Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Fall Pilots Part I: Sarah Connor Chronicles, Chuck, Pushing Daisies and More

This is my second blog. Not my second post. Just my second blog that I have ever really done. My first, a failed personal journal soon became just a way for me to post about TVs and Movies. As I have started to work more and more for DVDfanatic.com, I’ve realized that the only outlet I really want online is a place to express my thoughts about TV, Film, Movies and home entertainment. This is now that place.

Rather than comment on the Emmys (I’ll just say “Boston Legal?!”) or my love of Friday Night Lights and The West Wing, I’ve decided to look ahead. I’ve recently had the opportunity to watch the first couple of pilots for the fall season. While I hope to update and add my opinion on nearly all of the major network pilots, I have only been able to see five thus far.

The first pilot I was able to get my hands on is the delightful Aliens in America. No, Aliens do not come down to earth and invade the good ole US of A. AiA tells the story of Justin Tolchuk (Dan Byrd) and his miserable existence as a social outcast in high school. With an overbearing mother (Amy Pietz) and a lackadaisical father (Patrick Breen) always happy with a few quick bucks, all seems lost for Justin. Lonely and ridiculed, Justin’s mother springs into action and decides to take on an international exchange student. A built in friend for our protagonist, this exchange student from London is sure to be the most talked about and accepted individual in school.
When the exchange student arrives, The Tolchuk’s are in for a rude awakening. Their exchange student does come via London, but he originates from Pakistan. Raja (Adhir Kalyan) may be an ideal student, but in Medora, Wisconsin the only thing people can connect him with are those who committed the attack on America. Eventually, the despair Justin feels over the loss at his chance at being apart of the cool crowd is changed as he connects with Raja and develops his first true friendship.
Hysterically sharp, particularly in its satire, Aliens in America is more than I expect from a CW comedy. Single camera and similar in tone to Everybody Hates Chris, this show feels like a more grounded version of Arrested Development. A show to keep an eye on, this could develop into a genius comedy or get lost in the shuffle. My guess, CW does not let it grow and pulls the plug shortly into the season.
Just one note: the version of the pilot I saw included Patrick Breen as the father. He has been replaced with Gilmore Girl mainstay Scott Patterson. This is an unnecessary casting change that does little to hinder or help the show.

I followed up Aliens in America with another popular fall show amongst TV critics Reaper. Kevin Smith directed this quirky, amusing and fun pilot. Although this show is not going to shake the landscape of television, it is charming enough that it could develop into a really solid series. Like the NBC pilot Chuck, CW’s Reaper shows that it is not taboo to base one’s show around nerds thrust into impossible situations.
Sam (Bret Harrison) is the definition of slacker. An semi-intelligent individual with no drive, Sam has always had it easy. His parents let him get by, never pressuring him to do much or reach for lofty goals. Skipping college and working in a Wal-mart like store, Sam does little more than eat, sleep, work and play video games. That is until he turns 21.
On his birthday, Sam’s parents inform him that in order to save his father’s life when they first got married, they were forced to make a deal with Satan. Promising the soul of their first born, Sam’s parents felt guilty his whole life leading them to go easy on him and let him end up where he is. In a state of shock and denial, Sam does not accept his bizarre fate until confronted by Satan himself (A perfectly cast Ray Wise). Charming except for sudden bursts of temper, Sam soon finds out that the job the devil has for him is one that will require help and skill. Employed as a Bounty Hunter for the Undead, Sam must capture the souls of those escaped from Hell and put an end to their madness on Earth. Along with his best friends Sock (the great Tyler Labine) and Ben (Rick Gonzalez), Sam is now a representative of Hell, on Earth.
Amusing and full of great promise, Reaper feels a bit awkward. Perhaps it is the pacing, or the mere essence that this is a pilot, but the show has not quite figured out the direction it wants to go in. A perfect fit for the CW, Reaper is something that I will certainly keep on my radar and will probably follow when the Fall season hits. It has a lot of promise and such a perfect cast that I want to see more of this diamond in the rough.
Again, there is another casting note: Nikki Reed who plays the unattainable girl of Sam’s dreams has been recast with Missy Peregrym, most recently of Heroes. While I have been a fan of Nikki Reed since Thirteen and felt that she did a fine job in the pilot, I don’t know if the chemistry was there between she and Bret Harrison. I’m cautiously accepting of this casting change.


