One of the benefits of going to Comic-Con is attending Preview Night, where you and hundreds of your closest friends get to watch a few of the upcoming television pilots. I didn't get the chance to go to Preview Night last year, but was really excited when I realized I would have the opportunity to this year. In total, our team watched five different shows (Riverdale, Powerless, People of Earth, Time After Time, and Frequency) and we all had fairly similar reactions to each. Here, we're going to tell you what we thought of the new fall and midseason pilots, including which are worth your time (and which you should just run far away from right now).
HAVING SEEN RIVERDALE FIRST, LET’S START THERE. WHAT ARE THREE WORDS YOU WOULD USE TO DESCRIBE THE SHOW?
Jenn: I know it’s four, but: “Is this Gossip Girl?”
Maddie: Twincest. Murder. Pedophilia.
Chelsea: I didn’t even get halfway through the episode before whispering to the other gals, “I’m so confused.”
Jen K.: These aren't three words but Dawson’s Creek + Twilight Zone + Glee + Archie comics. If anyone can tell me what those shows have in common I’d be a lot closer to understanding what Riverdale is about.
RIVERDALE WAS CERTAINLY THE MOST DIVISIVE PILOT FOR PEOPLE IN THE ROOM, AS MANY OF US DIDN’T LIKE IT, WHILE SOME DID. WHAT ARE THE ELEMENTS OF THE SHOW YOU DIDN’T LIKE?
Jenn: Right now, the thing I dislike the most is that I spent all of the pilot going: “What is even happening in this show?” There was really no narrative flow for the most part, and it seemed like the scenes were just hacked together in the most haphazard way. The teenage characters talk like they’re aliens from another planet and have no idea how teenagers actually talk. Seriously. And the most offensive thing of all is that it has NO idea what kind of show it is. Within the course of the pilot, it tried to be about ten different kinds of show ranging from teenage soapy drama to murder mystery (maybe?).
Maddie: Remember in the movie Elf when Buddy makes himself a breakfast of spaghetti, Pop-Tarts, candy, marshmallows, and maple syrup? That’s basically this show currently. There are too many things going on, and thus the show’s lack of cohesion makes it difficult to digest. Every time I started to describe the show to someone, it sounded like a list from the Saturday Night Live character Stefon. The sharp changes in tone practically gave me whiplash.
Furthermore, I will add on to Jenn’s statement that the dialogue not only lacks resemblance in any fashion to how teenagers talk, but also how human beings talk and interact with each other. I feel like the script so desperately wanted these “OMG” lines that people will quote on social media, that the dialogue is closer to a random assortment of tweets than a conversation or cohesive story.
Chelsea: I’ve been trying to figure out this pilot for almost a week now. They threw so much at the wall and it made no sense. Like the ladies above said, there is no cohesive plot and the episode doesn't take any time to get to know the characters. I don’t want to spoil anything but it’s still pedophilia when the student is male in the high school teacher/student trope. They’re queerbaiting the audience as well, and please stop. It wasn’t cute in the 90s, and it’s just disrespectful to the audience.
Jen K.: Riverdale is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink pilot. Actually, I think they tried to include the kitchen sink too. Meaning, they were just throwing every single cliche, tired trope at the wall and seeing if it would stick. There is absolutely no direction in this show because Riverdale has NO idea what it’s about. And, spoiler alert, it is NOT about the Archie comics. So for everyone hoping this will fulfill their childhood dreams, let that wish die hard and fast. The characters look like the comic book characters, they have the same names and... that is where the similarities end.
What’s worse is the writing is just awful. Riverdale wanted to incorporate the hipster, irreverent, pop culture humor/fast paced dialogue of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek, but the characters on those shows knew their form of dialogue wasn’t the norm. In fact, that was part of the humor. These characters on Riverdale are saying the words, they’re acting out the scenes, but it’s robotic. They have no idea why they are saying the things they are saying other than to just be “cool.” These characters are surface-level only and are poor copies of other shows who did it better and with purpose.
IS THERE ANYTHING ABOUT RIVERDALE THAT YOU ENJOYED, OR SOMETHING THAT MIGHT IMPROVE THE SERIES IN THE FUTURE?
