Original Airdate: May 28th, 2015 on FOX
Hey look, I’m reviewing a show from this century! The executive producer of Wayward Pines is M. Night Shyamalan, which is somewhat ominous considering the quality of his last eight movies, but thankfully he didn’t write any of the episodes. Pines is based on a trilogy of novels by Blake Crouch. This appears to be one of those situations where the entire enterprise was meant to be contained in the first 10-episode season, but the show evidently did well enough in the ratings to merit a second season despite the fact that they’ve run out of novels to adapt. (Game Of Thrones syndrome?)
- Intriguing. Pines owes a suspiciously large amount to Lost and Twin Peaks, and while it manages to set itself apart during its later episodes, the burden of derivativeness looms large over the first few. Anything operating out of the Lost playbook risks suffering from the same ill that plagued that show–lots of mysterious things that promise an interesting story dangled in front of you without any payoff. Thankfully, Pines overcomes this potential flaw and by the fifth episode we’ve got a pretty solid idea of what’s going on without having sacrificed any suspense. In the meantime, the intrigue of the decidedly weird town of Wayward Pines is delectable. Agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon, There’s Something About Mary) travels to the secluded Idaho hamlet on an investigation for the Secret Service, but when he tries to leave he discovers that all the roads out of town circle back around. He sets off into the forest, only to find a giant electric fence with a sign warning him to return to Wayward Pines, and that “beyond this point you will die.” He even realizes that there are tiny speakers planted everywhere outdoors to simulate cricket song. Part of the reason mysteries and science fiction have proved themselves to be such enduring genres is that humans have a natural curiosity. If you present us with a set of unusual circumstances, we want to know what’s going on. Even if the explanation is ultimately unsatisfying, the very wonder of the intrigue itself is a pleasant sensation. Problems only arise when you try and prolong it indefinitely.
- Creepy. Pines starts as a mystery and is eventually revealed to be full-blown science fiction, but it consistently offers the rewards of horror fiction. Imagine finding yourself trapped in a town that looks perfectly normal on the outside but which operates on a set of unknown principles, controlled by unknown actors. The consequences of trying to escape are dire: episode 2 ends with a brutal public execution. There’s also plenty of more traditional horror film elements–in this episode, Ethan finds his way into a mysterious storage facility. He’s searching the interior of a car when he’s abruptly interrupted by someone smashing through the window with a syringe full of sedatives. That’s right, a good old fashioned jump scare. Hell, at the end of the episode we get our first glimpse of the hideous, carnivorous monsters that live outside the fence. Strong horror fiction often melds mundane fears with extreme consequences. Here, a fear of nonconformity or malicious nurses and cops gets parleyed into a violent, high-stakes environment. It’s very effective.
- Melissa Leo and Terrence Howard. Melissa Leo (The Fighter) and Terrence Howard (Empire) are good in everything, but they especially shine here as the banal faces of evil in Wayward Pines. Leo plays Pam, the nurse at the local hospital. When Ethan wakes up there after the car accident that brought him to Pines, she’s all benevolent smiles, and Leo masterfully manages the transition into creepy insistence that Ethan follow doctor’s orders and then into outright menace as she threatens to give Ethan the incorrect amount of anaesthesia, ensuring that he’ll wake up during brain surgery, unable to move but feeling every cut of the knife. As the first half of the series develops, her aura of veiled menace is pitch-perfect. Howard also displays excellent modulation as the smarmy yet intimidating Sheriff Pope. His character also starts out on the ambiguous side, but even after it’s revealed that, why yes, he DOES slit people’s throats in the town square, Howard’s performance remains captivating and the sheriff seems entirely real–and entirely unpredictable.
- Raising the stakes. So resolving the mysteries at hand and having Ethan escape the trap of Wayward Pines would give the show plenty of material. By the end of episode 3, the viewer is operating under the assumption that the real world is just on the other side of the fence. It’s tantalizingly close but hopelessly inaccessible, and some unknown evil is controlling the denizens of the town. Then the show tosses us a curveball–Ethan gets the upper hand on Pope in a fight and kills him. After Pope’s been incapacitated but before Ethan finishes him off, Pope murmurs, “You think you want to know the truth, but you don’t. It’s worse than you could ever even imagine.” His claim is immediately proven true. Ethan uses Pope’s keys to open a gate on the fence–and a barely-glimpsed monster emerges to steal Pope’s corpse. I liked Pines quite a bit, but even if it had been terrible I would still have wanted to see Episode 4.