Next up is the show that everyone has been calling the best new series this fall. I am going to have to politefully disagree. Pushing Daisies is good. Don’t get me wrong. In fact, there are moments of genius in its pilot that make me drop my jaw in awe. The visuals are stunning, the scope very filmic in nature. Written by Bryan Fuller of Heroes and directed by Barry Sonnenfeld of Men in Black fame, Pushing Daisies carries over the tone and style of a Jean-Pierre Jeneut film to the small screen. There is the omniscient, erudite narrator, the bright colorful pallete and the unique camera angles that all make this feel as if Amelie’s tone has been successfully adapted to television.
And yet, for some reason, the show just does not click for me. The directing is top notch, the acting strong and the writing witty, but for some reason, something felt off about this critically hailed pilot. I think the problem is that it is just too sweet. Where Jeneut’s films have an air of grief and sadness tugging at each heartfelt moment, Pushing Daisies seems to embrace its quirky nature and never truly explore the sadder moments. Deaths, although effective, do not fully receive the emotional impact that I craved. Neither does the plot of the episode which comes across as secondary to this well crafted and visualized world and its characters.
The story is pretty straightforward for this high concept series. Ned (Lee Pace) is a pie maker with a special gift. Given the ability to bring the dead back to life, Ned has learned the hard way that there are two problems with his power. Firstly, the dead can only remain alive as long as he does not touch them ever again. Secondly, if Ned does not touch a resurrected individual within sixty seconds, a person in close proximity must die in exchange. While the first part of the pilot focuses on Ned’s present situation which includes a fellow Pie baker Olive, (Kristin Chenoweth) who suspects something is odd about Ned, and Emerson Cod, a private detective (Chi McBride) and business partner of the lead character.
The story soon shifts gears when Ned discovers that his childhood love Charlotte “Chuck” Charles (Anna Friel) has been murdered. Hired to find her killer, Ned wakes her up to ask her who committed the act, only to find himself unable to send her back to eternal slumber. Soon the trio of Ned, Chuck and Emerson go about finding her killer and unraveling a string of other murders.
As I said, Pushing Daisies is charming and really well constructed, but there is something slightly off about it. I’m sure that many will enjoy it and I hope that the show does succeed as it displays the great things television is capable of. Still, I have my reservations about the series. While I’ll give it a chance to grow on me, this may be something that is just too sweet for my liking.

Next up Chuck. Highly promoted and hotly anticipated, this follow-up from OC creator Josh Schwartz is one fun hour of television. Well, its more like 42 minutes, but you know what I mean. Entertaining and slick, Chuck is one of the best pilots I have seen thus far this year. While I still have not found something that has matched Heroes, Studio 60, Traveler, Friday Night Lights, Knights of Prosperity or The Black Donnellys premiere episodes, Chuck is one of the better ones.
I never watched the OC nor did I have a desire to, but by all accounts, Chuck carries over the geek chic style that Schwartz established with that show. Centering around, sure enough, Chuck, this action comedy is a great fit with Heroes on NBC’s fall line-up. Directed by McG, the pilot is the perfect set-up for a series with great hit potential. If there is any one show that I expect to break out this year and become a bona-fide hit, Chuck would be my pick. Filled with great humor, perfect action and a fresh plot, this pilot is one appetite-wetting thrill ride.
Charles Bartowski (Zachary Levi) is a complete nerd. With best friend Morgan (Joshua Gomez) Chuck patrols the halls of the local Buy More as a member of the Nerd Herd. Complete with company car and a great discount, Chuck is in geek heaven.
On the eve of his birthday, Chuck’s med school sister Ellie (Sarah Lancaster) tries to get him out of his comfort zone, arranging a party with her attractive friends. Freaked out and over come with stress from the party, Chuck hides in his room where he receives an email from his old college roommate. Little does he know that the email contains all the secrets of the entire Nation’s database. Opening the email, Chuck’s mind is overloaded with every piece of U.S. intel and soon becomes a living computer. Hunted by both the CIA’s Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strzechowski) and the NSA’s Major John Casey (Adam Baldwin), Chuck soon gets wrapped up in international espionage, government security and federal protection.
A lot of fun, this is one show that all show take a look at. While some may not enjoy its comedy or its action, many will grab hold and find themselves incredibly satisfied.

