Alfonso Cuaron's bold direction tops Alfonso Cuaron's clunky script
[In case you've Forgotten, and as I will continue to mention each and every one of these posts that I do: This is *not* a review. Pilots change. Sometimes a lot. Often for the better. Sometimes for the worse. But they change. Actual reviews will be coming in September and perhaps October (and maybe midseason in some cases). This is, however, a brief gut reaction to not-for-air pilots. I know some people will be all "These are reviews." If you've read me, you've read my reviews and you know this isn't what they look like.]
The Pitch: "Maybe the reason nobody watched 'Touch' is because it needed just a dash of 'The Fury' and a dollop of 'Rectify' on the side."
Quick Response: NBC's midseason drama may be one of the year's most intriguing pilots, but it also has a serious cast of Agiftednanitis, which may prove fatal. Agiftednanitis is, of course, named after the CBS pilot "A Gifted Man," which featured a nonsensically New Age-y script that was marvelously undercut and clarified by Jonathan Demme's pilot direction. Every second I watched the pilot, I knew that everything I liked about it would vanish when Demme went to do other things. Now, Alfonso Cuaron is unlikely to vanish entirely from "Believe." He wrote the pilot and he's an executive producer. But Alfonso Cuaron, like fellow "Believe" executive producer J.J. Abrams, has several things on his plate and probably won't be 100 percent involved in the day-to-day. And that's too bad, because there are moments of stunning craft on display in the "Believe" pilot, moments that pretty much only could have been crafted by the director of "Children of Men" and "Believe." There are dazzling tracking shots and dizzying moments from distorted POVs and, when he wants to, Cuaron gets an intimacy with his framing that can be breathtaking. Were this a silent pilot about a girl with special powers and the death row inmate mysteriously entrusted with keeping her safe, I'd be calling "Believe" the year's best pilot. Unfortunately, it is not and for all of Cuaron's gifts as a director, his liabilities as a writer of English-language dialogue are nearly as severe. As fluid as Cuaron is with the camera, he's clumsy with theme and plausible characters and as strong as his eye is, his ear is weak. So I was nodding my head in appreciation one moment and cringing the next and, actually, sometimes I was doing both at once. As the hyper-powerful, not-so-vaguely messianic kid at the show's center, newcomer Johnny Sequoyah definitely fulfills the Drew Barrymore/Chloe Grace Moretz requirements for astounding on-screen composure and preternatural wisdom. She doesn't make Bo feel like a human child, but she's pretty much not, so that's OK. I'm far less convinced by Jake McLaughlin as Bo's confused and initially hostile protector. McLaughlin is California-born, but struggles so poorly with tone and inflection that I just assumed he was just another Australian or British interloper holding back because of his accent difficulties. I spent 40 minutes hating McLaughlin, but at the very end he and Sequoyah find a little rapport that made me think that, with the right seasoning, he could have the upside of a Surfer Lee Pace. Delroy Lindo is left to bear the brunt of so much mumbo-jumbo about faith and belief that I'm 85% sure he's playing his character from "A Life Less Ordinary," which would probably be a spoiler if it's true. The tripe about miracles and spirituality is slightly palatable here because of the sheer fun of watching Cuaron fiddle around with the limitations of a new medium in the same way that several of Stephen King's more religiously inclined books mostly work because of his demented pop culture glee. That perverse glee is actually exactly what "Believe" could really use in subsequent episodes, because the idea of an exquisitely directed version of "Touch" will lose a lot of its pleasure when the exquisite direction goes elsewhere. [NBC has experience maintaining some level of aesthetic originality on "Awake" and "Hannibal" without visionary director David Slade and there's at least *some* chance that what "Believe" loses without Cuaron's direction, it could gain from better writing. But it's a small chance.]
Desire To Watch Again: Because of Jonathan Demme, I liked the pilot for "A Gifted Man" enough that I watched *way* more than I should have (and way more than it sounds like star Patrick Wilson was fully invested) and I'm nervous about going down that path again. I definitely want to see what a few episodes of "Believe" look like without Cuaron at the helm, but I wish this could be one of those new-fangled Event Series, with Cuaron doing a full limited run. Yup. Wary.
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All of my 2012 Take Me To The Pilots Entries
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All of my 2010 Take Me To The Pilots Entries