FIRST LOOK/LAST LOOK – September 20–26, 2015

Minority Report, Blindspot, The Muppets, Scream Queens, Heroes Reborn

 In “First Look/Last Look,” I pan for TV gold in the fetid riverbed of the new fall season. While I always hope this experiment will yield at least one show that I want to add to my regular viewing—if not reviewing—schedule, I’m not holding my breath. Call me pessimistic, but, in most cases, I expect my first look to also be my last.

The new fall season is well underway, and I'm trying to keep an open mind. After all, it's not completely inconceivable that the networks could produce a quality show. (It has happened once or twice in the past, if memory serves.)

I'm watching as many new shows as I can stand this fall, and I'll be writing about them here. In years past, I've written individual, full reviews for my "First Look/Last Look" series, but that often felt like a disproportionate amount of effort put into shows that were barely worth the attention. (Looking back, many of these shows were likely to be canceled by the time you finished reading my long-winded reviews.)

So this year—in an effort to save myself some headaches, and hopefully write about more shows—I'm changing up the format and doing weekly round-ups. These will be brief, relatively spoiler-free, and they will seek to answer, for each pilot episode, the only question you're likely to care about: Is this worth watching?

MINORITY REPORT

MINORITY REPORT

Much of my pessimism about network television stems from the curse of formula: it's a world in which TV executives never heard a promising premise that they couldn't transform into a dull, rote procedural. This appears, on first glance, to be the fate of Minority Report (FOX, Mondays 9/8c). Not a new adaptation of Philip K. Dick's original short story about preemptive law-enforcement, but a sequel to Steven Spielberg's 2002 film adaptation, Minority Report picks up some 10 years after the "PreCrime" program has been disbanded. Now, cops like Lara Vega (Meagan Good) are frustrated by their inability to do anything more than clean-up after murderers. ("Can you believe we used to stop this stuff before it happened?" she asks wistfully, while surveying a crime scene.) Enter Dash (Stark Sands), one of the "precogs" whose future-predicting abilities used to power the PreCrime system. Still getting disjointed visions of murders about to be committed—and haunted by his inability to prevent them—Dash forms an awkward partnership with Det. Vega to try and save some lives. Both the leads of Minority Report are good—Sands, familiar to most of us from David Simon's Generation Kill series, gives an endearingly twitchy performance—and the production values are perfectly respectable. However, despite a strong opening, the pilot episode doesn't get very far into its running time before it already feels like just another toothless, overly familiar buddy-cop show about an eccentric, preternaturally gifted detective and his more practical, down-to-earth partner. What's worse, Minority Report's pilot exhibits even less interest than the film did in the ethical ramifications of punishing people for crimes they haven't yet committed, or in philosophical questions of free-will. Executive producer Max Borenstein seems to have missed the point of Dick's story entirely, ignored everything provocative about its premise, and simply seized upon its gimmick to drive yet another murder-of-the-week procedural.

What's My Snap-Judgement? Competent, but by-the-numbers.
Will It Last? Doubtful. The combination of a high-concept sci-fi premise with a low-brow, formulaic approach bodes ill, especially on the wasteland of Monday nights. (Just ask last year's similar—but actually superior—Almost Human.) I predict a one-and-done season for Minority Report.
Will I Watch It? I might check out the next couple of episodes, just to see if it's really as rote as it appears: if the show begins exploring some of the larger issues, I could get vaguely interested.
Will I Review It? The prediction from the precogs is unanimous: I will never write about this show again.