Finally, we get to my favorite pilot I have watched thus far. From surefire hit TV director David Nutter comes The Sarah Connor Chronicles (AKA Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles). Premiering in January on Fox, this fifty minute pilot feels like a logical and well orchestrated connection to the epic Terminator series. Disregarding T3: Rise of the Machines, TSCC takes off two years after the conclusion of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, in the year 1999. Sarah (300’s Lena Headley) is living off the grid, frequently moving she and John (Thomas Dekker, Heroes) from place to place. Picking up as Sarah has just accepted a proposal, the show soon spirals into the action oriented chaos that we have come to enjoy from The Terminator series.
After escaping from this life, Sarah and John take refugee in an isolated New Mexico town with a small school and even smaller population. Unfortunately that is not enough to stop the terminator that has been sent on their trail. An unidentifiable model (Owain Yeoman) that goes by Cromartie, Sarah and John soon find out that there is little that they can hide from. Despite apparently destroying Skynet, the two discover that the destructive program that leads to robots uprising and conquering man still formed, albeit on a delayed schedule. Their source of this information: Cameron (Summer Glau, Firefly/Serenity). Another terminator sent to protect John Connor, Cameron is the guide to our lost heroes. Setting the rest of the series in motion, it is she that helps them elude capture from both the FBI agent James Ellison (Richard T. Jones) and Cromartie.
There are a lot of explosions, bullets holes and household destruction that goes along with this program. Drawing a lot from the films’ styles of action and bags of tricks, there are voice gags, wall-busting brawls and special effects galore. Yet, don’t watch The Sarah Connor Chronicles expect a reimagining. This show is a true to spirit continuation of The Terminator mythology. Unlike Battlestar Galatica, the only thing different about this show from its source material are the lead actors. Although Headey and Dekker take some getting used to, by the time the episode comes to an end, they are more than acceptable to stand in for Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong. Even Summer Glau is welcome as the interesting heroic terminator. Her performance is nicely layered, revealing a tender, almost human spirit within the body of this machine.
Oh, and yes, the iconic music of the films does show up. First it is slowly incorporated by composer Bear McCreary before finally arriving with all of its heartpounding intensity at the conclusion of the show.
One hell of a thrill ride, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is nonstop action. This is the closest that anyone could have come to capturing the film on screen. Although it may be hard to keep this up on a weekly basis, I am very excited to see where the show goes. I am already itching to get my hands on the second episode of this series but for now I guess rewatching the pilot will have to do.
Although it may not appeal to Terminator fans, there are enough out there that this could be a solid sci-fi series for Fox. I sure hope the show does well just so that I can get my weekly dose of mayhem, explosion and balls to the wall action.

So that has been my first blog post. Feedback and comments are requested.

Tonight on TV keep an eye out for : Rescue Me and Top Chef. Also, if you have not done so, check out the pilot of Damages from FX, a top notch legal-based thriller featuring Glenn Close.

Coming up soon expect a review of the first couple episodes of the upcoming season of Weeds, my thoughts on Showtime’s Californication and more pilot coverage, including The Bionic Woman.

Thanks for reading.

-Eric