Three pilots and a remake

When it comes to TV, I don’t tend to be an early adopter. Even if a new show piques my interest, I prefer to hold off until it’s got at least half a season under its belt.

This is because it takes me several episodes to figure out if I want to commit or not – TV love at first sight for me is as rare as TV hate at first sight is common – and because, should I become enamoured, I don’t want to experience the sense of loss that sudden cancellation would bring. I am also wary of tempting frustration… I stopped watching Lost halfway through its second season because I began to doubt it would ever answer even half of the questions it raised. (And judging by the chatter surrounding the finale, I remain confident I made the right decision.)

However, as most of my favourite ongoing programs are still on hiatus, and I’ve yet to delve into a new box-set post-Quantum Leap (Carnivale doesn’t really count as I’m watching it slowly, via Lovefilm), I decided to throw caution to the wind and sample a few midseason replacement pilots.

First up was Matt LeBlanc-vehicle Episodes, in which a British screen-writing couple (Green Wing‘s Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig) travel to Hollywood to remake Lyman’s Boys, their multi-Bafta-winning comedy set in a posh all-boys’ school – with disastrous results, thanks to being forced to cast the Friends star as the titular headmaster-cum-hockey-coach.

The premise seemed to have great potential for self-referential satire and industry insight,  much like Extras, The TV Set and the rare episode of Entourage.

While I have nothing against remakes in principle, US TV remakes usually seem so calculated, and, more often than not, are so poorly executed (see: Absolutely Fabulous, Kath & Kim). You can’t just take a tried-and-tested formula that works in one cultural context and tweak it for another without losing a lot of what made the original so great. Great remakes are possible (actual examples are failing me – I’ve never properly watched The Office US, maybe that?), but they’re probably just as hard to pull off as a completely new concept, not least because there will be inevitable comparisons and immediate naysayers. (Like me!)

I was also intrigued by the combination of Mangan, Greig and LeBlanc. I enjoyed quirky hospital comedy Green Wing, and although Joey was atrocious, I’ve always had a soft spot for the affable Italian stallion-turned-silver-fox. (Where’s my Lost in Space sequel, cruel Hollywood honchos?) Plus Friends David Crane is co-creator, which should mean writing of reliable quality and humour, right?

Wrong. The episode was 30 minutes, and felt far longer, without really going anywhere. It seemed like an elaborate prelude to the real first episode – all set-up and no pay-off.

Mangan and Greig clashed horribly with the glossy LA backdrop, and came across as hopelessly naive. They were apparently stunned to learn that the US TV execs wanted a say in who would headline the show, and wouldn’t simply greenlight the pair reusing the first Lyman (Harry Potter‘s Richard Griffiths). I don’t think I was meant to align myself with the US execs, but after cringing through Griffiths’ paedophiliac reading (and that was before he tried American accents), they seemed perfectly rational, and polite to boot.

Worst of all, LeBlanc was barely in it! Besides crashing into Greig’s character at the beginning, he only popped up in the teasers for the next episode. TWOP said he was the best thing about the show, which lead me to believe I’d get at least a few moments of amusement. Sigh.

As far as I can tell, Episodes is only meant to span seven episodes… but I can’t see how they’ll sustain even that few, with such tortoise-pacing and so little funny. And I won’t either. Let’s hope LeBlanc finds a better TV gig soon.

So with my expectations suitably lowered (by Episodes and the sparkless, similarly-themed No Ordinary Family) I decided to check out new superhero drama The Cape. All I knew was that it was about a guy who wore a cape that wrapped itself around things. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be KickAss tongue-in-cheek or Smallville/Heroes earnest.

Actually it was a bit of both, in a more good than bad way.

It’s set in the fictional metropolis of Palm City. Good cop Vince Faraday (David Lyons) seems a dying breed, but remains convinced that one man can change the world for the better. After yet another one of his force is outed as corrupt by mysterious blogger Orwell (so so clever, ay?) and he witnesses the brutal murder of the new police chief by the villainous and masked Chess, he decides to work for Peter Fleming’s (James Frain) private security firm. Because he “just wants to be a cop”, whoever he’s working for, as he informs his loving wife Dana (Jennifer Ferrin, White Collar) and son Trip (Ryan Wynott).

But all is not as it seems. Following a tip from Orwell, he discovers the identity of the man behind Chess’ mask, and that he has been chosen to take the fall for the latter’s crimes. After a high-speed chase, he is assumed dead. He is “rescued” by Max Malini (Keith David), the ringleader of the Carnival of Crime. After helping Max rob banks, he decides to take things further and become “The Cape”, a comic book hero his son idolises. His ultimate goal is to be reunited with his family – and bring Chess down.

I rathered enjoyed the two-hour pilot. Although far from original (it’s like every superhero film/TV series you’ve ever seen, blended together), it’s cinematic and fast-paced. Lyons is nice to look at, reminiscent in both appearance and performance as Jensen Ackles.

He’s definitely the straight man of the show, but you can tell Faraday knows how silly he is sometimes. As do most of the characters. They’re not playing for laughs, but every now and then, they take a look at themselves and acknowledge the melodrama of it all. Like when Malini thinks he’s dying and attempt to spout some wisdom pearls… they are aware of the cliches and play with them from time to time.

