San Diego Comic Con International 2013 kicked off on Wednesday with Preview Night. The events started up at 6pm, though people had been lined up, sometimes necessarily, sometimes inexplicably, all afternoon. For those so inclined, the exhibit floor was delightfully open and upstairs in Ballroom 20, Warner Bros. once again screened a handful of their pilots for shows that will debut this fall.
First up, The Tomorrow People: A remake of the 1970s British sci-fi series, The Tomorrow People will premiere this fall on the CW. The premise is familiar to genre fans- in the past several decades, a jump forward in genetics has led to a handful of teens, and a few adults, with superpowers, specifically the three “T”s- telepathy, telekinesis, and teleportation. Our lead, Stephen Jameson (Robbie Amell) is a high schooler, looking every day of Amell’s 25 years, who discovers he’s not only one of these Tomorrow People, he’s special- his deadbeat father is actually one of the most powerful TP, but he’s gone missing ever since Stephen was a child. Stephen has a genetic advantage and, we find out later in the pilot, has far greater abilities than any of the other characters has ever seen. The young cast is unfortunately forgettable for the most part, due to their extreme CW-ness, and the usually excellent Mark Pellegrino is rather unremarkable here as well in his very stock villain role. Sarah Clarke is utterly grounded and believable in her few scenes as Stephen’s mother though, and the show would be wise to take advantage of her presence. The action is the pilot’s greatest strength and the effects for the teleportation work well. The CW has shown they can deliver solid action and effects on a weekly basis, so fans of that element of the pilot should enjoy the show moving forward.
The main problem or red flag here is the show’s priorities. With this cast, the notion of setting any scenes in a high school is laughable. Mid-twenties actors play teens all the time, but they’re rarely as built as Amell, who has the CW leading man physique many viewers have come to expect. There’s absolutely no need to set this in a high school, besides trying to pander to the CW’s core audience, and the decision to do so undercuts any believability. Super powers? Sure, we’ll go with that. But slapping a hoodie on a grown man doesn’t make him look 10 years younger. This is a pilot centered almost exclusively on wish fulfillment, which can be powerful but can also lack depth. It’s not that Stephen’s father abandoned him and his family, he had to leave to save the world. The voices Stephen hears are not a product of his fathers’ schizophrenia or an indicator that he’s troubled, they’re proof he’s a superior biological specimen. There could be a very interesting discussion of the overmedication of teens here, but the show doesn’t seem interested in this; instead of sociological examination, we get corny dialogue and ‘shipping. Several of the lines of dialogue in this pilot are memorably bad, but the lowlight has to be, “Nature doesn’t make mistakes”, which got a chuckle from this viewer. (Evolution/genetic mutation is nature doing trial and error- when you’re making genetics a substantial part of your premise, maybe do some basic research into what it is and how it works.) That being said, the crowd responded well to the pilot, so it may do well for the CW.
Second on the roster was Almost Human: Premiering this fall on FOX, Almost Human comes from Fringe executive producer J. H. Wyman and is produced by JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot. The premise is straightforward- in the future, android-like synthetics are now required, as a safety precaution and due to their tremendous physical abilities as well as expendability, to be one half of every police partnership. Our lead, John Kennex (Karl Urban) doesn’t cotton to this, due to a bad experience with them in the past as well as having recently come out of a multi-year coma. He prefers to do things the old-fashioned way. With the reemergence of a dangerous terrorist group, the ones who caused John’s coma and cost him one of his legs, our hero is the only one who can put the pieces together to unmask the intentions and identities of this shadowy cell. Joining him is Dorian (Michael Ealy), a somewhat broken down android (they don’t like the term “synthetic”) from a line discontinued years back due to the emotional volatility discovered with the inclusion of programming intended to mimic the human soul.
The first third of the pilot is problematic, to say the least, with Urban chewing the scenery and teetering somewhere between John Maclane (Die Hard) and Paul Scheer’s Trent Hauser (NTSF:SD:SUV::) in his performance. He’s not helped by the dialogue, which also trends closer to NTSF than the writers must intend, and it’s very strange to see the series not play into the potential camp factor, opting for dour seriousness when a little humor would go far. It’s also troubling to see our lead murder his android partner in the opening half of the pilot, in rather brutal fashion, in a scene played for laughs. Yes, he’s a robot, but we know one half of our lead duo will be an android as well, so while we unsurprisingly learn that Dorian is a Very Special Android, this callous treatment of the newer models, not just by the character but by the show, is a misstep. Taking the clear racial subtext to its natural conclusion, we see our hero throw his first minority partner into traffic on the highway and we’re supposed to laugh- thirty minutes later, he’s decided his new minority partner is somehow more worthy or human, so he won’t slaughter this one. And we’re supposed to like this guy.
