Saturday, October 18, 2014

In Which Jenn Grades the New Fall Television Series: 2014 Edition

Last year, I embarked on my first-ever quest as a blogger to watch as many new pilots as possible and then grade them (as well as grade some returning series and their episodes). The result, I discovered, was intriguing: I found very few "appointment-worthy" new series and truly only stuck around for three of them (The Crazy Ones, The Blacklist, and Sleepy Hollow) for the duration of their series. I despised most of the comedy pilots and the few that I didn't, I either picked up or dropped because of time commitments or apathy (sorry, Brooklyn 99 and Trophy Wife). In the fall of 2013, I found myself adding two dramas to my list and in the fall of 2014, I am adding even more, as the comedy crop this year is severely lacking, in my opinion. In fact, my "appointment-viewing" television schedule now contains twice as many dramas as comedies. THAT HAPPENED.

So, below the cut, journey with me as I grade the pilots I have gotten the opportunity to watch and see if you agree with some, any, or all of my assessments.

A to Z (NBC)

Pilot Grade: C-

I really liked Cristin Milioti, solely based on what I had seen her do with her character in How I Met Your Mother (may Tracy rest in peace). And Ben Feldman is cute. But... well, A to Z didn't hook me from the pilot episode. Granted, it usually takes quite a few episodes for comedies to find their footing, but the fact that I didn't laugh once and only chuckled during the 26-minute pilot episode is rather troublesome. Cristin and Ben both play likable characters, at least, which is more than a lot of the pilots last year can say. Ben's alter ego Andrew is a guy who believes in destiny and is a hopeless romantic; Cristin's Zelda is a driven, jaded lawyer whose free-loving parents made her into the cautious adult that she is. If this all sounds vaguely familiar, it's because it is: it's a cliche. And cliches are totally and completely fine; entire shows have been built around them and have worked.

I'm just not sure that A to Z will be the exception to that rule. For starters, there's the problematic constraint that it has already boxed itself into (much like How I Met Your Mother did), because as the narrator -- the incomparable Katey Segal -- explains, this show takes place over the course of Andrew and Zelda's eight month-long relationship and spans from A to Z (the first episode is "A for Acquaintances"). Constraints are fine if you only expect your show to run the course of 26 episodes (logic dictates that there should be at least 26 because of, you know, the alphabet). But what happens if the show is successful and extends longer? How do you reconcile your show's admittedly creative premise with a new vision? That's the problem that I foresee this show running into if it is successful. Furthermore, the pilot tried to incorporate a bit of heart, but it felt rather flat and generic to me. I think that is my major problem with the series' pilot and the potential series as a whole: it's generic. The premise is cute, but the story has been told a million times before. I'm interested to see how, and if, A to Z makes the cliche its own.

(P.S. LENORA CRINCHLOW -- R.I.P. Back in the Game -- IS IN THIS SHOW. So that made me happy at least.)

Marry Me (NBC)

Pilot Grade: C+

It pains me to give a series that features Ken Marino (Burning Love) and Casey Wilson (Happy Endings) so low of a grade, but the pilot was just... meh. I tend to judge a pilot's potential by the commercials they choose to air and when the commercials for Marry Me didn't even elicit a chuckle from me, I knew we were in trouble. Ken Marino's Jake is a pretty endearing character -- he seems pretty good-hearted and grounded, even if his flashback self is a bit douchey. And Marino's reactions during the opening proposal scene were actually pretty hilarious. I laughed a few times throughout the episode (and swooned at the use of "Home" as the theme song), but... I cringed more than I laughed and it's because of Annie.

