Thursday, March 27, 2014

Dry Wells: Believe and Crisis

Johnny Sequoyah and Delroy Lindo in Believe, on NBC

The new NBC TV series Believe is about a magic little girl, Bo (Johnny Sequoyah), who has psychic and telekinetic powers. She is sought after by powerful men—chiefly, Kyle MacLachlan—who would use her for sinister purposes, and there ends any resemblance this show has to Brian De Palma’s The Fury. Delroy Lindo has the Carrie Snodgress role of the villain’s former associate who helped raise Bo and tutored her in harnessing her powers but now works to keep her safe, so that she can be used only as a power for good. He breaks a sullen convict named Tate (Jake McLaughlin) out of a cell on Death Row so that he can become Bo’s new protector and traveling companion, the previous holder of that position having been run off the road and murdered by a female assassin (Sienna Guillory) in Kyle MacLachlan’s employ. Tate is a natural choice for the job, because he’s actually Bo’s biological father, though he doesn’t know it, and for some reason, Lindo doesn’t see any possible advantage in telling him. Instead, he’s just along for the ride, spending most of his screen time acting grumpy about having this kid joined to him at the hip. On other occasions, he stands on the sidelines open-mouthed at Bo’s displays of her superpowers, such as when she summons a cheesy-looking CGI swarm of doves to overpower Sienna Guillory.

Believe lists one of the greatest movie directors of his generation, Alfonso Cuarón, as one of its creators; the list of producers includes not just Cuarón by J. J. Abrams, who’s done his fair share of entertaining things, as well as Abrams’ frequent collaborator Brian Burk, and Jonas Pate, who, with his brother Josh, created a couple of nifty TV shows, Good vs. Evil and Surface, and has directed episodes of Battlestar Galactica and Friday Night Lights. It’s not quite the decisive rebuke of the auteur theory that this might seem to suggest, though. It’s probably more in keeping with the tradition of TV and movie projects initiated by talented people that prove to be non-starters—bad ideas, or ideas that get developed in the wrong direction—but that have so much time, money, and hype lavished on them that there’s no graceful way to abort them prior to release. The show has been in development for a couple of years, and the pilot was completed so long ago that Sienna Guillory, who had originally signed on as a series regular, bailed out last summer. In the episodes following the pilot, her plot function has been taken over by Trieste Kelly Dunn, who plays not an indestructible killer hottie but the head of an FBI task force who MacLachlan treats as if she were in his employ. Although she exists in more of a gray area than the good, good heroes and the bad, bad villains, the fact that an agent of the federal government is working closely with the rich-businessman bad guy must have made the show’s creative team feel very relevant in the age of the Occupy Movement.

Gillian Anderson and Rachael Taylor in Crisis, on NBC
There was probably a time, way back when the rough idea for the show started taking shape in the creators’ minds, when Believe was conceived as a fantasy series with an ideological component and a sense of wonder. Another new NBC series, Crisis, has no such lofty goals. It stars the quite astonishingly untalented Rachael Taylor as an FBI Special Agent assigned to a big case: somebody has made off with an entire school trip’s worth of high school students, including the President’s son and the offspring of many other powerful and well-connected people, among them Taylor’s sister, Gillian Anderson. There may be no more convincing scene on TV this year than the one in which Taylor tries, desperately and with no success, to get a roomful of people to pay attention to her, until Anderson gets everyone to quiet down and listen up by basically just clearing her throat. It’s funny, but then it’s over, and Taylor is still meant to be the star of this thing. Like such other recent series as the stillborn and brain-dead Hostages, it would love to be the new 24—an exercise in pure thrills, with some family drama to draw the viewers in and a plot that involves people in high elected office, to create an illusion that something big—like, fate-of-this-nation big—is at stake.

Not every thriller writer can be Graham Greene or Alan Moore, and that’s fine, but the problem with the thriller as nothing but mechanical scaffolding and button-pushing is that when the scaffolding swings back and forth in a light breeze and the buttons don’t seem to be connected to each other, there’s nothing else—no compelling or interesting characters, no ideas, no thoughts inspired by actual grappling with the issues of the world today—to occupy your mind or justify the time put into watching. So your major response is to wonder why anyone bothered making the show. It’s not as if there’s such a drought of interesting TV these days that anyone might be in such urgent need of a way to soak up some of their time that they might have to settle for this.

Viewers just in search of a real thriller can catch up on Justified or The Americans or Person of Interest; hell, there are probably people who still need to catch up on The Wire. Both Believe and Crisis—and Hostages, too—probably seemed like ideas for cutting-edge TV shows to somebody at part of the green-lighting process, for the same bad reason: they all start with what sound like ideas for movies and then try to stretch them out to unnatural length in order to make their commitment to a certain number of episodes. This is actually what makes them old-school network shows at heart. The other thing they have in common is that they all expect an audience to pay attention to them because they put cute kids in jeopardy. The more TV gets better and more different, the most primitive hacks’ instincts remain the same.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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