Fortunately, the show improves dramatically as soon as Michael Ealy enters the action. Ealy and Urban have an entertaining rapport, with Ealy’s underplayed performance counteracting Urban’s approach nicely. This is the show- it’s a shame the pilot doesn’t get here quicker. The supporting performances are solid to entertaining, with Mackenzie Crook a particular standout, and some of the future tech is creative and fun. The climax requires an unfortunate amount of suspension of disbelief (you have a building half full of androids and you don’t have a shield against <spoiler>?), but it is a solid action setpiece and Urban’s action experience shows. The twist towards the end is somewhat pat, but could lead to interesting narrative avenues in the future, and it’s nice to see a network show embracing, at least to some extent, an interracial couple as its main romantic relationship. Audience reaction to Almost Human was warm, with the show receiving fewer cheers than The Tomorrow People, but more applause. For a Bad Robot pilot it’s certainly disappointing, but as far as network procedurals, you could do much worse this fall.
The final pilot of the evening (for this reviewer at least- I skipped the reair of The Originals backdoor pilot, even though they were including some new footage) was The 100, also set to debut on the CW this fall. This series centers on a group of teenage delinquents who are sent down to a post-nuclear disaster Earth to find out if the planet is habitable for the descendants of the small population of humans who were in orbit at the time of the disaster. The space station where people live, retrofitted from the various objects and vessels in orbit into one habitable life raft called the Ark, is falling apart and with only a few months’ worth of resources available, those above are looking for alternatives to drastic population control (read: mass execution of innocents).
The titular 100 are the young people sent down to explore the planet (there aren’t any adults because prisoners are executed once they reach “majority”, 18, and are considered responsible for their actions) and our main leads are a handful of this group. Naturally, our heroes all managed to get arrested through no fault of their own; heaven forbid we have legitimate criminals as our protagonists. The rest of the group, the actual hooligans, quickly prove themselves easily manipulated and descend into a Lord of the Flies-style mob in the span of less than a day. It’s this simplistic approach to an actually very interesting premise, along with the ridiculous health, fitness, and beauty of a group of abandoned prisoners, that guarantees this reviewer won’t be checking back in this fall. The writing is less than stellar, but it could improve and the actors, especially the adults, are all solid to very good. There’s a palpable sense of exhilaration and joy from the kids upon reaching the surface. Channeling these very powerful emotions, along with the abandonment and isolation the teens would certainly feel, could make for an intense, incredibly dynamic series. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be what the show is interested in.
They do get some things right. A big one is the embracing of B-movie campiness. All I’ll say is that before the pilot is over, the title is no longer accurate and watching this become increasingly true over the course of the series could be a lot of fun. The visuals on the planet for the most part look good and the mysteries of this new Earth are wisely only hinted at. The relationships of the lead adults are mostly interesting and while Henry Ian Cusick’s character teeters towards mustache-twirling villainy, there is at least some legitimacy to his hardline approach. Overall though, the pilot wastes this potential, instead focusing on the perceived interests of the desired CW demographic- love triangles and daddy issues. The audience responded positively to the pilot, though perhaps the least strongly of the three shown, and there was some positive buzz around the Con, but for those not immediately attracted by the available trailers, this is one to skip.
Also screened during Preview Night was the pilot for P.E.T. Squad (or Paranormal and Extraterrestrial Squad), a web series in the vein of Supernatural’s Ghostfacers. The pilot had a few gags and was pretty much what one would expect given the premise, but didn’t overly impress. The most frustrating screening though was the series of trailers for various Warner Bros.-produced series we were forced to sit through, partially because they were far too long (taking the audience through every single beat of the shows’ pilots), but mostly because they aired directly before the actual pilots. So we saw a several minute-long trailer for The Tomorrow People, with every story point for the premiere highlighted, and then had to sit through the pilot. This repeated for The 100 and also The Originals. We also saw a trailer for the CW’s Reign and Star Crossed without then seeing the pilots, but even alone, they were far from enticing. I’ve only been to SDCC (and Preview Night) twice, but the experience this year was far worse than last year’s and after this time, I doubt I’ll attend Preview Night again. I’m glad to be able to see the pilots, but I could’ve had at least another 30 minutes on the exhibit floor if I hadn’t been subjected to all of the extra trailers. Fortunately, the evening ended well, with a brief walk through the always fun exhibit floor and some drinks with friends.