Saturday, September 26, 2015

Pilot Review: The Player

The Player (Thursdays at 10:00 on NBC)

When a drama doesn't pretend to be anything more than it's supposed to be, I can appreciate it. If it doesn't take itself too seriously or have delusions of grandeur, I can at least have a little bit fun along with the creators. Sometimes shows are unabashedly silly and over-the-top (think Revenge or early episodes of Glee), and that can translate to an enjoyable, if unimpressive or stimulating, hour of viewing. The Player looks like it will fit quite nicely into this television niche.

The trick to being a ridiculous kind of show like I just mentioned is that the plot, acting, and/or characterization have to at least be earnest. Like on Revenge, no matter how inane the story got, Madeline Stowe still chewed her scenes to bits, and Glee had a big heart to back up its strange characters and story beats. On The Player, all of these points are true. We meet Alex Kane (Strike Back's Philip Winchester), a security expert in Las Vegas with a dark past. After thwarting an attempt on a foreign dignitary's family's lives, Kane is visited by his ex-wife, Ginny (Daisy Betts, Last Resort); the two rekindle their romance, but it is short-lived: Ginny is murdered that night, and Kane fails to catch her killer. He does catch the attention of another woman, however: a mysterious blonde named Cassandra (Charity Wakefield, Wolf Hall), who offers to help him find the killer. Kane is presented with a proposition by Cassandra and her boss, Mr. Johnson (Wesley Snipes): become "The Player" in a life-or-death game of chance and prevent the killer from kidnapping the daughter of the foreign dignitary he works for, or walk away knowing that the kidnapping will happen and he did nothing about it.

It sounds a lot more complicated than it is. Essentially, the story can be boiled down to it being a combination of Person of Interest (since Mr. Johnson uses known factors and predictive science to determine when crimes will be committed) and The Transporter (since Alex Kane is basically a mercenary who accepts the game with no questions asked), a procedural based around the concept that people are nothing more than pawns in a game the wealthy and connected are betting on. With a concept like that, it's no surprise The Player feels like a small-scale action film. And it's just as much fun as those mindless, mid-summer movies full of chases (both on foot and on motorcycles), shoot-outs, jumping off buildings, fights, and more hallmarks of popcorn flicks. It's a fast-paced ride director Bharat Nalluri (The 100) takes us on, and he does an impressive job of emulating the quick-cut, adrenaline-fueled style of filmmakers like Luc Besson or Olivier Megaton or McG. The script by John Rogers (Leverage, The Librarians), who co-created along with The Blacklist producer John Fox, is not always unique or memorable, but it's lean and fun to watch when you're in the moment. There's something entertaining, brainless as it may be, about watching a guy ride a motorcycle through an abandoned mall while thugs shoot at him, before he crashes through a glass divider and jumps from the second story to the first, tumbling over a car, and popping back up to off the bad guys. It's pure fun.

Matters are helped by the fact that Philip Winchester is a totally winning action hero. He's good-looking and charming, but he can turn threatening at the drop of a hat. And Snipes is just a blast as Mr. Johnson, comically serious as he explains the stakes of "The Game" with Kane, and just plain comical as he assumes the identity of an FBI agent to get Kane out of trouble. Like I said earlier, in a story this silly, you need to have engaging performances, and Snipes provides that here. He's The Player's Madeline Stowe, if you will. And Winchester gets to play with a little emotion after his character's wife dies, and there's a fun cliffhanger of a mystery related to that to end the pilot as well. All in all, everyone, from the creators to the director to the cast, knows exactly what kind of show they want to present to the audience: a swift, exaggerated, cool hour of amusement.

The bottom line here is that a show like The Player isn't going to change the world. You won't see it represented at the main Emmys telecast next season, and you won't find it topping any critics' "Best Of..." lists for the year. That's not the kind of show it is, nor is it the kind of show it's trying to be. The Player seems content to just be an exciting, hour-long ride along the Vegas Strip. If you're just looking for something to thrill you with some easy escapism, then you'll want to take that ride with The Player.

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