BLINDSPOT

BLINDSPOT

Stop me if you've heard this one: in a high-concept premise, a strange individual with special knowledge of future crimes is paired with a no-nonsense cop for case-of-the-week adventures. In the case of Blindspot (NBC, Mondays 10/9c), the "strange individual" is Jane Doe (Jaimie Alexander), a total amnesiac found stuffed in a duffel bag in the middle of Times Square. The "special knowledge" she has is in the form of fresh tattoos that nearly cover her body, each one apparently the clue to a mystery. The "no-nonsense cop" is FBI agent Kurt Waller (Sullivan Stapleton), whose name is—for reasons unknown—tattooed in the middle of Jane Doe's back. Yes, it's yet another strong concept that seems to deteriorate into a standard procedural before its pilot is even over, but I was surprised how much I enjoyed Blindspot. Unlike with Minority Report, there's some real flair in the visual storytelling here, and both Alexander and Stapleton manage to ground their ludicrous characters in something resembling actual humanity. The overall mystery is intriguing, and watching Jane slowly recover pieces of her mysterious past—like her fluency in Chinese, and her apparently lethal combat training—makes for a genuinely engaging hour of television. Blindspot is probably the best pilot I've seen so far this season, but the quality of the production is not quite enough for me to ignore the built-in weaknesses of the premise. It already seems inevitable that Blindspot will be deciphering one tattoo-case per week, while slowly doling out cryptic hints about a larger mystery that the creators probably haven't even figured out yet for themselves.

What's My Snap-Judgement? High-quality intrigue, with a short shelf-life.
Will It Last? Possibly. NBC is obviously hoping to replicate the surprise success of The Blacklist, but the very things I think make this a better show—a more serious tone, and a slower, more mature pace—might end up working against its becoming a runaway hit. 
Will I Watch It? For a while, I probably will. But I fully expect a day will come—probably not very far in the future—when the show's combination of formulaic single-episodes and overarching, make-it-up-as-we-go-along conspiracy arc lead me to give up on Blindspot.
Will I Review It? I'm not willing to make that kind of investment: this is a temporary tattoo for me, at best.

THE MUPPETS

THE MUPPETS

Jim Henson's tragically untimely passing saddened me as much as the death of any artist in the last half-century, and yet I have never regretted his loss more than I did watching the first episode of The Muppets (ABC, Tuesdays at 8/7c), a show that seems all the more sinister because its unholy reanimations of Henson's creations are so nearly convincing. The characters are familiar, the voice-work is fairly good, the puppetry is competent, but the tone is so, so wrong. Filmed in the overused style of  a "mockumentary"—a la The Office—The Muppets reimagines the gang as the harried, much-abused backstage staff of Late Night with Miss Piggy, a talk-show starring the porcine diva. The characters are so beloved, and the style of puppetry so reliably engaging, that you can feel yourself wanting to believe that the Muppets are truly back. But listen closely and you'll quickly realize that—without a heart inside them—these puppets are just so much empty felt. Sesame Street and The Muppet Show were places where everyone was valued and appreciated despite their flaws and eccentricities: there was a gentle optimism to the zaniness, in which we felt that they all put up with each other's foibles because they were a family. The Muppets, on the other hand, is a show that exists only for characters to snipe at, mock, and hurt each other: there's a real mean-spiritedness—even a cruelty—to the interactions, which is not just a departure from Henson's spirit, but a full-on betrayal of it. If I had never seen the Muppets in any other form, I might not think The Muppets was such a bad show, but watching these familiar characters enact this perversely petty charade is painful. Executive producers Bob Kushell and Bill Prady have brought these various frogs, pigs, bears, rats, and furry monsters back to life without the most important thing Jim Henson always made sure they had: humanity.

What's My Snap-Judgement? A crime against muppethood.
Will It Last? Perhaps I have too much faith in the inherent decency of the viewing public, but I'd like to believe they'll ultimately reject this misanthropic muppet misfire.
Will I Watch It? I'd much rather hold onto my childhood memories in their unviolated form, thank you very much.
Will I Review It? No. Statler and Waldorf can't come close to the levels of hatred I would vent on this show every week.

