After a few weeks of lying dormant, I'm back to continue my quest to find the least mediocre pilot of the new season. Believe me, it's hard. Try as they might, the networks keep throwing subpar viewing my way. It's as though they just don't care. Fortunately this week there are a few bright spots that I don't foresee making it to Season 2. But as long as we're in the here and now, let's take a look at a few more pilots, some of them a month or more removed from their original airdates. Better late than never, I say. I also say courtroom dramas with a New Jersey flare would make excellent TV. Clearly I'm often wrong.
Vegas - Tuesdays 10pm, CBS
What You Need To Know: Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis are on opposite ends of the law in 1960s Las Vegas as Sheriff Ralph Lamb and gangster Vincent Savino, respectively. The series will presumably assume a quasi-crime procedural formula along with the 60s Vegas backdrop and the war between good (Sheriff Lamb) and evil (Savino).
What I Think: Dennis Quaid is long overdue to star on a television drama. And Michael Chiklis is long overdue for another hit, after FX's The Shield. And they are undoubtedly the show's strongest assets. The war brewing between them is subtle, but it will intensify. And the idea of setting a series against 1960s Las Vegas is ingenious. It's the beginning of when Las Vegas became Las Vegas.
You just know there's a "But" coming here.
But unfortunately, the pilot can be slow. There's a fine distinction between building a story and just boring the viewer, and the episode veers over into boring territory all too often. Honestly, there are key moments in the episode I just can't remember vividly. And the detail in 1960s Las Vegas is questionable, to say the least. In fact, if you didn't know it beforehand, you might forget it's not set in 2012 Las Vegas. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Period dramas can sometimes become to wrapped up in detail and forget to breathe. Considering the problems Vegas does have, it shouldn't put a lot of worry into the time period minutiae.
I just can't stress this season how important it is to cast strong acting, and fortunately, you can't get much better this season than Quaid and Chiklis. They're so good, you forget about the down points. Quaid is of course verging on snarling in his delivery, but he does it well. And Chiklis just relishes being the bad guy here. Happy actors make for happy viewers. If they just work on pacing, involving plotlines and just a touch (no more) of better detail for the era, it could be great. For now, it's just good.
What The Future Holds: Your grandfather found a new favorite show. Unfortunately, most under the age of 50 ignored the pilot, registering an embarrassing 2.5 in the 18-49 demo against 15 million viewers. Low even by CBS standards. But not unforgivable. Blue Bloods gets mid 1.0s on Fridays with over 11 million viewers. Sometimes, overall viewership does mean more, despite what real TV experts tell you. UPDATE: Already received a full-season pickup. But beyond that? I'm not so optimistic.
Ben & Kate - Tuesdays 8:30pm, FOX
What You Need To Know: Ben (Nat Faxon) is the free spirit and Kate (Dakota Johnson) is the hard-working single mom. Ben decides to move in with his sister and niece to help her live her life again. It's worth noting that despite a ho-hum title, it's vastly superior to the original title: Ned Fox Is My Manny. Crisis averted.
What I Think: It's really, really cute. And funny too, but moreso cute in the pilot. I love Dakota Johnson. She's Zooey Deschanel without being too quirky (though Zooey pulls it off). She has a natural flow to her delivery and is endlessly charming. Nat Faxon, while funny at times, can be a tad grating. I get what he's going for (think Ed Helms' Andy Bernard and Steve Carell's Michael Scott if they had a love child) but it needs to be reigned in a bit.
Speaking of quirky, the pilot dials up the quirk to hyperdrive. And it's not necessarily a good thing. Sometimes it can become eyeroll-inducing. And it might find trouble mixing cutesy comedy with heartfelt family moments. If done right (like on Modern Family), it works. If done wrong, it becomes sappy. Still, I'm far too enamored with the cast, for all their strengths and their idiosyncrasies.
What The Future Holds: FOX is investing in their sitcom slate, but if anything is low man on the totem pole, it's Ben & Kate. And ratings prove it. I just hope viewers catch it before it's inevitably and sadly canned. UPDATE: Ben & Kate has been renewed for a full season (19 episodes, to accomodate creator Dana Fox's pregnancy).
The Mindy Project - Tuesdays 9:30pm, FOX
What You Need To Know: Mindy is a physician trying to navigate her way through her professional and personal life. Yeah, that sums it up, but it's much smarter than that. Mindy Kaling worked for eight seasons as a writer and supporting actress on NBC's The Office. The original title of The Mindy Project? It's Messy. Neither title properly fits the show, sadly.
What I Think: The jokes that hit are home runs. The jokes that don't fall hard. Really hard. I'm a huge fan of Mindy Kaling, from her work on The Office to her best-selling book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? The Mindy Project plays out as a kind-of spoof, kind-of homage to romantic comedies, whether from the big screen or the small screen. It doesn't really ever skewer the genre, like I had hoped, but instead allows Kaling (U.S. TV's first South Asian American lead -- thanks, Wikipedia!) to play the role she's clearly idolized her whole life. A Sandra Bullock for her generation, and her ethnicity.
But something doesn't work in the pilot. The jokes often hit, but the story and the characters lack the punch I was expecting from the star. I'd be lying if I didn't say I expected a lot more. Fortunately there is one or two bright spots in the cast: the adorable Anna Camp as Mindy's best friend, Gwen, as well as Mindy's co-worker, Danny Castellano, played by Chris Messina. Last year, the talk of pilot season was Zooey Deschanel on New Girl, but fans quickly found out the show's true strength was Max Greenfield as Schmidt. I feel the same vibe here for standout Messina.