Annie is Casey Wilson's character. I love Casey and I loved Penny Hartz and I love the frantic energy Casey puts into her characters and her facial comedy but Annie was pretty insufferable throughout the entire half hour pilot. She's crazy -- she's a non-stop train of long monologues and rants and thinking before she speaks and being overly dramatic. Being dramatic isn't a bad thing for a character to be, but Annie is unrealistically frantic and (dare I say it) crazy. I can't believe anyone would truly function in real-life pulling the kind of stuff she does. And in a pilot, I know it's difficult to introduce and develop characters, but I sincerely hope her character gets toned down a LOT as this show continues. Additionally, cringe-comedy isn't really my style (I'll chalk it up to the pilot aspect though, since New Girl had a very cringe-comedy pilot character in Jess Day and then got better) and it seems like that is how Marry Me may derive most of its comedy from.

Though Marry Me had a good comedic start, it has a way to go in terms of character development. I hope it gets the chance to try its hand at some sentiment and growth at NBC.

Manhattan Love Story (ABC)

Pilot Grade: F

Hello, my first and only "F" of the season! I knew you would be bestowed upon Manhattan Love Story before I even watched the episode and now? Well, now I know you deserve this grade. Let me spare you the trouble of watching this series and briefly explain why I loathed the pilot: I loathed the characters.

Look, it honestly takes a while sometimes for a television series to find its footing. I usually don't immediately like or loathe a pilot, but this is the exception to that rule. In some ways, Manhattan Love Story feels like it's a satire of romantic television comedy tropes until you realize that it's trying to be genuine and serious and earnest and it fails miserably. Let's take Dana, for example: Dana is an adorable young woman who is nervous and gee willickers, she just doesn't understand how The Facebook or the interwebz work (or how her silly smartphone works), even though she's presumably in her mid-twenties/early thirties. Dana lusts after purses on the street because that's what women do, apparently. Peter, meanwhile, is a douchey-mc-douchebag who basically looks at women as though they were objects but oh, of course, he has a sensitive heart of gold (... maybe silver) by the episode's end.

Manhattan Love Story is problematic on quite a few counts: it reduces characters to stereotypes and tropes (look, there are the "married best friends" and the "straight-shooting co-worker" and "the mean co-workers"), it relies heavily on internal monologue and voiceover (which is fine in short bursts, like with Selfie but downright annoying when heard consistently in MLS. It honestly seems like a cop-out to have the actors narrate their thoughts instead of, you know, acting them out), it offers nothing redeemable about the characters. The last one is the clincher, really: I can suffer through monologues and navigate through trope-y scenarios and characters, but if I cannot find anything interesting or redeemable about the characters, I'm lost. Now, there were two moments in the episode that worked for me (the riff about trophies during the first date; the scene on the curb prior to Dana getting in the pedicab) but were sadly then undercut by the moments that followed (Peter acting like a tool/Dana bursting into irritating tears; Dana thinking Peter is gay/Peter acting like a tool).

When you're sitting through a pilot just wishing it would end, you know it's bad. That was Manhattan Love Story for me: I watched so YOU don't have to.

Selfie (ABC)

Pilot Grade: A-

It may be doomed because of its name and timeslot, but dangit if Selfie wasn't one of the most delightful comedy pilots I've watched in a while. Based on My Fair Lady, it's the story of Eliza Dooley, a narcissistic, social media-obsessed woman who works as a pharmaceutical sales representative. With thousands of followers on Instagram, you'd think Eliza would be on top of the world. And she IS... until she realizes that the man she's been seeing is married and makes a complete and total mess of herself in front of her co-workers. It is then that Eliza realizes a cold, hard truth: followers aren't friends. That was an emotional moment, but it felt a tad cliche. Selfie was one step ahead of me, of course, when Eliza listened to a couple's wedding vows and revealed to the audience that the reason she's so attached to her social media is that it's an escape from the fact that she's felt alone her entire life; her social media is a coping mechanism. Karen Gillan brings it as Eliza Dooley, taking a well-known trope and character into a fresh light. The wedding turned Eliza from an interesting character into a layered, empathetic one. She's deeply flawed, but also endearing and I think that the Selfie pilot walked that fine line very well: we were never asked to excuse Eliza's behavior, nor were we asked to relate to it. We were simply asked to believe that what we see on the surface is not all that there is to a character or show.