Jenn: I think that most of the characters are very archetypal and one-dimensional, and that’s problematic. If there was more depth to Archie, at the very least, maybe I would care since I think (?) he’s supposed to be the lead of this series. If Riverdale wants to be successful, it needs to stop throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks and then just writing that and really, intentionally, decide what its purpose is. Because right now it’s as if ten different shows got accidentally blended together and the end result is this icky, unappealing mixture.
Maddie: I think Riverdale needs to make sure it doesn’t take itself too seriously. If it embraces its camp and just how absolutely wackadoodle the premise of this show is, then it has the chance to be a really fun romp. I’m not going to lie, I am still going to give this show a chance because we did have a really great time as a group giving sarcastic commentary and attempting to figure out what in Berlanti’s name was going on.
Jenn: I think embracing the camp could be fun, Maddie. We did talk during the screening about this becoming the thing that people hate-watch (like we used to do with Glee). So if it doesn’t want to actually be a serious show, that could be the alternative solution.
Chelsea: We were all very snarky with the show after realizing that it was a mess. I kept saying that if you got rid of Archie and the murder mystery part of the show, and made it a soapy teen drama focused on Betty and Veronica, then it might be okay. The actresses were fun to watch and had a natural chemistry. They were probably the most defined characters and I’d like to see more of them just going through high school.
Jen K.: If Riverdale is part of the joke, and this is all camp, then fine. It’s not my cup of tea but they can roll with it. If Riverdale thinks it’s a serious drama, then we have a serious problem.
POWERLESS WAS ONE OF THE FEW COMEDIES WE GOT THE OPPORTUNITY TO SEE. WHAT ARE YOUR FIRST IMPRESSIONS ABOUT THE SERIES?
Jenn: I love it. I absolutely love it. And because it’s a comedy on NBC, I was doomed from the start to love it and then be forced to watch as it gets cancelled because of low ratings. But seriously, I was worried about the series because I had such high expectations for the pilot going into it. Thankfully, those expectations were met and exceeded. Every cast member brings something special and unique. Vanessa Hudgens is an utter delight. Danny Pudi is funny and quirky in this absolutely adorable way (you’ll be shipping their characters by the end of the first episode, let me tell you). And Alan Tudyk is so great as the villain. The supporting cast is INCREDIBLE too. This show is just so good already.
Maddie: I did not realize how much I truly needed this show until I watched the pilot. I laughed so much over the course of the pilot. Emily Locke, played by Hudgens, is a great lead character. Vanessa Hudgens is perfection in this role. She is smart, funny, and has so much heart. Moreover, the character seems like a real person and is instantly likeable because of it. The supporting cast is phenomenal. Danny Pudi is delightful as always but it is distinctively a different character than Community's Abed. He and Hudgens’ character are a duo of adorable puppies and I ship them already. Tudyk as the villain perfectly walks the line of ridiculous without being stupid. Christina Kirk, in my opinion, was the breakout performance of the episode just on her commentary about Aquaman alone. The show has a great balance of hilariously on-point references to the superhero genre, but it also a refreshingly endearing workplace comedy.
Jenn: Christina Kirk is a national treasure, my goodness. The ensemble in this show is REALLY strong.
Chelsea: It was so pure, fun, and a great palate cleanser after we watched Riverdale. The jokes landed and weren’t mean-spirited and didn’t offend anybody. Vanessa Hudgens is a gem and the rest of the ensemble all got moments to shine. There’s so much more they can work with within the ensemble as the series goes on, and I have faith they can keep it fresh. I’m excited for midseason.
Jen K.: Adored it. So funny. So charming. Vanessa Hudgens is a delight. Her comedic delivery is on point, but she doesn’t lose that sweetness that made audiences fall in love with her. It’s sort of Community meets The Office. Who knew Alan Tudyk could play a hilarious villain so well? What I sincerely love is that in this glut of superhero shows, Powerless bring something NEW to the table. It’s a fresh perspective and a very funny one at that.
WAS THERE ANYTHING YOU DIDN’T LIKE ABOUT THE PILOT OR THAT YOU THINK COULD BE IMPROVED AS THE SHOW PROGRESSES?
Jenn: Honestly I think just sustaining the balance between superhero show and workplace comedy will be interesting since it hasn’t been done before. So for the writers to be able to strike that balance will be necessary.