Frain is well-cast as Fleming. He was just made for creepy roles. (Can you believe that he was Natalie Portman’s love interest in Where the Heart Is? That girl cannot catch a romantic break: Darth Vader, Zach Braff, Vincent Cassel…) Although I doubt his corrupt billionaire can be more amusing than Frain’s fatally attracted turn as Franklin Mott in True Blood. I’d sure like to see him try.

Best of all, The Cape has Summer Glau! She may be a showkiller (Firefly, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Dollhouse), but she always rocks in these nerdfests. I won’t say more about her role, as it’s a tad less obvious than the Chess-reveal, and spoilerhaters would probably wring my neck.

On the downside, there’s weird tinkly music and soft-focus whenever Faraday is with Trip. I’m not really digging the sappy father-son dynamic, which may prove problematic as it’s the main motivation behind Faraday’s heroism. Some of the lines are just too cheesy to be rescued by any level of selfawareness. And maybe it won’t be able to transcend its many derivations.

So I’m not yet sure if I like it enough to commit… but I think I’ll watch a few more episodes. Still, I suspect it’s going to be cancelled, and not just because Glau is in it.

I had similar reservations about new Shonda Rimes (Grey’s Anatomy) medical drama Off the Map. I’ve only recently begun to like Grey’s Anatomy again, most likely due to the refreshing absence of Katherine Heigl, but I liked the Doctors-Without-Borders-esque premise, the rainforest setting, and the fact Wonderfalls‘ Caroline Dhavernas had the Meredith Grey role.  She’s severely underrated.

Sadly, my low expectations were too high. Dhavernas is miscast as the girl scout-like doctor with a dead fiance – perhaps I just loved her as a misanthrope way too much. (I probably love all TV misanthropes way too much, it’s like having Miss Thropist in all kinds of flavours).

All the other characters are similarly irritating, particularly Valerie Cruz as a Latina doctor who disdains non-Spanish-speaking Americanos and isn’t afraid to rant about it endlessly. (Although, would it have killed them to enrol the new batch of docs in a Spanish course before they went to South America? Or choose ones that had some linguistic ability already? I guess if they had they wouldn’t have been able to have plots contingent on tedious miscommunication.)

So I have nothing else to say about Off the Map except it’s now Off My Radar and Off My TV. Sorry Caroline – I hope you get cast in something more worthy of your big baby blues soon.

Finally, I turned my attention to a pilot for which I had least expectations – the very thing “satirised” in Episodes. A US remake of a hit British show: Shameless, which is about the irresponsible patriarch of a six-strong brood that take care of themselves, with the setting moved from a Mancunian council estate to the “projects” of Chicago.

Although I adored the first generation of Skins, which is from the same makers, I’ve never been in the least interested in watching Shameless. I imagined it as something like The Royle Family crossed with Eastenders – I’m not a fan of watching unattractive people in unattractive settings with hopeless lives. It’s not that I’m a snob, but that I watch TV (and films) to escape, not watch people who have a (realistically) worse time of it than I do.

But I thought, what the hell? Thanks to insomnia, I had an hour to kill. And what a way to kill it. I was enthralled from start to finish, thanks to compelling performances by pretty much every single person on the show and fantastic storytelling.

William H Macy’s drunken single father Frank Gallagher is a joy to watch. Emmy Rossum’s Fiona, Frank’s eldest daughter and the family’s de-facto mum, is deliciously downtrodden. I liked brainy but naughty Philip “Lip” Gallagher best of all – Jeremy Allen White is like Aaron Johnson’s (KickAss) less polished little brother. I even liked Justin Chatwin as Fiona’s would-be beau Steve, which was the biggest surprise of all.

I can’t wait for the next episode, and am certain it’s going to be part of my personal Must See TV schedule for 2011.

I’m sure I would be gushing much less if I’d seen the original. But the fact of this remake and its excellent execution has succeeded where multi-Baftas, the inclusion of James McAvoy, ubiquituous media coverage and friends’ recommendations have failed – convinced me to watch the British version. And that has to be worth something. Well played, Showtime. It almost makes up for the travesty that is Episodes (also on Showtime). Almost.

I guess wanting to see more of two out of four shows isn’t too bad for pilot season. (Although it is bad for the likely detrimental effect on my productivity.) What new shows will you be seeing in 2011?

3 thoughts on “Three pilots and a remake

  1. Episodes was AWFUL. The best thing about it is that it lowers expectations for other shows’ performances exponentially! Even having Matt Le Blanc in every single scene wouldn’t have saved it.

    The Cape sounds interesting- I didn’t know that Summer Glau had a new show. And it’s a pity that Caroline Dhavernas’ new role had to be so lame, I love TV misanthropes too. Must be the narcissism.

    The remake of Shameless sounds hopeful (especially the William H Macy), like you I was never drawn to watching the original. FYI, there’s been quite a lot of US remake convo on the @SyFy twitter because of their remake of Being Human. I’m actually quite intrigued by it because I didn’t like the original British version much although I do like the concept. The original pilot (before the recast) was darker and more interesting- I’m hoping the US version follows that tack.

  2. I guess, by watching these new shows, I got to see quite a lot of people I have a soft spot for do their thang. Even if their thang wasn’t particularly entertaining.

    I’m quite intriged by the remake of Being Human too! I watched like half of the first episode… but it didn’t sustain my interest.

  3. Pingback: Skinny-dipping: tales in two cities « Pop Culture Playpen

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