For whatever its flaws and shortcomings, or even its enduring commitment to garbage, the fall 2010 season has at least offered more variety among its new shows than probably any other in recent years. With the major networks rededicating themselves, somewhat, to scripted dramas and comedies while once-juggernaut reality fare like Survivor and American Idol continue to show their age, broadcast TV may finally be rising to the saber-rattling that cable networks including TNT and USA have threatened for years.
As a representative sample of the dozens of new shows, we watched the first two episodes of The Event and Hawaii Five-0, serial dramas with virtually nothing in common except that they air on Monday nights, albeit in different time slots and on different networks. The two series seemed to start and develop in opposite directions between their first and second episodes, one getting much better, the other showing signs of fatigue already.
NBC’s The Event, with its myriad of murky conspiracies and guess-what-this-means clues, is fairly naked in its ambition to capture the audiences previously entertained by Lost and 24. The pilot episode, “I Haven’t Told You Everything,” was oddly paced and sometimes hard to follow, thanks to a tiered succession of flashback sequences that established some of the overarching narrative’s (apparently very well thought out) back story. Some of the multiple storylines introduced in the first hour include: a college student (Jason Ritter) attempting to stop a plane hijacking connected to the kidnapping of his girlfriend (Sarah Roemer); the President (Blair Underwood) wrestling with freeing 97 political prisoners despite the wishes of his CIA chief (Zeljko Ivanek); a government agent (Ian Anthony Dale) with ties to the prisoners working to stop the same hijacking.
Despite putting so many balls in the air, show creator/writer Nick Wauters managed to bring everything together, as far as he could for one episode of a multi-part episodic, with a climax that was both unsettling and audacious by virtue of its 9/11 overtones. The expansive cast of TV veterans (this must be Ivanek’s 4,000th role as a government creep) settled into their parts easily, and relative newcomer Jason Ritter was compelling and charismatic as the everyman getting in way over his head for no reason he deserved.
If the first episode was only good, the second (titled “To Keep Us Safe”) stomped on the gas pedal, answering many of the questions raised by the pilot but prodding many more (often simultaneously). Most importantly, the episode revealed the nature of the prisoner’s identities and why the government would take desperate measures to contain them. SPOILERS. It seems the United States has kept close to a hundred extraterrestrials prisoner in Alaska since World War II; the aliens are led, after a fashion, by a pacifist (Laura Innes, getting past ER‘s Kerry Weaver at long last) who’s kept them more or less cooperative. But now a second group of aliens, more militant and resentful of the imprisonment, has begun working to free them, starting with an attempt on the President’s life. Double agents and intrigue are already piling on top of one another, with plot twists that, for once, don’t feel numbingly familiar. The first two episodes should probably have aired together, either as a movie or double feature, in order to make the strongest impression on audiences; we can’t help but feel the combined punch would’ve created bigger shockwaves through the entertainment media.
If The Event is so far occasionally original, and bold but uneven, the heavily publicized remake of Hawaii Five-0 is just the opposite: though polished and confident, it’s too reminiscent by half of established CBS cop dramas – most notably CSI: Miami – and already indulging in some of the hoariest television drama clichés from, ironically, the 1970s and possibly before. The cumulative effect, by and large, is a sleek confection of sex, sunshine, and easily digestible storylines occupied by attractive, affable performers. It’s the definition of safe television, but for older audiences or those wishing for a diversion it’s likely just the thing for its Mondays at 10 timeslot.
Upgraded and tuned up for the 21st Century, the update remakes semi-iconic TV cop Steve McGarrett as a Navy Intelligence counterterrorism expert (played now by Australian heartthrob Alex O’Loughlin) recruited by Hawaii’s governor (Jean Smart) to head an anti-crime task force. McGarrett assembles his team from the fringes of local law enforcement, including New Jersey transplant Danny Williams (Scott Caan), ex-cop Chin Ho Kelley (Daniel Dae Kim) and surfer-police cadet Kona “Kono” Kalakaua (Grace Park). In the pilot they track down the terrorist (James Marsters) responsible for killing McGarrett’s father; in the second episode, “Ohana,” they fight Eastern European gangsters for control of a NSA programmer’s cyber-macguffin. In both cases, the plots are streamlined, simple, and largely free of the complicated moral entanglement that’s been the benchmark of non-CBS cop shows for years now.
Show creators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Fringe, Alias) keep the emphasis on bright colors, splashy stunts, and expensive-looking action sequences that are fun as long as you’re actually watching them. The cast is still feeling their way around one another, but O’Loughlin and Caan already have a Butch-Sundance chemistry that makes for some of the show’s most entertaining moments. Caan is doing the heavy-lifting in building that chemsitry, however. O’Loughlin is effortlessly charismatic but so far his McGarrett lacks the intensity that Jack Lord brought to the role in 1968, and at times he seems outshined by Caan’s blustering blue-collar charm. Kim and Park, as the junior partners in the team, haven’t had enough non-action screen time to flesh out their roles past stock types. It’s also a little strange that the 36-year old Park plays the rookie on the squad, her character written with plenty of earnest neophyte resolve.
Which indicates, in turn, the problems of the past the show seems interested in repeating. Too many clichés lurk in the corners of the scripts: in two weeks the team has saved the islands from two separate Dastardly Threats: terrorists one week and a European crime syndicate the next, effectively saving the entire archiepelago once per week. Kelly and Kalakaua, the team’s two ethnic characters, remain largely in supportive, backup roles for the investigations and in action sequences. Maybe smaller, less ornate cases might allow all the actors room to work if they’re to match the action’s bombast; otherwise the big villains-small character depth model recalls the superficiality of 70s and 80s ensemble shows including the The A-Team and T.J. Hooker, and not in a good way.
Finally, for better and for worse the show looks like a CSI: franchise, with swirling images of the Honolulu cityscape used after commercial breaks and interiors filled with blue and orange color palettes and giant plasma screens. As the CSI: franchise enters its second decade, the network is likely thinking of life and tentpole attractions past that trio of show’s eventual sunset. If Hawaii Five-0 is the first of that new generation,it’s only fair that it have its own look. The promo below implies as much, even while celebrating the CSI: visual formula.
According to ratings tracker website TV By The Numbers, the show lost 10% of its pilot audience during its second week to draw an audience of 12.7 million viewers. The Event‘s second episode drew approximately 9 million people, an almost 20% attrition from its pilot.
- Michael Kabel and Jennifer Vasil