The proliferation of online streaming options may have more or less stabilized, but the biggest services in the game have also expanded both their offerings and scope. More new television is being produced now than at any time in the history of the medium, to say nothing of the numerous worthy series that may have originally fallen through the cracks only to eventually return to compete side-by-side with them for your viewing attention. With a veritable bottomless pit of television choices culled from sources past and current, premium and broadcast, online and terrestrial, making the decision to finally watch one series over another (or, indeed, all of them) can be excruciating. Luckily, all shows, in a throwback to the age when they competed for set airtime rather than free-roaming eyeballs, tend to put their best foot forward with their premiere, or pilot, episode. “Pilot to Bombardier”, then, is a semi-regular column where DAE reviews pilots for a trio of shows pulled from its massive, crushing backlog of as yet unwatched streaming and conventional viewing options in an attempt to determine which definitely deserve a further look and which might be safely discarded.
Love – “It Begins” (Netflix)
- Year/Number of Seasons: 2016/one
- Nutshell: Leave it to me to break the laws of a new feature before I’ve even really had the chance to codify them. More than any other individual title (though the other two here mentioned at least inhabit the same plain), the new Netflix romantic comedy Love was the inspiration for this little experiment, mostly because of how unmoved, if not conflicted, its pilot left me. Once I committed to writing this piece, I realized I needed to revisit the pilot, which is not how I’d prefer to handle things going forward, though in this case there were somewhat extenuating circumstances. Since they are released as a single great glut of thrumming potential, Netflix shows are practically engineered to encourage binge viewing. If that may not have always strictly been the case before, I’d say it sure is now. How else to explain a pilot that implicitly promises on screen chemistry between engaging leads (if you doubt me, check the show title again) yet keeps them apart until literally the last possible moment? Granted, it’s an interesting approach to establish the ennui-drenched characters of Mickey (Community’s Gillian Jacobs) and Gus (writer/comedian Paul Rust) independently, subjecting each to comic frustrations and highly personal failures over a frighteningly brief stretch of time, before finally having their worlds collide like two Ford Pintos in a meadow doing 5mph. Love was produced and co-written by comedy svengali Judd Apatow, who imbues the project with the same sort of patently goofy, often cheerfully vulgar, specificity that elevated his big screen comedies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, in this case making its characters tangential (but tolerable) parts of Los Angeles’ self-aware, self-loathing, Hollywood-adjacent pseudo-hipster culture, and, therefore, their non-romantic problems, at best, minor annoyances to most any observer who lives outside that sphere. A whole lot actually happens in “It Begins” – both principals’ current romances flame out pettily and dramatically, leaving them disconnected, disillusioned, and lurching – yet hardly feels the least bit consequential. Where the show shines is in its portrayal of adrift and struggling people just getting by in a superficial landscape. Everyone longs for connection, after all, even if that involves wading waist deep into a pool party populated exclusively by cool people over a decade your junior. Everyone fantasizes they might have a chance to rekindle lost love. Everybody strives to make their world just a little better than it was the day before, even if few of us ever find themselves negotiating the kind of pressure-packed gauntlets Mickey and Gus endure the night before they both trudge off, defeated, to the same neighborhood convenience store. Love is the rare case of a pilot that can’t even be properly graded on the industry’s standard terms, though if the mild misadventures Mickey and Gus run afoul of apart are any indication of the sort of unique hurdles they might have to clear as a couple, it’s enough to get me on board for now.
- Cast likeability: If not for the presence of Jacobs, whose scatterbrained wounded idealist Britta Perry was the MVP of the back half of Community’s epic six-season run (we await the movie impatiently), Apatow’s name above the title alone probably wouldn’t be sufficient to draw me in. Britta had her share of rough edges, but Mickey sometimes seems constructed of little else. Jacobs is a natural actor and an ace comedienne, and I think she’ll do wonders with the part, given Love’s mandate/allowance for additional realism, or, rather, “realism”. Rust in the early going is a shuffling sort of deferential geek with a rarely tapped but potent capacity for testiness and resentment just underneath. Though it’s their show, there are supporting players worth noting. Australian comedian Claudia O’Doherty makes a great first impression as Mickey’s go with the flow roommate, and I hope we’re able to spend a little more time with stand-up Brett Gelman as her ineffectual boss, a passive-aggressive radio advice guru. Though I imagine he’ll at best be relegated to an occasional cameo going forward, stand-up extraordinaire Kyle Kinane deserves a shout out as Mickey’s massively immature but good-natured ex. I still have a hard time believing that was even him without the famous lumberjack beard propping him up.
- Intangibles: What I enjoy most about Love in these early stages is how organic it seems. It’s not a conventional sitcom at all, but rather a deep cut slice of life. Its L.A. setting, with all the attendant just weird enough accoutrements, is actually sort of novel for a romcom, and its characters feel authentic. There is a refreshing lack of cleverness to them that I can hardly believe I’m calling out as a virtue. The show seems committed to a warts and all assessment of two ragingly imperfect meanderers, which I find refreshing. With Apatow’s stewardship, Jacobs’ rumpled everywoman charm, Rust’s bona fides as a comedic writer, and a roll call of L.A. stand-ups probably available to contribute energetic bit parts at a moment’s notice, I have decent faith that the show will grow in both weirdness and warmth as it goes along.