- Matt Dillon and Charlie Tahan. This show’s single biggest deficit is the gaping black hole where the personality of the main character should be. Dillon’s emotional range as Burke appears to have “stony” at one end and “slack-jawed” at the other. In the first three episodes, he discovers the dead body of one of his colleagues. He witnesses the execution of his erstwhile co-conspirator (Juliette Lewis, Natural Born Killers) after they botch an attempt to escape the town. He’s confronted with the news that his wife (Shannyn Sossamon, Sinister 2) and son (Tahan, Charlie St. Cloud) will also be trapped with him in Wayward Pines. Burke’s reaction? Just another day at the office! This is more of a detriment in any given episode the more heavy lifting that Dillon has to do, but it’s never a good look when your lead actor is lousy. Tahan’s performance as Ethan’s son Ben is one note played over and over again on a poorly tuned and possibly rusty saxophone, and that note is “sulky teenager.” But he’s a child actor. Matt Dillon is a 35-year Hollywood veteran. What’s his excuse?
Motivation: It’s a mix of knowledge (who makes the mysterious phone calls that tell the townspeople what to do?) and survival (Why is this weird, aggressive sheriff in my house all of a sudden?)
Final Judgment: 8/10. This was very good, if somewhat light. One wonders what they’re going to try in the hastily conceived second season. I’d also give an 8/10 to the season as a whole, though there are ups and downs.
NEXT TIME: I travel to a steampunk version of the 16th century as I review The Mysterious Cities Of Gold!
Original Airdate: November 8th, 2015 on TNT
Based on how often I saw it in press accounts, it would seem that Agent X billed itself to the media as “National Treasure meets The Bourne Identity.” It nails the Treasure tone but drifts rather far afield of the Bourne approach, which makes a spy fantasy seem realistic and plausible. It’s almost as if those two things, while superficially similar, should not have been combined. Agent also bears the inauspicious distinction of being the first show covered on this blog which premiered, had its entire run and was cancelled during the course of Oryx & Cake Boss’ four month existence. Let’s kick it while it’s down!
- Action-oriented thrills. Admittedly, Agent does cram most of this into the cold open and then gets steadily worse as the hour progresses, but there’s derring-do, close combat in elevators, gunplay, rooftop brawls, suspenseful battles atop precarious scaffolding and so forth. It’s good that Agent can supply these things, because otherwise it would have no reason to exist and we’d be in Olsen Twins territory.
- Ludicrous. I’d like to believe that Agent was holding out for camp value, but it’s hard to have campy fun while also embracing a solemn duty to protect the innocent American public from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Agent quotes this section of the Constitution, as well it should—the plot hinges on a heretofore unknown secret clause in Article Two wherein the Vice President oversees a high-powered field agent fighting against whatever trolls lurk under the bridges of democracy this week. This very silly premise infects otherwise solid areas of the show as well. In the first half hour, people nearly have their necks broken by someone twisting their legs around them in two separate scenes. The second instance is thanks to legally distinct Black Widow Olga Petrovka (Olga Fonda, Real Steel.) You see, Olga is a former circus contortionist (sounds legit) and when the FBI captures and interrogates her, for some reason they don’t use leg irons—on the famed contortionist—and soon she’s flipping herself over and wrapping her legs around her interrogator. Straight out of the pages of Ludlum, I tells ya!
- Sharon Stone. Agent introduces us to our first female Vice President. Natalie Maccabee (Stone, Basic Instinct) is an improvement on Sarah Palin but she’s a damn sight worse than Selina Meyer. She’s even worse than that grouchy Christian lady from Scandal. The problem here might be the material (I’m not sure anyone could make much hay of the direction to “have a dignified reaction to the discovery of a secret shrine to Democracy underneath the Vice President’s House”) but most of the looks that cross Stone’s face seem to suggest despair at the tattered remains of her career and not noble perseverance in the face of the FBI director’s daughter being—oh, I won’t even summarize this awful bullshit. Really, I should applaud Stone for not having some kind of personal crisis over her decision to co-produce this turd. I’d be truly surprised if at some point in 2015 she didn’t make a rueful remark about how she used to work with Scorsese.
- Reactionary. Look, I realize that it was a near inevitability that an action/espionage thriller would presuppose a government that unquestioningly takes it upon itself to act as an exceptionalist policeman to the world, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be disappointed. You see, Olga’s boss is international supercriminal
Carmen SandieNicolas Volker (Andrew Howard, Limitless.) Somehow, Volker is responsible for a nuclear accident in France, increased guerilla activity in Nigeria and the suicide of the Argentinian Prime Minister, all of which is America’s problem due to reasons. And how can America solve that problem? Only through extrajudicial means, of course! At least the eponymous Agent John Case (Jeff Hephner, Boss) refrains from torturing anyone, KEIFER.