Maddie: I really think Powerless’ biggest challenge will just be to keep up the good work. When a show has a pilot this solid, it sets a very high standard for the rest of the show to reach.
Chelsea: The pilot was very strong and I hope they can keep that momentum and energy the rest of the season. I have no complaints about this show.
Jen K.: I’m with Jenn. Balance is key. Honestly, the pilot was so flawless it makes me worried they have nowhere to go but down. Hopefully, as Chelsea said, they can keep the momentum going.
WE ALSO SCREENED A TBS COMEDY CALLED PEOPLE OF EARTH. THE TONE WAS A LOT DIFFERENT FROM POWERLESS. DID YOU LIKE IT MORE? LESS?
Jenn: Eh. It was okay I guess. I didn’t find it funny though (which seems problematic), and I don’t really like the main character. The actor is good, but he’s not great and he had to carry so much of the pilot. The episode also felt really long, I think in part because the show tended to linger on scenes and moments that didn’t need it. I’m not expecting much from People of Earth, which is sad because of my love for Greg Daniels. I just couldn’t get into it or find it funny. (It’s like the Carrells and Angie Tribeca for me all over again! Curses!)
Maddie: Overall, I am relatively ambivalent to this pilot. There were some funny lines here and there but not enough to make me want to continue watching. The only time I really enjoyed myself was whenever Da'Vine Joy Randolph was on screen, and that just made me miss Selfie again.
Chelsea: The show was really just fine. It had some funny jokes and a cute premise but I think the main character was my least favorite part. It has a strong ensemble of actors but I wish the pilot had actually used them. Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Ana Gasteyer, and Luka Jones are just a few of the fun personalities featured, with Jones being the heart of this show. It wasn’t terrible but I don’t think I’ll continue watching it.
Jen K.: I was pretty bored. Aliens aren’t really my thing, so I may have come into it with a bit of prejudice, but truthfully it wasn’t all that funny. I’m tapping out on this show.
THERE IS A LOT MORE TO TIME AFTER TIME THAN TWO ATTRACTIVE BRITISH MEN. WHAT MAKES THIS SHOW ABOUT TIME TRAVEL STAND OUT TO YOU?
Jenn: I think that it’s an interesting time travel show because it focuses on time-traveling from the past into the present instead of present-day characters bouncing around through time and space. And what’s interesting too is that it’s not just about characters from other eras but historical figures from other eras. I’m just curious to see whether or not this will become more like a procedural or not. (I also did not realize that this show was based on the movie because apparently I live under a rock.) And if you’re a fan of Freddie Stroma, you’ll absolutely love him in this show. There is a scene in the pilot that is just like, a knife twist because you expect H.G. Wells to really embrace and love this new world that he's in — and he does, in a lot of ways. But then he sees television screens of all of the terrorism and violence and horror in the world and Freddie Stroma just takes that scene and rips your heart out with it. His performance and chemistry with Genesis Rodriguez are what really sold the pilot for me.
Maddie: My enthusiasm for this show is no secret to anyone who has been following me on Twitter in the past couple of weeks. Kevin Williamson and Marcos Siega have crafted a wonderful story and I am ready for the wild ride they are going to take us on. However, what makes this show truly stand out is that amidst the fantastic premise, thrills, and suspense, there is an emotional core to this story. The characters are well-crafted and I want to know more about each of the three leads — both as individuals and their dynamics with each other.
Chelsea: Despite its flaws that I talk about below, it was a really engaging show. They kept the time-travel fairly contained to a few points in time, and I hope they keep it like that. I don’t want to see a Doctor Who-esque program. Freddie Stroma and Genesis Rodriguez have a great chemistry that is set up to be romantic, and it didn’t feel too forced. I hope they continue to focus more on their characters and fleshing them out.
Jen K.: I had extremely low expectations for this show. Time travel? With H.G. Wells and Jack the Ripper? Really? But I was pleasantly surprised. What I enjoyed is that they didn’t play with the time travel too much. And by that I mean that they didn’t bounce around throughout different eras. Once H.G. Wells hit the present day, he stayed there for the most part. Same with Jack the Ripper. So it really became about these two historical figures sorting out who they are in a time and place that is foreign to them. It was very Outlander, only... the opposite.
