that show starts with an outlandish premise and works to make it believable, Quantico starts with a believable premise and works to make it outlandish. But both the show’s appeal and it’s repellent qualities can be found in this embarrassed confession from me: I kind of want to see what happens next with Alex.