Motivation: Knowledge, as Case is frantically trying to discover the location of the FBI director’s kidnapped daughter. Dammit TNT, you tricked me into plot summary.
Final Episode Judgment: 3/10. Agent X is perfect for the person in your life who has already watched every episode of 24 and also every action movie made in the last twenty years.
NEXT TIME: I cannot continue to ignore my duty to write about an endless stream of children’s superhero cartoons, so look forward to a review of the 1990s Iron Man animated series!
Original Airdate: October 20th, 2015 on CBS
In stark contrast to the aggressively obscure fare we usually discuss here, in the 2014-2015 TV season NCIS was the top rated network drama. It’s the lynchpin of an expanding TV empire—in addition to two successful spin-offs set in different cities in the grand tradition of CSI, NCIS itself was a spinoff of the hit show JAG. The show neatly illustrates a few things about ratings in today’s crowded landscape—last year NCIS pulled a top rating of 18.2 million viewers. It was only outpaced by NBC Sunday night football, which netted 20.8 million viewers, and the loathsome Big Bang Theory, which drew 19 million. In contrast, for our next installment we’ll take a look at an episode of the hastily cancelled VH1 scripted series Hindsight. The episode in question aired in February of this year and was viewed by 280,000 viewers. So there’s a big gap between the peaks and the valleys and the valleys can be awfully deep. But consider the following: in 1987, all 20 of the top shows on television were more highly rated than NCIS. Kate & Allie got 18.3 million. Astonishingly, Nothing In Common got 19.6 million. I’m struggling to believe that fact, but zap2it is the only source I can find on TV ratings from nearly 30 years ago for some strange reason. Nothing lasted 7 episodes. It was based on a rightfully forgotten Garry Marshall movie of the same name starring Tom Hanks and Jackie Gleason, of all people. NBC cancelled the show. Despite the fact that they had given it a plum spot in the lineup right after the superhit Cheers, it wasn’t getting enough of the audience to leave their TV on. This only makes sense when you realize that Cheers was being watched by 27.5 million people. And Cheers wasn’t even on the top of the pile! That would be The Cosby Show, which was being seen by nearly 35 million people a week.
There are valid reasons for this numbers gulf. The idea of tentpole, consensus watercooler TV has shattered into millions of fragments. Now there’s theoretically something for everyone and space for seemingly everything. Even Star Trek is getting a new series, and it’s on a heretofore unlikely source of new television—CBS’s subscription-based streaming service. (Of course, the creator is Alex Kurtzman, JJ Abrams’ accomplice in crimes against Trek in the form of the newest wave of movies, but I’m still holding out hope as long as Bad Robot’s not involved.) Much has changed in these 30 years. In 1987, The Good Wife would have seemed like pure science fiction and Bill Cosby seemed like the best father figure you could ever want. But for 2015, NCIS remains the top dog. Can 18 million NCIS fans be wrong?
- The bones of a solid mystery/thriller. Any given police procedural is going to live or die on the basic thing it’s bringing to the table—the plot. This episode does a reasonably good job of delivering. It presents a twisty, unpredictable mystery that goes in unexpected directions and gives our heroes a run for their money. It’s plausible but not cliche and complex but not impenetrable. Of course, it’s not perfect—the modern police procedural generally has little interest in adhering to the ten commandments attributed to Raymond Chandler and Ronald Knox on how to write a mystery. The main reason for this is that NCIS and its fellows like to toss staples from the thriller genre into the mix, which is fine. I’m about to means test Chandler’s fifth commandment: “It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.” The time has come. Our dead guy du jour is Naval Reserve Captain Jeremy Doblin, a biochemist. He’s been smuggling botulinum out of his secure lab, but just as the viewer is girding her loins for a bioterrorism plotline, we learn that Doblin’s been turning it into Botox and selling it to Latvian plastic surgery enthusiasts. It would seem that Doblin had made the unwise decision of capitalizing a potential real estate investment with money from a loan shark, one Nicky Jones (Nick Gomez, Looper.) But Jones didn’t kill him—how would he get his money back then? Here the mystery finally delves into the heart of the episode. Our beloved plucky goth forensic technician Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette) has decided to get out of her basement office rut and go on a “field trip” to the office of Celodyne Pharmaceuticals to try and figure out why Doblin’s corpse was playing host to the base molecule of a generic drug imported by Celodyne and inexplicably separated from its active ingredient. And I do mean inexplicable, because the show points out this bizarre fact and emphasizes how impossible it is and then doesn’t offer any explanation whatsoever. The logic of the mystery begins to unravel here as we get thrust into the thriller half of this story. Abby makes friends with a chemist at Celodyne named Dr. Janice Brown (Lucy Davis, 2001’s The Office.) While Abby & Janice are bonding, a janitorial sleeper cell is activated at Celodyne and an Ebola containment lockdown facilitates hostage taking and gunplay and it’s up to Abby to save the day and her own skin. When