Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Pilot Reviews: Helix & Bitten

Helix (Fridays at 10:00 on Syfy)

There's a really great idea at the heart of Helix, the Syfy channel's first real attempt at reclaiming the genre it mostly abandoned when it rebranded itself from Sci-Fi back in 2009. The concept of a team of Disease Control representatives attempting to contain a horrifying viral outbreak has a lot of potential. With a great cast, great direction, and a strong script, that kind of show could be entertaining, thrilling, scary, and fun. Unfortunately, not all of those elements are present in Helix.

As it stands, Helix does have quite a bit going for it. The show looks pretty great thanks to a talented art department and Battlestar Galactica's Emmy-nominated cinematographer Stephen McNutt. The central idea is strong: A team of scientists from the Center for Disease Control are called to a remote research facility in the Arctic to investigate a possible retroviral outbreak. Led by Dr. Farragut (the always wonderful Billy Campbell, whose many TV credits include The Killing, Once and Again, Tales of the City, and The 4400), who has a personal stake in the investigation since his brother is one of the infected, the team tries to find the virus's origins so it can be stopped before it spreads too far, too quickly. It's like The Andromeda Strain meets Resident Evil.

That's a pretty cool premise for a show, and it's the main reason I even gave Helix a shot (science fiction isn't really my oeuvre, and Syfy isn't exactly known for high quality television). And because I like the premise so much, I'll probably stick around for at least one more week to see how things really start to shake out (the pilot's hints at a deeper mythology are some of its most intriguing moments). If I were just to decide on the strength of the pilot whether or not to watch again, the answer would likely be "no." It's just too underwhelming, and most of the blame for that can be placed on first-time writer and creator Cameron Porsandeh. His script is dull, the dialogue and characters mostly flat and boring, which is a shame considering how interesting the whole thing could be. And if there were more talented actors and a more appropriate director bringing the script to life, Helix's pilot would have been better. But Billy Campbell's supporting cast is mostly weak, and director Jeffrey Reiner just does better with non-genre shows (Friday Night Lights being a prime example). So Helix isn't great or terrible, just a bit disappointing... but also promising and ambitious.

Bitten (Mondays at 10:00 on Syfy)

But then you could watch Bitten, which makes Helix look utterly genius. Bitten is a perfect exercise in the pedestrian: totally unoriginal, sloppily written, dully directed, and boringly presented.

Elena (Laura Vandervoort, the best thing about ABC's V revival) is a werewolf, the only female in the Danvers pack. But she's leading a double life. By day, she's a photographer in love with a great guy (Paul Greene), but by night she runs in the woods and eats the occasional small mammal. But when a wolf murders a woman on her pack's territory, she is summoned to return and help figure everything out.

It's a flimsy premise; apparently it is expanded upon in the second episode (according to other reviews from critics who were given it to watch), but there's no hint of anything that makes sense in the first episode alone. Why is Elena so important? Why is she the only female? (How does that even make sense?) What is she running from? The pilot lays the foundation for these questions, but it doesn't really provide any information. Why do I want to invest myself in a series whose mythology hasn't even been explained in the first hour? What does an urban fantasy even do in a pilot episode if not world building? I'll tell you what: nothing. That's what happens in the first episode of Bitten: nothing. A bunch of werewolves make a bunch of phone calls, a bunch of people have sex, and Elena tries to fit in with the human world by having coffee with her best friend and meeting her boyfriend's mother. It's so painfully stupid and uninteresting.

There's nothing to see here. I can't even tell you how these werewolves stack up against others, because we don't know anything about them. I can tell you that they're digitally rendered rather than live animals (like on True Blood), but they're not wolf-people (like on Being Human) and they're not overly large (like in Twilight). That's all I got. As of the pilot, I don't know if werewolves are created by bite, scratch, copulation, or all of the above. I don't know when they change form or what triggers it. All I know is that it seems only really, really attractive people turn into werewolves, and there are plenty of them in Bitten. This show is definitely directed at a female audience, since its central character is supposed to be relatable (strong, independent, beautiful), and since she's surrounded by about a dozen fit dudes in various states of undress throughout the pilot. And those shirtless men are about the only thing Bitten has going for it, aside from a forgivable performance by Vandervoort. Daegan Fryklind's script is a dull mess, alternating between cliches and nonsense, which is no surprise considering his most recent writing credits are episodes of the forgettable Canadian procedurals Motive and The Listener. Not even former 24 director Brad Turner can bring any life to his crappy dialogue and snail's-pace setup. Bitten is a bore from beginning to end. If you're looking for a were show to watch on Mondays at 10:00, just put on MTV instead to catch Teen Wolf.

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