SCREAM QUEENS

Fox

Fool me once, Ryan Murphy: shame on you. Fool me three or four times running, and I have no one to blame but myself. I admit, there is something about Murphy's unpredictable, unrestrained, batshit-crazy approach to storytelling that I find very attractive, and so I keep hoping that one of his shows will miraculously land in my sweet spot. Alas, Scream Queens is not that show—in fact, it's even less that show than the other Murphy productions (Nip/Tuck, Glee, and American Horror Story) with which I've had love-to-hate-'em affairs. Centering around a serial killer hunting an exclusive sorority of grotesquely awful young women at fictional Wallace College, Scream Queens is allegedly a "horror-comedy," but neither side of that hyphenation is really working. The "comedy" is of the broadest and most offensive sort—more Scary Movie than Scream—and is both shallow and peculiarly pointless. (A typical "gag" has the devil-masked serial killer and one of his nubile, dingbat victims texting each other from two feet apart: "I'M GOING TO KILL YOU NOW," the killer texts. "WAIT WHAAAAT???!" the about-to-be-dead girl texts back, instead of screaming, or running. It's meant to come off as satirical, I assume, but what is it satirizing? That millennials like texting? Profound!) Needless to say, this kind of "humor" works fatally against generating any genuine suspense or character engagement, so Scream Queens ultimately feels like an undisciplined sketch-comedy skit blown into agonizing length. The occasional mean-spirited gag lands for a chuckle—mostly provided by slumming veterans like Jamie Lee Curtis and Niecy Nash—but none of it is fun enough to justify the unendurable two hours I spent on the pilot, or to encourage me to spend another moment of my time on it. Murphy has two more shows premiering this season—American Horror Story: Hotel and American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson—but I think I've finally accepted that there's no joy to be found in his do-anything, offend-everyone, say-nothing sensibility.

What's My Snap-Judgement? A copy of a copy of a copy of Heathers—only worse than that makes it sound.
Will It Last? Oh, it will almost certainly be a tremendous hit. (The worse American Horror Story got, the more popular it became.)  
Will I Watch It? Normally, I find myself watching about five or six episodes of a Murphy show before I realize the fleeting pleasures are no compensation for the constant insults to taste and intelligence. This time, I think I'm going to try to get out early.
Will I Review It? One of the characters is dispatched with a spray-tan dispenser full of acid; another has her face sloughed off in a fryolator; yet a third is run over with a lawnmower. All of those things sound like they'd be more fun than writing about this show on a weekly basis.

HEROES REBORN

HEROES REBORN

I wasn't a huge fan of the original Heroes series—if memory serves I made it halfheartedly through the first season, and bailed somewhere early in the second—so I was only mildly intrigued at the notion of a reboot/sequel. But I enjoyed the two-hour premiere of Heroes Reborn (NBC, Thursdays at 8/7c) much more than I expected to. Picking up some years after the events of the first series, and one year after a mysterious powers-related terrorist attack has wiped out the town of Odessa, Texas, Heroes Reborn finds people with powers—known as "Evos"—being persecuted and hunted by a world that has grown to fear them. Bringing in themes of prejudice and alienation on a societal level feels like a more interesting approach than anything in (my limited experience with) the original Heroes. The pilot episode also introduces some fairly compelling new characters—like teen-age teleporter Tommy (Robie Kay), and living video-game avatar Miko (Kiki Sukezane)—to function alongside returning favorites like Jack Coleman's Noah Bennet. If I have a complaint with Heroes Reborn so far, it's that the show's pilot sacrifices character development and good storytelling to the demands of plot and world-building. Too many characters and sub-plots are introduced—or re-introduced—too quickly, to the extent that I was already suffering from exposition fatigue by the end of the two-hour premiere. If the show could slow down and focus on just a few characters at a time, it might turn into something engaging. (I worry, however, that the series' short, 13-episode season might guarantee it stays choked to the gills with too many storylines, too little heart.)

What's My Snap-Judgement? A mildly promising resurrection of a show that ran out of steam early the first time around.
Will It Last? We'll see. It will depend on whether creator Tim Kring has a more coherent vision for this show than he did for Heroes, and on whether he can bring something uniquely interesting to a market already saturated with superheroes.  
Will I Watch It? I'll try to, but if the convolution of the plot gets too frustrating, I can easily imagining relegating this to the status of something I'll binge-watch when it's done.
Will I Review It? No. I'd have to travel back in time and watch Heroes in its entirety, and I'm not quite willing to do that.

NEXT WEEK: The premieres of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Grandfathered,
The Grinder, Code Black, Benders,
and Dr. Ken (at least a few of which I'll force myself to watch).

The Unaffiliated Critic

Michael G. McDunnah is a freelance writer, a recovering lit major, a pop-culture junkie, and an unaffiliated critic. He lives in Chicago.

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