all’s said and done, it turns out that Brown, Doblin and gun-wielding psychopath Travis Cook (Robert Neary, General Hospital) were in cahoots on a plan to steal data from Celodyne indicating that the company was falsifying safety data in order to sell a generic medicine that didn’t work. Leaving aside the fact that they’d also have to falsify efficacy data and the fact that this drug is explicitly said to be imported, which means Celodyne doesn’t have any kind of control over the already existing data, the Brown/Cook/Doblin conspiracy really doesn’t make sense. Doblin supposedly had occasion to do tests on this drug—why this would fall to a Navy biochemist, I have no idea—and brought his inflammatory findings to Brown. Somehow, Doblin’s research wasn’t sufficient to expose Celodyne, and Brown needed protected data to blow the whistle. Brown hired Cook to get the data. So did he hack into Celodyne’s mainframe? Of course not! He got a job as a janitor, bided his time, created a false Ebola containment alert, whipped out the AK and took hostages, whom he then intended to murder in cold blood along with a woman he knew to be a federal agent, all so he could access the computers from the inside. This is an incredibly messy and high-exposure operation, and Brown is paying Cook by letting him “take whatever he want[s].” And why was Doblin murdered, and by whom? Cook killed Doblin because he was “getting cold feet.” Uh, of course. Still, the mystery/thriller Frankenstein manages to scratch both itches and squeak out a net positive. It’s legitimately intriguing and entertaining to piece together Doblin’s bizarre fate and to watch Abby’s derring-do in the field. Which brings me to…
- Pauley Perrette. Perrette stands out in a relatively lifeless cast here, which is only natural, since the episode is clearly meant to be a showcase for her. The script doesn’t actually give her much to work with and it ducks and feints away from many opportunities to tell her story in a more engaging way, but she acquits herself nicely here.
- Pushing back against conservative tendencies in crime narrative. There are long-standing arguments over the political nature of crime and detective fiction. It’s been said that the genre is inherently conservative. It’s about restoring order, frequently through state action. It’s about assigning individual moral culpability to social problems. Shows as diverse as Law & Order: SVU, The Shield and 24 tell us that excessive force is something to be shied away from—except it gets results, so god bless those violent men who sacrifice their souls in the name of keeping us safe. I’m sure over the course of a decade and dozens of writers, NCIS on the whole has taken a variety of political positions, but this episode seems to be intent on finding ways to challenge that argument. I didn’t mention this in my review of Major Crimes, but it’s another example of a procedural in 2015 pushing back against this idea. The Major episode features Captain Raydor telling a key witness agonizing over the illogic of being deported from the only home he’s ever known and only getting to stay because of his tangential involvement in a murder and exposure to organized drug crime in his home country to get his priorities straight—namely, by realizing that “murder is not a political issue. It is the ultimate betrayal of human rights.” There’s some resonance there. There’s less resonance to a similar moment in this episode of NCIS, mainly because it’s dumped in our lap in the form of a flat-footed, speechifying monologue from Abby about an experience she had watching a movie in 5th grade and getting a scolding from her teacher for cheering when the good guy shot the bad guy. “We don’t applaud killing, no matter who it is. If you take a life today, you failed yesterday,” she says. Even though this is awkwardly shoehorned in, it’s a welcome corrective to a tendency in crime fiction that led to a pulpy thriller I recently read in which the admittedly odious villain is caught by the hero detective—and then summarily executed by the “hero,” who stages the scene to make it look like justifiable self-defense. And we’re supposed to cheer for the true justice that’s been meted out, regardless of what the libs in the state senate think about capital punishment. It’s also a welcome corrective to a real-world political environment where law enforcement thinks they can murder people with impunity and is brazen enough to call for boycotts and protests against public figures who call them out on it. This episode also timidly puts forth a sympathetic character who engages in extralegal political activism. For most of the episode, we’re led to believe that Janice is Celodyne’s version of Abby—a quirky STEM genius consigned to a basement office who is passionate about the environment and I guess government transparency—but then it turns out, no, Janice is in league with the bad guys! She’s also got a record of other crimes committed in the name of activism—NCIS crimebro Tony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly) sneers about Janice’s record ramming whaling boats in the Sea of Japan and chaining herself to trees in the Amazon as if these were the stupidest things he’s ever heard. Abby defends Janice and gets her treated lightly, saying that Janice did “the right thing for the wrong reasons.” Because of Janice’s statement, Celodyne CEO Virginia Wilson (Seana Kofoed, Men In Trees) is also punished, proving that NCIS is committed to Chandler’s 9th commandment. Hell, even the texting driver (Ally Maki, Geography Club) who discovers Doblin’s body gets a ticket.
