Frequent readers of this space know that every fall, I try to review the new shows hitting network TV. There are two problems with trying to do this: 1. The networks, possibly due to infinite greed (okay, almost certainly due to infinite greed,) have stretched this process out over five or six weeks and 2. New TV shows are about as disposable as razor blades or Donald Trump’s staffers. Thus, if you’re like me and wait until pretty much everything has rolled out, you’re either reviewing “new” shows that have aired five or six episodes or new shows you were PLANNING to review have already died a grisly death. But on the off chance that you’re like me and prefer your TV viewing in binge form, I’m going to give you my thoughts on a handful of new shows you may not have checked out.
(BLOGGER’S NOTE: These capsule reviews are usually based on the first episode or two. So if any of these shows have gotten either REALLY good or REALLY bad since…well, what are the odds of that?)
STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (CBS, CBS ALL ACCESS)
The first new Star Trek series since the demise of Enterprise in 2005, Star Trek: Discovery follows Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), a human raised by Vulcans, who serves as the First Officer of the U.S.S. Shenzhou. Set ten years before the original Star Trek series, the premier watches Burnham’s promising career go up in flames, nearly literally, when the Shenzhou encounters the Klingons, who are depicted as being fractious and practically dormant as a species. Turns out the Klingons were just spoiling for a fight and they’ve come together to give one to the United Federation of Planets. Unlike it’s more episodic predecessors, Discovery will follow a tight narrative through its 15 episode debut season.
While Discovery is set in the “Prime” Star Trek universe, meaning it exists in the same timeline as the other Star Trek TV series, it’s look and feel owe much more to the “Abramsverse” of the rebooted film series. The sparse look of the bridge, the redesigned Klingons, even the incredibly annoying use of screen flare connect it more to the current films that the classic Trek series. No surprise there, given that Alex Kurtzman, who co-wrote the first two reboot films, is one of the series’ creators and producers. The crowded creative field also involves Bryan Fuller (a writer on Voyager and Deep Space Nine, as well as the creator of Pushing Daisies and a number of other acclaimed series), Nicholas Meyer (the writer and director of Wrath of Khan and Undiscovered Country) and, for some reason, notorious hack writer Akiva Goldsman. (I’m guessing Joe Eszterhas wasn’t available.) There were a few cringe-worthy,”Who the hell would say a thing like that?” lines in the pilot that I’m assuming come courtesy of Mr. Goldsman.
One interesting part is CBS’s rollout of the series. While the pilot aired on the network, the remainder of the series will be on CBS All Access, the Eye’s over-the-top streaming service. In fact, as the pilot wrapped up, a breathless announcement told us that the second episode was already available on All Access. Watching the second installment, it really wasn’t a separate episode so much as it was the continuation of the pilot. In essence, CBS was saying, “Hey, hope you enjoyed the first half of the movie. Please fork over some bucks for part 2!” While there was some grumbling about having to get the show on a pay channel, the barely-disguised bait-and-switch appears to be working. All Access got a record number of new subscriptions in the week following Discovery‘s premier and I’m guessing that’s not being driven by old episodes of The Odd Couple (or new episodes of The Odd Couple, come to think of it.)
Certainly, Discovery has some elements that hardcore Trek fans can quibble with (“Wait, the Klingons look like humans in the original series. Enterprise explained why that is. Why do the Klingons look like Klingons again?”) And you kind of wonder what Gene Roddenberry might have thought of some of the darker elements of the show (I’m guessing he wouldn’t have thought much of them.) But the first few episodes have been fairly riveting. It skillfully creates a sense of conflict and weight early on and pulls you in to see what’s coming next. It may take some time to determine how Discovery fits into the legacy of Star Trek TV series. But it’s certainly earned the opportunity. And hell, it’s nice just to have a Trek series back on the air.
THE ORVILLE (FOX)
Actually, we have two.
Yes, yes, yes, we’ll call it the Orville and not the Enterprise, it’s the Planetary Union and not the United Federation of Planets and they’re the Krill and not the Klingons. But don’t let any of that fool you. Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane’s new series is as Trek as anything spun from the mind of Gene Roddenberry and his successors.
MacFarlane, who has written all of the episodes so far, stars as Ed Mercer, a once up-and-coming officer whose career and marriage fell apart at the same time. Mercer is given one last shot at success: the command of a mid-level exploratory ship called the Orville. The downside? His First Officer is his ex-wife, Kelly (Adrianne Palicki). (The pilot reveals that’s not entirely a coincidence.)
The crew of the Orville is borrowed from several past Trek characters. Lt. Commander Bortus (Peter Macon), the ship’s second officer, is a blend of Worf and Voyager‘s Tuvok. Isaac (Mark Jackson) is a member of a race of artificial beings (the Kaylon) and exhibits aspects of both Data from The Next Generation and Mr. Spock. (Jackson’s voice sounds so much like Brent Spiner’s, I had to IMDB the show to make sure it wasn’t, in fact, Spiner playing the role.) Lt. Alara Kitan (Halston Sage), the ship’s Security Officer, is like a less-lame, kickass version of Wesley Crusher. (Okay, so she’s nothing like Wesley Crusher. She’s just young.) Dr. Claire Finn (Penny Johnson-Gerald, herself an alum of Deep Space Nine) brings a bit of Beverly Crusher’s calm and Katherine Pulaski’s saltiness. The crew is rounded out by Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes) and John LaMarr (J. Lee), the ship’s helmsman and navigator, who best resemble Sulu and Chekhov if they were beer-swilling idiots.