Freddie Stroma has a natural charisma that pulls you in. It’s an almost boyish charm, and yet, he’s incredibly brilliant so the dichotomy between the two men really works. I found Wells’ respect for human life contrasted with Jack’s complete disregard for it a really nice theme to play against for a hero and a villain. To be honest, I was even more impressed with Josh Bowman than I was with Freddie Stroma. Bowman’s interpretation of Jack the Ripper is fresh and chilling. It’s a Ted Bundy take. He uses his charm and good looks to seduce women and then... he just flips a switch and is completely devoid of humanity.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE PILOT’S WEAKNESSES?
Jenn: I think that sustaining the premise because I’m not sure right now what the central motivation of the show will be. Will it become Sleepy Hollow-esque in that H.G. Wells time-travels and then spends the show figuring out how to navigate the modern era? Or will it be a whole series about chasing Jack the Ripper down throughout time and space? I think if it’s the latter, there might be problems sustaining the premise. It will lend itself to problems just like Legends of Tomorrow had this year — you can only avoid catching someone for so long before it becomes unbelievable.
But the creators did note that there will be changes to the pilot when it airs midseason so I’m wondering if that means casting changes or plot-based ones and how big those changes will be.
Maddie: Honestly, I am very curious as to what changes are going to made to the pilot we saw versus the one that will air in midseason. I’m too in love with this pilot to find any flaws at this time.
Chelsea: It was pretty good but it could be better. The show really needed more time to balance getting to know the characters and setting up the series. Of all the shows that would have benefited from an extended pilot, this was the one that needed it most. The writers had a lot to cover setting up the past and present settings, while also building characters. The actors bring a lot to this fish-out-of-water drama, and I will give this show a chance to see where they take things. It helps that these are based on historical characters and we have that common knowledge background going into the show.
Jen K.: The time travel aspect could get... sticky. It could lead to some silliness and camp which isn’t necessary in a show about one of the most prolific serial killers in history. I think the idea is to chase Jack across time, but I’d much prefer the show to stick with one specific time period. I want the writers to allow the characters to really dig into their environment instead of re-setting the stage every week in a new era.
HOW DOES FREQUENCY STACK UP AGAINST THE MOVIE (IF YOU SAW IT)? DID YOU LIKE IT MORE OR LESS?
Jenn: I’ve honestly never seen the movie. I’ll be frank — this was the last pilot that we screened, it was late, and I was getting tired. So I was kind of expecting to not enjoy or focus on what was happening simply because of that. But I was seriously engrossed in Frequency. Like, every minute of the pilot, for the most part, had something interesting or important happening in it. So seeing the film is not a prerequisite for watching the show (much like Limitless last year).
Maddie: I have not seen the movie. So I do enjoy that I got to simply enjoy the show for what it is, and not have any preconceived notions about it.
Chelsea: I’ve heard of the movie and my dad insists I’ve seen it with him, but I have no memory of it. I’m glad I didn’t because I know there were some changes and I didn’t want that previous knowledge influencing my enjoyment of the series.
Jen K.: I saw the movie and adored it. It’s one of my favorites. It’s difficult to choose actually, which I prefer because the television show makes the extremely wise choice to differentiate itself from the movie in significant ways. However, they do not lose the heart and spirit of what Frequency is about. So it’s a fresh take, but it still packs the same emotional punch.
The television show has the luxury of time as well, so it’s able to explore some themes (such as the consequences of changing the past) in a way that the movie was unable to. Where Jim Caviezel goes, so goes my nation, but Peyton List is pretty fantastic. It’s a tie at this point, but the show could be better if they play their cards right.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE COMPONENTS THAT COULD MAKE FREQUENCY A HIT SERIES?
Jenn: Without a doubt, it’ll be Raimy and her relationships with other people (including the core one with her dad). Peyton List does some great work in the pilot episode and I think that what the EPs said when I interviewed them was true: this show is a time-travel show, in a lot of ways, but it’s grounded first and foremost in the character relationships. The pilot performance by Riley Smith was also incredible and you can tell that he and Peyton really get one another and are in sync with their performances (they've been scene partners for a decade!). That’s what will make Frequency stand out among the rest of the time-travel-esque/procedural dramas out there this year.