Speaking of, John Cho does a hilarious job in the pilot with his character Henry Higenbottam (his #blessed diatribe that was sadly cut from the ABC airing of the pilot but was in the online version, his rhyming conversation with Eliza, facial nuances, etc.), but also portrays this insecure, broken side of the character as well. If Eliza is self-obsessed on the surface and lonely on the inside, then Henry is self-righteous on the outside and lonely on the inside, too. It's rare to find a pilot that checks all the boxes I feel are necessary for a successful comedy: 1) humor, 2) solid characterization, 3) heart, and 4) potential for upward growth, but Selfie meets and exceeds every one of those.

I laughed during the pilot, but more importantly than that (yes, there are things more important than laughing at a television show), I felt a connection to these characters and their journeys. I WANT to know what happens to them because I want Eliza to find happiness within herself and I want Henry to learn to let other people in instead of fixing them. I am ready to watch these characters grow and change and I sincerely hope that ABC gives Selfie the opportunity to do so because its pilot was a gem, filled with promise.

(Update: Episode 2 is funnier than the pilot, in my opinion, and just as charming. Episode 3 is an utter delight and the end made me coo.)

Mulaney (FOX)

Pilot Grade: D-

The only remotely redeemable part of the Mulaney pilot was Nasim Pedrad. Unfortunately, Nasim plays a stereotypical "crazy ex-girlfriend" named Jane. Jane gives a great feminist speech at the beginning of the episode about how when men are crazy, everyone finds it hilarious and entertaining but women are labeled as "crazy" and suddenly they're considered to be pariahs. But then the series completely undoes that monologue by portraying Jane as a flat, one-dimensional, one-track-minded character who clearly has nothing better to do with her entire week then stalk her ex-boyfriend and wreck havoc on his new relationship in the name of "closure." 

And if that wasn't bad enough, the pilot just isn't funny. At all. I half-chuckled once and the entire duration of the episode, I kept wondering when it would be over. John Mulaney isn't even an endearing character in this show, really, and his cast of "funny" friends is anything but. The entire series feels like a bad SNL parody of Seinfield. And if you couldn't tell by the grade, I did not enjoy it at all.

black-ish (ABC)

Pilot Grade: B

What is it with ABC picking up pretty good comedies with horrible, off-putting names (see: Trophy Wife, Selfie, and now black-ish)? If people judge books by their covers then they most certainly judge television shows by their titles. And though black-ish has an unfortunately name, its pilot was actually quite funny and well-written, sparking a lot of potential for the future. I didn't immediately fall in love with the show (the cold open monologue went on just a bit too long for my liking) or the characters, but I was able to see how this show could make itself into something smart and great. It's tackling the themes of identity and race head-on but doing so in a completely believable way. It's funny (I laughed out loud during multiple parts of the episode) and it's got a good sense of heart, especially with Laurence Fishburne as Andre's sardonic father.

I probably won't watch on a weekly basis, given the fact that there are so many other television shows this season that are vying for my time, but black-ish is actually off to a delightful start. If it can keep up the momentum and comedy of the pilot while interjecting more heart and character development, I think it'll do well on ABC.

Red Band Society (ABC)

Pilot Grade: A-

Red Band Society was one of the many dramas that piqued my interest this season, so when the pilot became available online, I immediately knew that I had to watch it. And, as you may be able to tell by the grade that I gave it, the series did not disappoint me. It's an ensemble at its core and stars a majority of young adults and children in the roles of hospital patients at a pediatric ward. Each of them are struggling with cancer, eating disorders, and other life-threatening ailments. Though it was a tad slow in the middle of the pilot, I was immediately able to tell that this series was something special. It opens with a scene reminiscent of Glee and truly that humor -- the biting, sometimes self-deprecating kind -- is prevalent throughout the remainder of the pilot. Red Band Society is labeled as a dark comedy for a reason. It IS dark. It deals with subject matter that is not easy to tackle and, in the hands of less capable writers and actors, would be tasteless at best and downright offensive at worst.