I'm not taking anything away from the clearly-talented Mindy Kaling. She's a smart, funny comedienne. The pilot just didn't always let me see that side of her. It also doesn't help when you feature three stand-out guest stars in Richard Schiff, Ed Helms and Bill Hader. She's writing for herself, and the material can be good, but it almost feels like she's back on The Office, writing more for every other character and not developing herself on the show. I'm sure that will change down the road, but she was not the MVP of the 22-minute episode. Sorry, Mindy!
What The Future Holds: A full season order from FOX! A surprise development considering mediocre ratings. Let's hope FOX gives Mindy a chance to grow. If I had to predict? Two of Mindy's programs will be gone in May.
Elementary - Thursdays 10pm, CBS
What You Need To Know: It's another re-telling of the Sherlock Holmes saga, this time putting Jonny Lee Miller in the title role of the original crime-solver, with Lucy Liu joining him as trusty sidekick Watson. Yes, it's a significant change from the source material. It joins a British TV adaptation, as well as the popular Guy Ritchie films starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law in the main roles.
What I Think: I am drained on the crime genre. CSI, Law & Order, Criminal Minds. Spinoffs and new characters and twists on the genre. It's been done to death since Law & Order began, but especially in the last decade. And finally, they've found a way to make me interested in the genre again, if only for one show. Something about Miller and Liu as Holmes and Watson just worked in my mind. And there's no doubt that they work very well together in the pilot.
Miller plays Holmes as a kind of crime-solving take on Hugh Laurie's House. Which is a bit of a backwards comparison since House is really a mystery-sickness-solving take on Sherlock Holmes. He's a recovering drug addict who's back as a consultant detective with the NYPD. Liu plays Dr. Joan Watson, Holme's sober companion. Their union in the pilot is much the same as that of the original Holmes and Watson. It's a bro-mance, if you will, with a man and a woman. Writers have promised that no romantic involvement will take place, ever, but we'll wait and see on that one. I will say it would be refreshing if they remained platonic. Not every man-woman relationship needs a shot of love.
Of course my one concern are the murder mysteries. The crime procedural has drained the life out of death, so to speak, and I'm not sure the overall concept is enough to make a stale genre exciting again, for me. Again, this is personal. CSI and Criminal Minds aren't over 250 and 150 episodes, respectively, because everyone else feels the same. But their one hook (Sherlock and a female Watson, in 2012 New York) reeled me in immediately. The staying power? Who knows.
What the future holds: A full-season pickup, despite mediocre retention from runaway Thursday hit Person of Interest. CBS has the privilege of cancelling just about anything that dips below exceptional. I hope they give it proper time to grow. Alas, it might end up on Friday nights (in the freshly-cancelled timeslot of Made in Jersey), which likely won't bode well.
Nashville - Wednesdays 10pm, ABC
What you need to know: Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere star as kinda-versions of Reba McIntyre and Taylor Swift. I say kinda because there's no reason to believe Reba is as sympathetic in real life or that Taylor is as conniving. Not saying they're not! Just sayin'. Nashville takes place firmly in the world of country music and its various highs (Panettiere's Juliet Barnes is a new sensation) and lows (Britton's Rayna Jaymes is finding that middle-age is unkind in all sorts of ways, especially to album and concert sales). There are various other threads, including political plotlines, that serve less to the overall picture than the behind the scenes workings of country tunes.
What I Think: Someone has put a lot of effort into Nashville. It's the Glee-for-adults that Smash was supposed to be, without the teenagers in school, the music-and-dance numbers, the covers of popular-right-now hits and the murky melodrama. OK, maybe it's nothing like Glee. But it's still pretty darn good. The standouts of the cast are the two leads, Britton and Panettiere, and especially Britton who has enjoyed a solid career of critic and fan favorite performances on Friday Night Lights and American Horror Story.
But equally enjoyable are the plucky Clare Bowen (as Scarlett O'Hara, possibly the next Juliet, or the next Rayna) and Charles Esten as Deacon Clayborne, Rayna's lead guitarist and a songwriter who has obviously craved the spotlight but never enjoyed it without Rayna by his side. Also on board, chewing scenery everywhere he goes is Powers Boothe as Rayna's papa, Lamar Wyatt, a wealthy local politician with his hand firmly in place where power is sought.
Personally, I can take or leave country music. Sometimes I can take it in small doses, other times I can't tolerate it. Unfortunately, country music is not a background to the series, it's often at the forefront (especially in episode 2). There's no escaping it. But unlike Glee, which creates musical numbers out of popular songs, Nashville's country ditties play out in music clubs (like The Bluebird Cafe), giving each performance an intimate atmosphere which works great for the country genre.
Setting aside the music, the characters are fun, in a primetime soap kind of way. Unfortunately, a few characters are created one-dimensionally early on. I know it takes a long time (maybe even the entire run of a series) to properly develop characters, but certain measures taken in the pilot to add layers feel forced. For example, Juliet Barnes comes across as an arrogant, conniving bitch in the pilot. But then we're made privy to phone conversations with her mother, begging her daugther for some cash to feed her drug addiction. Oh, so her drug-addict mom made Juliet Barnes the way she is! I get it now.
What The Future Holds: Still without a full season order, unlike virtually all newcomers except Made in Jersey, Nashville has a pretty easy road to an entire season. Beyond that, it may need a little extra help in ratings to avoid getting axed in May.
That exhausts my current viewing of television pilots. I promise to be back with a look at the rest of the schedule of pilots, even if it takes me till next year. I'll even watch Made in Jersey. Also coming up is my long-awaited-by-me sequel to last year's wildly-popular-by-my-standards column, Free-Floating Hostility. This time around, it's Free-Floating Hostility 2: Hostile Harder.
Until next time, stay tuned.