The show definitely has some Star Trek bona fides. MacFarlane himself guest-starred on an episode of Enterprise. Brannon Braga, who co-wrote the movies Generations and First Contact as well as co-creating Voyager and Enterprise, serves as one of the executive producers. Jonathan Frakes (Will Riker of TNG and the director of First Contact and Insurrection) and Robert Duncan McNeill (Tom Paris on Voyager) have signed on to direct episodes. There’s also talk of future Trek cameos on the show.
Clearly, The Orville is a bit of wish-fulfillment on MacFarlane’s part. He’s the fanboy who gets to captain his own starship. And he gets to throw in some humor that feels a bit like someone MST3K-ing an episode of Trek. But all of that works in The Orville‘s favor. The terrific 3rd episode, “About a Girl” sees Bortus and his mate, Klyden, have their first child, only to discover she’s a girl. (Moclans, the race two whom Bortus and Klyden belong, have only one gender. Being born female is considered a birth defect.) While the child is prepared for a sex change operation, Bortus has second thoughts and launches a legal challenge to let the child grow up a female. The episode debates whether or not humans should judge other races by human standards and explores the weight of making decisions for your child before they’re even old enough to deal with the consequences. But for some of the comedic elements (Bortus decides to launch the legal challenge after the crew shows him Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer) the script for “About A Girl” could have been written by Roddenberry himself.
Critics have not responded well to The Orville and, frankly, I don’t know why. Certainly, the show is neither an out-and-out comedy nor a straight science fiction story. But somehow, the two elements blend very well as is. MacFarlane hasn’t earned a lot of leeway in terms of support (you can practically hear people rooting for him to fail) but The Orville is grounded in such a love for the shows it’s openly aping, that it feels more like a labor of love than a vanity project. In any event, it’s a good show and deserves to Live Long and Prosper…and not get sued.
THE MAYOR (ABC)
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: an attention-seeking political novice runs for an office he’s clearly not qualified to hold, throws out some platitudes about politicians being out of touch that sound refreshing only when standing next to a career politician, and, to his private shock and horror, actually wins the election. Turns out the joke’s on his soon-to-be constituents. Yeah, we’d laugh if it were at all funny.
In The Mayor, aspiring rapper Courtney Rose runs for mayor of his hometown of Fort Grey, California, largely as a publicity stunt to jump start his music career. When he unexpectedly wins, he’s faced with putting music on the back burner in order to do good for the community he’s been chosen to lead. Along the way, he’s advised by his formidable, but big-hearted mother, Dina (Yvette Nicole Brown), his best friends, Jermaine (Bernard David Jones) and T.K. (Marcel Spears) and his high school classmate-turned-political-adviser, Val (Lea Michele).
The Mayor is amiable enough, though the pilot was 100% laugh-free. (Well, not entirely. The name of Courtney’s opponent in the mayoral race is Ed Gunt [David Spade] and if you don’t get that joke, I’m not going to explain it to you. Because then you can’t un-know it.) The Mayor would have to be an utter laugh riot to make its premise work. Having lived through Jesse Ventura’s stint as Minnesota governor and hoping I’ll live through the horror show that is the current Presidential administration, I can tell you that electing a political novice always sounds good on paper and absolutely sucks in practice. Even if the show takes the stance that Courtney is trying to live up to the job rather than drag it down to his level, there’s still nothing particularly funny in the premise. Maybe in four years. Hopefully, less.
THE BRAVE (NBC)
Apparently, networks have a sudden taste for military shows (gee, wonder what brought that on?) because no less than three of them are premiering this fall. NBC’s entry, The Brave, follows the U.S. War on Terror on two different fronts: the collection of intelligence experts and directors in Washington and an elite unit of soldiers in the field. The series stars Anne Heche, as the unit’s director in Washington, and Mike Vogel as its leader in the field.
Without doubt, the pilot, involving the unit trying to rescue a kidnapped doctor from Syrian terrorists, has its riveting moments. It’s fast-paced and exciting, featuring a neat plot twist about halfway through and a just-when-you-thought-everything-was-resolved-here-comes-THIS sort of cliffhanger ending. Unfortunately, it also suffers from trying to develop nine characters in about 43 minutes of TV time. The attempt is made by shoehorning in lines of dialogue that might as well be said under a neon sign reading “Exposition Cafe”. Most of the team is drawn from the Archetypes Playbook. Trying to balance these elements against the show’s more believable qualities makes for an awkward marriage, at best. And, there’s no getting around this, Anne Heche is terrible. There’s nothing about her that says Steely Eyed Leader. She looks uncomfortable and out of place at all times, as if she realizes she’s been miscast, but she’s going to give it the old college try.
The Brave is, in the end, a neat idea. Just one that you had been executed a little better.
JOE DAVIS is the main character in a series of mystery novels by Randall J. Funk. Mr. Davis and Mr. Funk are delighted by the shocking similarities in their opinions and writing styles.