- Prognosis/Long term outlook: “It Begins” is sufficient balm to keep the Love flowing for now, though not quite enough (yet) to make me want to tear into it. I can definitely envision this as a periodic check-in on a boring weekend morning kind of show. Everything will depend on what kind of chemistry Jacobs and Rust can generate and maintain, obviously, though with only a single, ten-episode season to navigate and an average show length of just over thirty minutes, Love looks like a good personal bet to go the limited distance eventually, maybe even by the time it finally feels like Spring more than three days a week.
- Availability: Streaming in full on Netflix
Girls – “Pilot” (HBO)
- Year/Number of Seasons: 2012/four streaming, with season five currently in progress on HBO
- Nutshell: Another show I kind of bent the rules to include, I had an inexplicably extreme reaction to Girls when I first attempted its pilot several years ago, abandoning it in a weird, asocial huff about a quarter way through. Then followed an extended period of self-imposed exile during which I did not feel particularly deprived, despite a tsunami of cascading praise, awards, and, eventually, controversy that made the show’s absence from my pop cultural purview difficult to fully justify. Upon further review (as a lark) for this feature, with nothing having changed in the interim except the passage of time, I find myself both surprised and terribly impressed, dealing with the very real prospect now of diving into the show headfirst based solely on the strength of this, one of the better pilots of any stripe that I’ve seen in recent years. Cut from cloth similar to the aforementioned Love, Girls skews even further toward a light, lived-in, collaborative, conversational, practically cinema verite viewpoint mainly detectable previously in the films of Whit Stillman, though with a fraction (so far) of their preciousness. Recent graduate, aspiring writer, and fluttery ingénue Hannah (writer-creator Lena Dunham) is cut off financially by her parents at a contentious dinner, and, in a panic, compounds matters when her attempt at leverage disastrously leads to her firing from a dream internship at a Manhattan publishing house. The end. The rest is really Hannah hanging out with friends and reconnecting with others, talking her way idly into condolence relations with her FWB (or, as her roommate puts it, “she’s off having gross sex with that animal”), over-self-medicating almost by accident, and pondering with not a little wonderment her rapidly deteriorating lot in life (“I figure I have enough money to last another three and a half days…seven if I don’t eat”). The supporting characters are barely glimpsed yet marvelously sketched for a show that, at this early stage, has little time for anything but intros and anecdotes. Dunham has an uncanny knack for making situations funny and relatable without being insistent, or, unlike her character, overplaying her hand, and is exhilaratingly unafraid to either write or inhabit a polarizing character. Speaking solely of myself – because everyone else has seen it – who knows what Girls might eventually grow into, though its first steps exude a level of confident ease I find vanishingly rare on television, the sort of quality you tend to subconsciously project onto the shows you do choose to watch, whether or (more often) not it’s actually present.
- Cast likeability: I realize it seems silly to speak of actors and characters that have, in some cases, been around long enough to become a significant part of their viewers’ lives like they were caricatures you just met at some party, but that’s part of the theoretical fun of this process. Girls’ lead trio posits Dunham’s idealist as the sphere of influence both claimed by and ideologically wedged between her best friend and altogether sensible roommate Marnie (Allison Williams) and loose-tongued, free-spirited mutual friend Jessa (Jemima Kirke), a couch-surfing Frances Ha-style bohemian recently returned from Europe with an excess of stories and romantic cache. The three girls appear and interact so winningly and naturally that they occasionally blind the audience to the greater needs of conventional storytelling. The show’s only demerit of note comes when the circle expands to a quartet with the inclusion of the wide-eyed Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), who idolizes her continental cousin Jessa and confounds us both with her abiding, effusive love of the proto-Girls HBO mega-series Sex and the City, another show I rejected out of hand long ago, except without the eventual reprieve. Hannah’s scandalous boy toy is played by Adam Driver, a.k.a. Young Kylo Ren, with an understated charm and undeniable presence that would one day help blaze his path to a galaxy far, far away.
- Intangibles: For starters, I’d forgotten that Love impresario Judd Apatow also served as executive producer of Girls until I saw his name appear in the end credits. He has, of course, proven fairly terrific over the years not merely at shepherding his own projects but at mentoring young talent as they crafted and approached their breakthrough moments. Girls immediately one-ups and blows by the not altogether different in subject matter Love in terms of its pilot, which has everything to do with the depth and potency of Dunham’s authorial voice. I’m legitimately looking forward to watching these characters bounce off each other and grow, which is something I rarely feel overtly at this point in my appraisal of a young show. They certainly have ample room and potential to do both. At a minimum, I’m also intrigued because Girls seems poised to offer a more thoughtful and honest exploration of what it is to be young and living in New York City (a personal equation I once romanticized and even pined for, that sadly never came together) than the standard assortment of attractive coeds of suspiciously advanced age somehow spending their days lounging around shoebox mid-town apartments that each probably cost 4x the rent I’m paying in urban Ohio.