But this pilot is delightful and contains absolutely everything necessary to succeed in its freshman season: it introduces us to an array of characters, each who are distinct and have their own unique voices. It is an ensemble of both adults and children, with Octavia Spencer as absolutely fabulous in the role of the tough, take-no-nonsense Nurse Jackson and Dave Annable as the compassionate Dr. McAndrew. But the standout in the pilot to me was Charlie Rowe, who plays cancer patient and amputee Leo Roth. Leo is such a strong, intelligent character. In some ways, I saw shades of Augustus Waters in him (his monologue to Jordi the night before the surgery really illuminated that), but he's not a stock character and he's not a trope: he is a truly intriguing, layered character. Every character on the series is, even typical mean cheerleader Kara who you spend 90% of the pilot absolutely loathing until you realize the irony in her being at the hospital in the first place. The series' pilot is narrated by Griffin Gluck who plays Charlie, a young comatose boy who can hear everything that is going on around him. And even though you hear only his voice for a majority of the episode, you can tell that he's extremely in tune as an actor to who Charlie is and why he cares about the people around him.

Red Band Society deserves an A- for the pilot not because it was flawless (I would have given it an A+ had it been), but because it made me care about these characters and their journeys separately and together as a group. It made me laugh and I legitimately cried twice during the 45-minute episode. Definitely check out this pilot if you get the chance. I hope you'll be as hooked as I am.

(Update: I'm still hooked on this show and have cried at least one more time. Actually, probably twice at this point.)

Scorpion (CBS)

Pilot Grade: B+

Scorpion is a show that is destined to become another version of a crime procedural, which is no surprise given the fact that it's airing on the same network that houses the CSI franchise, the NCIS franchise, Elementary, Criminal Minds, Person of Interest, Hawaii 5-0... well, you get the idea. The series' premiere was one that really intrigued me and I knew I would have to DVR and catch (sorry, CBS, but my allegiance at 9 PM on Mondays belongs to FOX and Sleepy Hollow). I wasn't disappointed by the pilot, necessarily, though I was disappointed that I essentially watched the entire episode on the promos they ran. I am just curious as to how this show will exist beyond its first episode and continue to capture the ratings attention it needs. The Scorpion pilot follows genius Walter O'Brien and his team of misfit geniuses as they try to start a (shocker) league of geniuses, essentially. Walter recruits these super minds because he knows they need to find a place where they a) belong and are understood and b) can thrive and put their intelligence to good use.

Walter is a typical genius -- he's essentially a nicer, slightly less socially awkward version of Sheldon Cooper -- who doesn't play well with others below his IQ range. That's where Katharine McPhee comes in. She plays Paige, a waitress whose diner is commandeered and turned into headquarters for a national emergency in the pilot, who has a son she deems "special." Walter and his team (especially Sylvester) notice that her son IS special... but not special needs. He's actually a genius. The rest of the episode is a balance between Paige's relationship with her son and Walter's relationship with trying to save a bunch of planes from going down. The result is, as I said earlier, basically what you saw in the promos so there wasn't a whole lot more to garner from that other than me thinking: "Wow, what kind of budget does this pilot have?"

But I scored Scorpion's pilot relatively high because it DOES manage to interject some potential goodness and uniqueness into the action movie/crime procedural theme: the final scene between Walter and Paige's son at the episode's end and the one between Paige and Sylvester at the diner were unexpectedly sweet and emotional. I think Scorpion show will be around for a while longer, at least, so I hope it develops and grows toward its potential without becoming just another cliche on CBS.

(Update: I cried at the end of the second episode -- which was interesting and promising and actually quite good -- and feel like I'll be sticking around with this one. My Monday through Wednesday schedule is packed so tightly though, that Scorpion is relegated to On Demand viewing during the weekends.)