Maddie: The core of this show is going to be Peyton List and Riley Smith’s performances, and their ability to have such a strong and captivating bond with each while not actually sharing scenes in the same space.
Chelsea: They had me from start to finish on the edge of my seat. I like that time in this show is parallel in ways, versus straight time-travel — that changes in the past really do have an impact on the future. The father/daughter relationship between Peyton List and Riley Smith really grounds this pilot and the mystery is threaded so well into their relationship and the time-travel that it makes you anxious for more.
Jen K.: The core of Frequency — both movie and television show — is the relationship between parent and child. The point of the story is the bond between parent and child is one that neither time, nor space... nor even a little death can break. On the surface, the premise is pretty fantastical, but Petyon List and Riley Smith ground in reality with their powerful performances. Their chemistry and emotional connection has to reach across the past and future, and these two actors are able to do so nearly flawlessly.
The other aspect that I think Frequency is going to explore is the consequences of messing with the past. My hope is that they don’t tie everything in a neat bow like the movie did. Making Frank and Raimy’s lives extremely messy based on choices they made, with very little thought for the consequences, has the potential to bring about some great drama. It also has the opportunity to open the door to all the “what if?” questions that haunt us as humans.
CONVERSELY, WHAT ABOUT THE SHOW MIGHT LEND IT TO PROBLEMS DOWN THE ROAD?
Jenn: Timelines are always REALLY hard to write about, and I fear the show might get bogged down in the whole convoluted notion of messing with time. And after talking to the creators — who expressed that their show is a bunch of different shows mixed into one (a time travel show, a cop drama, etc.) — I’m hopeful but a bit nervous. Whenever shows try to be multiple genres at once, it rarely works in a really cohesive manner. I’m hoping that this show will be the exception to it.
Maddie: This show could get very complicated and convoluted in terms of story very quickly. The writers have their work cut own for them to keep the storylines easy enough to follow for the casual television viewer.
Chelsea: It’ll be hard keeping this a cohesive show when you’re playing with time so much, but if they continue to keep the show contained and simple, then they shouldn’t have too many problems.
Jen K.: I’m with the other ladies here. Time travel gets messy. The writers better have a diagram in their room to keep track of what they’ve changed in the past and how that impacts the future. Because the minute the writers start taking short cuts or ignoring the potential repercussions, the show is going to lose credibility. Once that happens, the audience may be too annoyed to really focus on the emotional component.
IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE YOU’D LIKE TO ADD?
Jenn: I was surprised at how much we really enjoyed the shows, even Riverdale. (That one mostly because we enjoyed making fun of it together.) This season definitely has a few promising gems and they all have potential to become something great. Powerless is still, by far, my favorite pilot though.
Maddie: With the exception of People of Earth, which just did not incite enough emotion in me to care about it, I am willing to give all of the other pilots a chance with my rule of not passing any final judgements until the third episode. Overall, I am now very excited for this upcoming season of television — even though I have to wait until midseason for most of these shows.
Chelsea: It was a great experience seeing these shows with a large crowd of people and seeing everyone else’s reactions and how they differed from my own. Frequency and Powerless were my favorites, I’ll give Time After Time a few more episodes, and I might snarkily watch Riverdale. I should mention that we saw two DC Comics cartoons that made me worry about what children are watching. They were more disturbing than the mess that was Riverdale.
Jenn: Chelsea makes a very accurate point about the cartoons. I left to use the restroom during Teen Titans Go! And 95% of Ballroom 20 did too. I have no idea what those cartoons are about, but I felt really weird watching them.
Jen K.: I had so much fun watching all of these shows with a big audience and my fellow Just About Write staffers. Truthfully, I had more fun snarking about Riverdale all weekend than I did watching the excellent other pilots, so even that show wasn’t a total loss. Frequency wins the pilot wars for me. Powerless comes in second. I never watch comedies, so I am pleasantly surprised to be adding Powerless to my fall TV list. Time after Time wins third place. (I’d also like to add one should never underestimate a show about two extremely attractive British men. It’s nice there’s more to it than that, but they had me at “Hello.”) I won’t be watching Riverdale or People of Earth.
And yes, Chelsea is right — those DC Cartoons were anything but cartoons.