A funny thing has happened since I started watching pilots last week: I haven't seen a bad one yet.
Now, I don't know that I've seen a great one, either, but in the luck of the draw, the pilots I've watched (almost exclusively dramas) have all achieved a level of competence suggesting that, even if I'm not the audience, someone will be.
Same caveat as always applies: these are not reviews. Too many things are going to change between now and when these things air. These are just first impressions. Thoughts on "Friday Night Lights," "Heroes," "Standoff," "Vanished" and "Justice" after the jump...
"Friday Night Lights"
Who's In It: Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton, a bunch of newcomers and/or bit players from the movie
What's It About: The movie transplanted to a fictional Texas town where Chandler is the new coach of the most-hyped high school football team in the state.
Pluses: Peter Berg is back in the director's chair, and he knows what he's doing, both in depicting the town's hopelessness and multi-tasking between the stories of all the players and their hangers-on. I've always liked Chandler, and he's a good choice here as the untested rookie. I'm a sports movie nut, so this pushed all my buttons; even though I could predict everything that would happen in the big game before it happened, I still practically cheered by the end. Could be the first successful sports-centric drama since "The White Shadow."
Minuses: Again, I'm a sports movie nut -- to the point where if I stumble across "The Air Up There" (a movie in which Kevin Bacon teaches Africans how to play basketball) on cable, I'm unable to change the channel until the end -- so I'm not an unbiased observer. As I said, you will see every plot development coming before it does, and if you don't have my undying affection for the genre, I don't know whether you'll be willing to go with the predictability the way I was.
Who's In It: Milo Ventimiglia, Ali Larter, Adrian Pasdar, Hayden Panettiere, Greg Grunberg and many, many more
What's It About: People all over the world begin developing superhuman abilities -- a cheerleader who can't be hurt, a Japanese cubicle drone who can bend the space/time continuum, an artist whose paintings depict the future -- in advance of a coming apocalypse.
Pluses: Given the resume of creator Tim Kring ("Crossing Jordan," "Providence"), this is much more interesting than I was expecting. Just as "Friday Night Lights" appealed to the sports nut in me, this played to my inner comic book geek. The idea of "What would happen if people got super powers in the real world?" has been done plenty of times before, from "Watchmen" to "Unbreakable," but Kring has a nice spin on it: not nearly as solemn and pretentious as "Unbreakable," but serious enough that it doesn't seem like camp. I particularly liked Masi Oka as the Japanese hero (named Hiro, of course) and Sendhil Ramamurthy as an Indian genetics professor obsessed with proving that humans can evolve into superhumans. Also, director David Semel finds a way to shoot certain scenes as if they were comic book panels without cribbing the visual style of Ang Lee's "Hulk."
Minuses: It's a huge cast (Grunberg and a few other castmembers aren't even in the pilot) and, like "Surface" before it, so sprawling that I'm not sure what a typical episode might look like. Despite the avoidance of spandex and other comic book tropes (though Panettiere's cheerleader uniform sort of qualifies as a costume), you really have to be a geek like me to appreciate it, I think.
Who's In It: Ron Livingston, Rosemarie DeWitt, Gina Torres, Michael Cudlitz
What's It About: Hostage negotiating partners for the FBI are secretly, then not-so-secretly, dating.
Pluses: Ron Livingston is awesome. He just is. The man was in "Swingers," "Office Space" and "Band of Brothers," and he has a likable Everyguyness that will make me watch him in just about anything. He and DeWitt have nice chemistry. Most of the pilot has the light tone a premise like this needs to work. Glad to see Gina Torres have a regular job again, and to see Cudlitz (who was also in "Band of Brothers") essentially reprising his sniper role from "The Negotiator." (Say it with me: "I want Chris Sabian!")
Minuses: Torres is wasted in the Disapproving Minority Captain role. The slightly goofy tone of the early scenes that allowed me to buy that Livingston and DeWitt would be allowed to work together turns uncomfortably dark in the final scenes.
Who's In It: Gale Harrold, Ming-Na, John Allen Nelson, Rebecca Gayheart and many more
What's It About: A Senator's wife goes missing, and the FBI investigation suggests there's a conspiracy afoot that goes way beyond a simple kidnapping.
Pluses: Brisk pace, good cast (John Allen Nelson's come a long way from "Hunk"), a mystery that might potentially make me want to follow the entire case for a whole season.
Minuses: The key word is "might." "Prison Break" has made me very wary of this format (though, given the conspiracy angle, the senator's wife could reappear quickly without derailing the story arc), and I'm also tired of TV shows with elaborate conspiracy mythology.
Who's In It: Victor Garber, Kerr Smith, Eamonn Walker, Rebecca Mader
What's It About: "The Practice," Jerry Bruckheimer-style, with Garber as sleazy lead partner in a prominent Los Angeles criminal defense outfit and Smith as the firm's conscience.
Pluses: Garber has fun playing a narcissistic bastard. Eamonn Walker has a regular job. It's from the Bruckheimer shop, so it looks good and moves well.
Minuses: I'm personally burnt-out on the Bruckheimer formula, so my attention started wandering halfway through. Also, the pilot makes a big point of showing that their client didn't do it; will Bruckheimer's black-and-white worldview allow for a show where his heroes sometimes help guilty people go free?