Forever (ABC)

Pilot Grade: B-

I wasn't expecting much from Forever, if I'm being completely honest. I figured it would be a series of mediocrity, but I was actually pleasantly surprised by the pilot and the characterization of Henry Morgan. The pilot and the series itself already has a very Sherlockian feel to it, complete with music and the brilliant, witty, deductive reasoning loner characterization of Dr. Morgan. Indeed, Henry is a rather modern Sherlock Holmes in his reasoning skills, macabre fascination (having to do with his secret, no doubt), and tendencies to be abrasive because of his brilliance. But Henry is an endearing character. He narrates the pilot and I presume will narrate the series, and he's both witty and direct when telling his story. The premise of the series is interesting: Henry Morgan lived 200 years ago and died 200 years ago after getting shot and being thrown into the sea. But... he cannot die, not really. You see, Henry Morgan is somehow cursed with immortality and though he can feel pain and die, he always returns (always naked and in water), alive.

He's brilliant though, so he is a New York City medical examiner because where else would you study and work if you wanted to learn more about the dead and investigate your own condition. Only one person in the pilot knows Henry's secret: an elderly mentor named Abe. It's an interesting premise for a series -- creative, I'll give it that -- but I was not expecting much of the show, perhaps because I've outgrown procedural crime dramas. And I would have probably given this pilot a grade lower, had I not watched the final few minutes of the pilot. The final few minutes provided audiences with a brilliant twist (Henry realizes he is not the only person who has this curse of immortality) and a lovely, touching reveal (Abe was a Holocaust child that Henry helped save in World War II).

Forever has some promise to it, but I think the biggest problem isn't characterization or writing or acting (Ioan Gruffud and Judd Hirsch are really lovely in the pilot). I think the biggest problem is that the series is forgettable and will get lost in the fall shuffle. It's a shame, because it really is a pretty decent pilot.

Gracepoint (FOX)

Pilot Grade: A

I think that the biggest benefit to me in watching Gracepoint is that I haven't watched Broadchurch. I've heard others discuss how the pilot was a shot-for-shot of its British counterpart, but that means nothing to me, a new viewer of the series. Sometimes it's just best to walk into a series blindly. And, in fact, the consensus that I've heard regarding the American remake of the miniseries is that if you haven't watched Broadchurch, you will love it. If you have, you'll be comparing it endlessly.

So I watched the pilot for Gracepoint and thought it was pretty stellar, which you might be able to tell given the grade it's received. Stylistically, the pilot was beautiful and acting-wise, David Tennant (best known for his role as the Tenth Doctor on Doctor Who) and Anna Gunn (best known for her role as Skylar White on Breaking Bad) are stellar. I have never seen Breaking Bad, but if the pilot is any indication of the work to come from Gunn, I'm excited. I already knew Tennant was an actor with impressive range, but I enjoyed seeing a grittier, more unhinged side to his character (who appears to be a bit mysterious already).

And then there are the other townspeople, all of whom - literally - are suspects in the murder of young Danny. That's what this ten-part FOX series is, really: a mystery. And the deeper we delve into the show, the more interested I am to uncover what the motives and secrets are with these characters (like Danny's father claiming he was at work the night of the disappearance and his wife seemingly not believing him -- I'm calling shenanigans and an affair right now or Ellie's son - Danny's best friend - deleting text messages and erasing his hard drive). Gracepoint is really for people who didn't watch Broadchurch like me, and that's fine because it's off to such a good and intriguing start that I can guarantee you, I'll be around for the next nine weeks.

(Update: David Tennant wears glasses in the second episode. You'd be a fool to not watch, even if - by the third episode - most of my tweeting consisted of commenting on how sketchy everyone in the town is... pets and music included.)

