When I was growing up, you had two seasons when new TV shows premiered: Fall and Spring. And we hiked uphill in the snow to get to both. (The summer was for re-runs.)
Now we have so many channels and so much turnover, there’s a new TV season every two months. Well, it’s March, and we’ve had three major premiers in as many days: Believe, Cosmos, and Resurrection. I’ll handle the first today:
Imagine, if you will, that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had been the show you wanted it to be, following a rag-tag group of specialists sharing with each other only on a need-to-know basis while protecting and facing people with super-powers they couldn’t begin to understand. It might even have an interesting cast and fight choreography not done by a three-year old. Now imagine the very best episode that show-in-your-head might have, the kind of once-in-a-season nailbiter that offers enough answers to make you appreciate the mysteries it raises. Now you’ve got the pilot for NBC’s Believe.
In the pilot, we meet Bo (Johnny Sequoyah), a little girl with powers she can’t quite control but that involve telepathy, telekinesis, seeing people’s futures, and commanding animals to get downright feisty. A mysterious billionaire named Skouras (Kyle MacLachlan) is out to get her – to train her as a weapon, we’re told – and it’s up to an ill-funded underground operation to protect her. Bo’s newest foster parents are assassinated in the opening sequence, in one of those trademark long-takes that director (and co-creator) Alfonso Cuaron does so well. Cuaron’s coming off an Oscar for his direction of Gravity, but he adjusts tone well to television – there are shades of grittiness akin to his Children of Men, but by and large, Believe is a unique creation.
One thing about having Cuaron and executive producer J.J. Abrams (Lost; Almost Human) on board is that they’ve attracted top notch TV talent. It’s up to the enigmatic Winter (Delroy Lindo) and his protege Channing (Jamie Chung) to find a replacement to protect Bo. They choose an unlikely candidate in Tate (Jake McLaughlin), a death row inmate we meet just a few minutes before his scheduled execution. It’s up to him to rescue Bo from the first of what I’m sure will be many spies in the assassin Moore (a wicked Sienna Guillory). Most of the pilot is an enjoyable extended chase, involving two very well-done fight sequences, clever set-piecing and superb choreography.
Lindo is constantly underrated in B-material (most notably David Mamet’s Heist). It’s fun for a cinephile to think of him going up against Kyle MacLachlan (made famous by David Lynch in Twin Peaks). Lindo plays Winter so earnestly that it’s hard to tell if he’s just that good of a guy or if he has his own ulterior motives for Bo.
Chung and Jake McLaughlin, as the two younger heroes, have been working their way steadily to this sort of gig for years – Chung through thankless chauvinist dreck like Sucker Punch and The Hangover series, McLaughlin as supporting characters in Warrior and Savages. In just a handful of scenes, Chung communicates Channing’s near-religious awe for Bo and, by extension, Winter. McLaughlin plays rough and ready-to-rumble well, while balancing Tate on the fine line between charming and smug.
Sequoyah is key to the series, and she invests her role as a maybe-prophet with the flightiness and curiosity of a normal little girl. It makes for a compelling character, but one who we need to understand as more than a MacGuffin before we’re ready to take a season-long ride with Believe.
Much as Fox’s Sleepy Hollow and Almost Human feature African-American and Latin American protagonists, representing the cultural makeup of today’s United States in a realistic fashion, I also applaud Believe for featuring a Native American, an African American, and a Korean American actor as three of its four good guys. All three of these shows are associated with J.J. Abrams or his producing tree. That’s no mere coincidence. However much of a problem fans may have with how Lost ended or how Star Trek got rebooted, he’s pretty much the only producing force on network TV whose shows regularly feature minorities in roles of heroism and leadership.
Should You Watch…
…the pilot? Absolutely. It’s a fantastic hour of TV. I’d be shouting this one from the mountaintops save for two things.
Thing the first: Alfonso Cuaron directed the pilot episode. It’s tense, energetic, and just a touch gritty. He’s obviously not directing past this, so this may be the best episode we get for a while. On the list of future directors, the one that jumps out is Roxann Dawson. She’s most recognizable as an actress from Star Trek: Voyager, but has directed episodes of various Star Treks, Crossing Jordan, Cold Case, The Closer, and – most recently – the best Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. yet (“Eye Spy”). She’s a go-to contract director on genre fare. Stephen Williams, a director of 26 episodes on Lost, also gives me hope.
There’s some neat stability – the cinematographer across the first several episodes, Gonzalo Amat, is a Mexican short film director hand-picked by Cuaron. Production designer Lester Cohen has created clean, evocative set design for both White Collar and Suits. Make-up head Patricia Regan held the same position with the fantastical Pan Am and the realistic Girls and her looks – especially for McLaughlin and Guillory – are creative and enticing while being just a touch off-putting. That shows me that the behind-the-scenes talent is being given the room to get creative and spread their wings here. That’s promising, so long as the direction of the show itself remains tight.
Thing the second: if movies are the director’s playground, then TV belongs to the writers, and the first episode gets schmaltzy. Now, I like a bit of schmaltz now and then, but there’s noise made about Bo to the tune of: “Think how many people she’ll help along the way.” The show is better set up as an episodic action-adventure than as a miracle-of-the-week. They need to keep the chase the priority and humanize Bo – these two things will let them get away with any Touched By An Angel dynamic they want to work in, but it’s got to be action first if they want it to function.
The directors and writers are rounded out by a smattering of Battlestar Galactica vets and writers on BBC dramas. That sounds like…I don’t know what that sounds like. If there’s a show that combined gritty action and schmaltzy philosophy so simultaneously annoying and provocative as Battlestar Galactica, I haven’t met it. The banter between Tate and Bo is wryly promising. That and Delroy Lindo should keep things very watchable, but this pilot isn’t the kind to tell you where the show is headed yet. I’m being a bit hard on Believe because, even though it’s so promising, you can see the potential pitfalls a mile off…and we’ve been disappointed enough by the Heroes and Agents of recent years. Hopefully, Believe has learned the lessons of these other shows. With a first episode this good, it’s hard not to be cautiously optimistic.