- Wildly unneccessary attempts at comedy. I don’t think it’s too outlandish to suggest that the reason NCIS is so popular is because its viewers like well-constructed, twisty mysteries and thrillers that keep them on the edge of their seats, wondering what’s going to happen next. I really hope no one is coming back to NCIS week after week because of the lulzy, broad attempts at comedy from a cast and a writer’s room with no comedic chops. Those 18 million “comedy” fans are off watching Theory. You already have their attention, CBS. Relax. We’re subjected to snide one-liners and witless banter from the Latvian Botox-heads about which plastic surgeries the crimebros should undergo. We get to watch the cast struggle with physical comedy because their Flowers By Irene van is too small. Then there’s the snappy dialogue—when Timothy McGee (Sean Murray) comments on the fact that Doblin’s research into carbon-neutral alternative energy production is really interesting, DiNozzo fires back with, “Not really, McNerd.” Get it!? Because his name is McGee, and he cares about critical scientific research that could have major impacts on the future surivival of humanity?! So that makes him a nerd!?! And McNerd sounds like McGee?!?! Kind of?!?!?!?!?! Woof. Also, Doblin’s field is in fact “really interesting,” because why the fuck did a dude working on alternative energy have access to botulinum, and why was he analyzing generic anti-depressants? It’s almost like that line was shoved into the script to give everything a tangential connection to the Navy, or to bully viewers who might give the slightest shit about the scientific particulars of the nonsense to follow, or to make an extremely sad grab for a laugh, or all of those things. I could kind of understand this sub-Catskills level humor if it was intended to draw a contrast between just another wacky day at the NCIS office and the harrowing trial Abby is set to endure, but the laughs just keep on coming as Abby puzzles her way out of her situation. I suspect this is because the writer’s room is used to having Abby be comic relief—look at what happened when they tried to write a serious moment for her. For some reason, Abby has to provide running commentary when she’s alone about her efforts to thwart the gunmen. I guess this is because the viewers are presumed too stupid to be able to remember the fact that she needs to get to the phone and server equipment in the room occupied by the bad guys. But this has her risking being overheard and subsequently murdered so she can respond to Cook’s frustrated attempts to override the server with “Good luck, mortal!” Is that really worth the egregious suspension of disbelief that has to occur here? It’s also worth noting that at another point we see Abby sneaking down a hall singing a badly-written song parody to herself about the need for her to be quiet. Now, to be fair, Perrette gamely gives this material all she’s got and wrings as much humor from these clunkers as is possible—which is to say, a fleeting smile—but since this is a showcase for Perrette, why not let her do some serious acting? Why not let us see the fear and the tension and the anger? Why not save us the super-edgy Botox chuckles in favor of showing Abby and Janice doing some actual life-saving chemistry? Why why why.
- Wooden performances from people not named Pauley Perrette. I mean, I get it. It’s been 13 long years. These people are being forced to do terrible comedy instead of the crime solving that everyone is here for. This ain’t exactly Masterpiece Theater and they’re still going to have a big pile of NCIS money regardless of how much they stink up the joint. But it doesn’t exactly make me want to come rushing back, especially with the depth of characterization going on. There’s a goth girl, because this is 1987. There’s a cranky and “lovably eccentric” Scottish medical examiner (David McCallum). There’s crimebros in Jock and McNerd varieties. There’s the slowly decaying corpse of a goose (Mark Harmon). There’s Ellie Bishop (Emily Wickersham), a blonde white lady in a turtleneck. The closest thing she gets to character work is a pointless interlude where she moans about how her boyfriend is always out of town, although “moans” might be overstating the case, since it sounds like she’s reading out of the operator’s manual of a 1992 Mazda.
Final Episode Judgment: 4/10. I vacillated a little on this. I was prepared to give it a 5 when I sat down to write the review, but when I had to actually put the plot down on paper I realized it made even less sense than I thought. But it was reasonably entertaining while it was happening. The thing is, a story should get better in retrospect—not worse.
NEXT TIME: As mentioned, VH1’s original scripted series Hindsight! *gulp*