The Mysteries of Laura (NBC)

Pilot Grade: D-

So The Mysteries of Laura was bad. Like, cringe-worthy bad. Like, "are we certain this isn't a show making fun of cop shows?" bad. As I watched the last half of the pilot episode live, having missed the first part due to other (better) television commitments, I couldn't help but think that maybe - just maybe - there was something decent in the first half that I had missed. I was wrong, so very wrong, and the first half of the episode was probably more painful to view than the last half if I'm being honest. The Mysteries of Laura is a series that tries to answer that age-old question of whether or not a woman can, indeed, "have it all." And the show tries to fluff up the question and mask it by presenting us with the figure of Laura, a tough and ruthless cop. She seems pretty calloused at work -- sarcastic and biting toward certain co-workers, but is (shocker!) a loving mom of two hellish boys. There's the cliche of the cheating husband, too, and to be honest... nothing about the show is interesting. And not much of it is really good. I like Debra Messing and I really like Josh Lucas, but in an era where television series are becoming more and more cutting-edge and inventive in terms of plot and characterization, presenting us with Laura (a stale, pretty flat character) only makes me realize that she could essentially be a character in any crime drama/comedy ever.

Furthermore, Laura is actually a pretty terrible character -- she's brash and puts lives on the line in the first episode just so she can play hero. Really, if you skip any television series this fall season, just breeze right past The Mysteries of Laura. I promise, you're not missing anything.

The Flash (The CW)

Pilot Grade: A

I'm not a superhero show person, I'm really not. So it's extremely odd because this season, I'm planning to watch TWO superhero shows, both on The CW. And, as you may be able to deduce by the grade, I loved the pilot for The Flash because it kept me interested, provided us with some great storytelling/plots moving forward, and introduced us to some compelling characters. On Glee, Grant Gustin was a smarmy private school glee club bully, but in The Flash (and his original introduction in the Arrow-verse) Grant Gustin plays this babbling, adorable CSI named Barry Allen. It's clear that Gustin has range -- he's charming and endearing and also invokes sympathy in his portrayal of the superhero in the premiere (the final moments are really good), but he's not perfect. He's a different kind of hero than Oliver Queen because even though he's seen a lot of the world and a lot of negativity and sorrow and pain within it, unlike Oliver/The Arrow, Barry doesn't allow his view of humanity and of heroism to be tainted by it.

In addition to Gustin, who is fabulous, this show brings some of my favorite actors back to my television screen: Tom Cavanagh (long live Ed which was a series that I loved), the lovely and talented Danielle Panabaker, and Jesse L. Martin. Each actor brings something human and integral to their role, whether that is gravitas or levity. And then there are characters like Cisco and Iris who are already pretty well-rounded even though we've just met them. This is a show that is already thriving on the chemistry between its cast (Gustin apparently has chemistry with every person he shares a scene with) and laying the foundation for a pretty epic season, in my opinion.

I can't wait for more of The Flash in my life and I never thought I would say that.

(Update: Episode 2 features Danielle Panabaker being awesome and a scene between Grant Gustin and Jesse L. Martin that brought me to tears. So, yeah. I'll be sticking around.)

So what about y'all? Which new shows surprised you this year (in good ways and bad)? Hit up the comments below and let me know which series made your DVR season pass and which got the boot. Until then, folks! :)

* Shows I haven't watched yet to grade as of this post going live: Gotham (FOX); How to Get Away with Murder (ABC); Madam Secretary (CBS); NCIS: New Orleans (CBS); Bad Judge (NBC); Stalker (CBS); Cristela (ABC); Jane the Virgin (The CW); mid-season pilots


  1. I've got to say, the shows you disliked, I wrote off from the commercials, but Flash worked, Forever is iffy at best, and Selfie is the gem of this crop. I wanted to like Manhattan, mainly because I love the female lead, but it was meh in its best moments. Despite not laughing a lot on A to Z, it was just too adorable (and that is not a word I use). Great article. Keep it up!

    1. Selfie really IS the gem of the crop. I'm partial to Red Band Society now -- it's got some good heart. MLS was seriously unbearable for me and I really do love Jake Dorman so that was sad. But I agree with you about The Flash and I'm seriously not a superhero person! Thanks for the comment. :)