Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Pilot Reviews: No Tomorrow & Frequency

Back in May, The CW had very few changes to make to its primetime schedule. Their roster of shows is steady in the ratings, with The Flash often out-rating the Big Four, and even their lesser-viewed shows were huge critical successes; Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, for example, became the network's second show in a row to pick up the Golden Globe for Lead Actress in a Comedy Series and then won a pair of Emmys last month for its editing and choreography, the first for any show on The CW. With the acquisition of Supergirl from sister network CBS, The CW had very few holes to plug. But not ones to rest on their laurels, the net has debuted two new shows this fall: the apocalyptic romantic comedy No Tomorrow and time-travel cop drama Frequency, neither of which, unfortunately, come close to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jane the Virgin, or the DC shows.

No Tomorrow (Tuesdays at 9:00 on The CW)

The first (and better) freshman to join the ranks is No Tomorrow, a quirky rom-com from former Jane the Virgin writer and The Good Wife Emmy nominee Connie Brinkerhoff. Evie (Tori Anderson, Killjoys) is stuck in an uninteresting job in a warehouse at an Amazon-esque company with a strict boss (Amy Pietz, Caroline in the City) and little hope of advancement. But then she meets free-spirited Xander (Galavant himself, Joshua Sasse) and the two have an undeniable chemistry. The problem is, though, that Xander is convinced the world will end in just over eight months.

The juxtaposition of a by-the-book type with a free-spirited, hippie type isn't new. The apocalypse being nigh also isn't a unique idea. The two being brought together in an off-center comedy isn't even new (see 2012's Seeking a Friend for the End of the World). So right off the bat, No Tomorrow feels extremely familiar. It's clearly trying to push the boundaries of what a rom-com can be, much like Jane and Ex-Girlfriend, but it's not quite there yet. Brinkerhoff's pilot script handles the offbeat portions of the story and characters well, though, including one who speaks so quietly that subtitles appear on screen. Xander, similarly, isn't played as a nutjob as you would expect a doomsday truther to be; he's a former scientist who arrived at the conclusion that an asteroid will destroy Earth after several thorough calculations (he's tried to contact NASA, but they haven't gotten back to him). Could he be crazy, or at least have suffered some kind of mental break? Sure. But he also may know what he's talking about, which seems to be Evie's dilemma. But as the script argues, it doesn't really matter either way. Xander lives his life like it's ending, and that rubs off on Evie (in good and bad ways) and gets her to go after what she really wants and enjoy herself. In that vein, it's a very typical, uplifting, sweet romantic comedy.

On the other hand, there are some unexpected elements that suggest No Tomorrow has potential to move beyond its roots as a cutesy, standard rom-com with overly attractive leads checking items off a bucket list. Evie actually has some agency here. Rather than letting Xander be her guide and following him around like a lovesick puppy, she gives him a late-episode dressing down for trying to control her. There are also specific references to the genre the show is a part of, including a line from one of Evie's friends imploring her, "Just don't be one of those women defined by a quest to find a guy." There are several moments like this where No Tomorrow nods to the audience, as if telling us they're going to be doing something different than what we expect; Evie laying down the law with Xander is just one way they do it.

Of course, it helps that Anderson and Sasse have such great chemistry and that the supporting characters are well (and hilariously) defined. There's hope that No Tomorrow will become something more substantial in future episodes, even when the pilot is a mostly standard exercise in a familiar genre.

Frequency (Wednesdays at 9:00 on The CW)

I wish I felt the same hope for Frequency, but I found the pilot painful. Yet another series based on a film, the moderately successful but little-remembered 2000 Dennis Quaid/Jim Caviezel drama of the same name, Frequency is about as mediocre as they come. In this iteration, Peyton List (The Tomorrow People) plays Raimy Sullivan, a young NYPD detective who grew up in the shadow of her father Frank (Riley Smith, True Blood), an undercover cop who went bad and got killed twenty years ago. Upon rediscovering her dad's old ham radio in the shed, Raimy realizes she can communicate with Frank across time. She realizes everything she thought she knew about her father was false, so she rushes to save his life and succeeds, setting a butterfly effect in motion that changes the present in heartbreaking ways.

For starters, I'm sick to death of time travel shows. The CW already has The Flash routinely traveling across time periods to save (or not save) parents from dying, which is just what Frequency is doing. Then the idea of ramifications in the present for changing the past is also being presented on NBC's new Monday night show Timeless, and then ABC has Time After Time coming at midseason. It's overload, for sure, and that's likely what sinks Frequency, in my eyes, more than anything. It feels so stale alongside so many similar shows, and at least those shows try to explain themselves (The Flash using superhero logic which makes sense in its universe, and Timeless trying to use actual science). Frequency gives us a lightning storm and then a glowing light emanating from within an old radio. It's cheesy as hell, yet it's played straight, particularly by a deadly serious Peyton List.

It's not just the overall premise that's iffy. The first half of the pilot is devoted to Frank's increasing indignation that someone is messing with him and Raimy trying to prove whether or not this could really be her dead father she's speaking to (for some reason, she uses World Series statistics to prove herself, because every 28 year old woman has encyclopedic knowledge of baseball games that occurred when she was in third grade). So when the day of Frank's death comes and we learn that he actually decided he believes the disembodied voice on his radio to be that of his now-grown daughter, thereby saving his life, it feels too sudden. Rather than establishing Raimy and Frank as separate characters in their own timelines, we get a shitload of plot thrown at us and characters drawn in bold strokes: Raimy works hard because her father was a disgrace, Frank just wants to be good at his job and good at being a father but can't find a balance. (The supporting players in the present timeline barely speak, but we get just enough information to deduce that one guy is Raimy's boyfriend and another is a friend. That's about it.) Rather than getting a final act with some character development following Frank's survival on that night in 1996 (considering Raimy gets a rush of twenty years worth of new memories after that happens), we get even more plot setting up the ramifications of his not dying. For Frequency's premise to work, we have to care about the characters and consequences, but Jeremy Carver's (Supernatural) script doesn't get there.

Sure, the pilot is full of action, and it's rarely boring to watch. But it's also not involving. I didn't end the first hour caring whatsoever about Raimy or Frank or what happens to them next. Frequency is dreary and takes itself too seriously to be entertaining, but it also doesn't study its characters closely enough to be the deep, affecting drama it clearly wants to be.

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