Monday, March 17, 2014

Three Pilots: "Cosmos," "Believe," and "Resurrection"

Last week, three new pilots premiered on the big networks, each with a high-concept premise. On ABC, the dead come back to life, unchanged, in Resurrection. FOX revives Carl Sagan's classic science program Cosmos, with a little help from Seth MacFarlane. NBC, meanwhile, has Believe, a show about a girl with special abilities that was co-created by Alfonso Cuaron and produced by J.J. Abrams. So how do they stack up?

For the purposes of these reviews, I only watched the pilots. All three shows have since aired an additional episode, and air on Sunday nights.

"Standing Up in the Milky Way," Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

In 1980, Carl Sagan, a scientist at Cornell University in New York, created a thirteen-part miniseries called Cosmos: A Personal Journey for PBS. The show covered a number of scientific fields, particularly astronomy, and as it became the most-watched program in PBS' history, Sagan became the public face of scientific advocacy. There have been other "science for the masses" programs since then, such as Bill Nye the Science Guy, but none have quite captured national attention quite the way Cosmos did. FOX's sequel series attempts to bring scientific-educational programming back to primetime, and with connections to the original series: Seth MacFarlane (creator of Family Guy) was a fan of the original series, and he recruited original-series producer Ann Druyan (also Sagan's widow) and Sagan protege Neil deGrasse Tyson to host.

More after the jump.

The first episode tackles two grand concepts: the vast expanse of the universe and the history of life on Earth. Obviously, that's a lot to cover in a mere 44 minutes, and the show wisely presents this mostly as an introduction to these ideas rather than an in-depth examination. Tyson makes a terrific host, his presence exuding intellectual authority that's friendly and inviting. Much of the episode is given over to the life of 16th-century Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, which is both a strength and weakness. It does give the episode a sense of structure, and educates views on the life of a man who is not particularly well-known in regards to scientific history. However, it also oversimplifies the era, and is illustrated with animation that is inventive but also distracting. There's a way for this structure to be informative and entertaining, but if the focus lands on thin subjects like this in the future, it could spell trouble for the series going forward. As it stands, it's fantastic to see a major network embracing scientific programming again. It's the perfect antidote to lowest-common-denomenator reality shows like Duck Dynasty.

"The Returned," Resurrection

The Walking Dead has a stranglehold on zombie television right now, so ABC's new show Resurrection takes a different spin: the dead are returning just as they were when they died, with full memories up to the points of their deaths. No one knows why or how this is happening, or if this is even real. In this first episode, Jacob (Landon Gimenez) wakes up in a Chinese rice paddy. Immigration agent Marty Bellamy (Omar Epps) brings him to Arcadia, Missouri, where Jacob claims to live. When Marty approaches his parents (Kurtwood Smith and Frances Fisher), he learns that Jacob died 32 years prior. But the boy in his car knows them, and knows intimate details about his death that only he could know. Marty stays in town and begins looking for answers.

The concept is very similar to a French series that aired on Sundance Channel last year, The Returned. However, where that show was more focused on character development for each of the returned, Resurrection is more interested in its plot. However, much of that plot is extraneous, starting with the mysterious circumstances surrounding the event of Jacob's death (there's the implication of foul play, because this is a show on a major network and therefore must involve a murder). Despite terrific actors filling out the cast, they're largely wasted in their roles, especially Epps in the thankless part of audience surrogate/exposition machine. And for a show about loved ones coming back for the dead, there barely seems to be a heartbeat beneath the surface, as everyone in town seems more slightly puzzled than truly moved by these events. The episode does have a very pretty surface, thanks to longtime TV veteran director Charles McDougall, but apart from that, it's empty fantasy, like a zombie book written by Mitch Albom.

"Pilot," Believe

NBC could not have planned the premiere of Believe any better, as it debuted just over a week after co-creator and pilot co-writer and director Alfonso Cuaron won the Best Director Oscar for mega-hit Gravity. Add in the presence of J.J. Abrams as producer, and the show promised to deliver on its geek cred. The story finds death row inmate Tate (Jake McLaughlin) freed from prison by a mysterious organization lead by Milton Winter (Delroy Lindo). His mission is to protect Bo (Johnny Sequoyah), a young girl with extraordinary abilities, from those who want to capture her, particularly a known as Skoraus (Kyle MacLachlan).

The two things that the pilot has going for it are Cuaron's direction and a talented supporting cast. The episode opens with an exhilarating long take, one of Cuaron's trademarks. The whole episode feels like it was shot on a handheld camera, and its deep-focus shots ensure that it looks very different from much of primetime-network television. Of course, Cuaron won't be around to direct every episode of the show, a la Cary Joji Fukunaga on True Detective. But he does establish a visual tone that makes the show's ordinary environments seem a little off-kilter, which helps the show's heightened reality. As Tate, McLaughlin is a little bland, but the rest of the cast - including Lindo, Sequoyah, MacLachlan, and Jamie Chung and Kerry Condon, is wall-to-wall great. This is good, because otherwise the story is a rather dull retread of "chosen/special one" sci-fi/fantasy narratives that have sprung up frequently on network television in the wake of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lost. The talent involved makes this worth checking out, but it's hardly worth believing in.

Cosmos: B
Resurrection: C-
Believe: C

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