- Prognosis/Long term outlook: The biggest reason for my reticence to tackle Girls, now that I’ve overcome whatever culture shock gut reaction initially caused me to recoil from it, remains its scope. Four thirteen-episode seasons, with one in progress, and a final sixth yet to debut in 2017, is an awful lot of literate gabbing and quirky minutiae for me to parse, even at only a half hour per, and I worry, through no true fault of the show’s, that I might still not have the stomach for it long term. Dunham’s writing is charming and incisive, however, and her characters have the authentic spark of life. The mood she sets is both appropriately mildly neurotic and appealingly chill. I am well intrigued, and, as of this moment, would probably put my personal over/under at two seasons, not one. That’s at least progress.
- Availability: Streaming in full on HBO Go; Seasons one and two also available on Amazon Prime
Arrow – “Pilot” (CW)
- Year/Number of Seasons: 2012/three streaming, with season four in progress on CW
- Nutshell: The DC Comics bench player Green Arrow hit the small screen at unfortunately almost exactly the wrong time to either woo or convert me. An apparent sucker for a superhero tale – any superhero tale – I nevertheless purposely sat out Arrow’s first two seasons in real time, in large part due to prejudicial notions that boutique broadcast network The CW – famous home of unmanly twaddle like Dawson’s Creek and Gilmore Girls but, for rationalization purposes, apparently not also of personal faves like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Veronica Mars – would be unable to do it proper justice. By the time the chorus of critics and fans praising Arrow became too loud and diverse to be comfortably ignored, rival comic house Marvel had already flooded if not exactly cornered the television superhero market with entertaining and substantive offerings of both the rollicking broadcast (Agent Carter) and grittier pay (Daredevil) varieties, all four situated comfortably on the spectrum separating the merely good (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) from the frigging outstanding (Jessica Jones). Arrow then is largely a victim of circumstance in addition to its own flaws, which though not insubstantial are at least correctible. Lost at sea and presumed long dead, trust fund billionaire Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) miraculously returns to his bustling and corrupt home metropolis (FYI – not Metropolis) after being rescued by a Japanese freighter. This homecoming naturally throws the lives of his friends and family for a loop, as well as, unbeknownst to them, Starling City’s unscrupulous power brokers and teeming criminal element, for Queen developed and honed peerless, frankly astonishing physical skills over five years alone on his isolated island, and now harbors nasty, nebulous plans for the city’s various evildoers. In its urban blight, income inequality, and apparent zeal to foster evil, Starling City as a setting is a fairly unimaginative cross between Gotham and Hell’s Kitchen, which is appropriate, since Arrow’s titular vigilante is himself a whiplash-inducing juxtaposition of Batman and Daredevil, with Avenger Hawkeye’s archery prowess as his calling card and the unreformed billionaire playboy cover of Iron Man’s Tony Stark to hide behind. To the already derivative mix, our benevolent CW overlords add a subtle but detectable soap opera element, a fun and truly explosive action component, the breathless expository skills of an excited second grader, and what feels like an enthusiastically enforced per-episode quota of shirtless Oliver Queen moments. What they don’t contribute is something unquestionably new, or even novel. This isn’t even necessarily all Arrow’s fault so much as the price of competing in a crowded marketplace. I’m interested enough to stick around a while yet, but based on what I’d heard going in, I ended up surprised that neither Queen nor his show vaulted to the front of the line.
- Cast likeability: We all know there’s a heart of gold beating beneath that absurdly chiseled, 20% scar tissue-covered shell. Amell has quite enough innate charisma to make the debutantes and club girls melt upon contact (I imagine his money functions as a natural accelerant) and, thankfully, the ability to project some degree of mystery rather than just the vacancy inherent in his station. Still and all, he’s almost distractingly pretty and, at any rate, far too perfect for whatever room in which he currently stands. Amell spends naught but Arrow’s infrequent but impactful action sequences and his character’s moments of utmost, cover-saving jerkitude looking and functioning like all-world NFL quarterback Tom Brady at a perpetual, post-victory press conference, albeit a version with slightly more personality. If it seems I’m disparaging Amell unfairly for the gift of his looks, and how the show chooses to highlight/utilize them, you are, of course, correct. It’ll be up to him (and it) to convince me there’s much more of worth hiding behind that stubbly yet refined exterior. Elsewhere, the Arrow pilot checks off predictable boxes and debuts a menagerie of practically predestined foils for its hero: the little sister (with a secret), the obnoxious best friend (with a secret), the protective mother (with a secret), and the shadowy stepfather (who at least seems above board in his immediate untrustworthiness), each played by an attractive actor or actress for whom I at least initially felt a whole lot of nothing. I did find Queen’s resourceful, resentful ex-girlfriend Laurel, played by fetching TV vet Katie Cassidy, somewhat independently interesting, primarily for the way she seemed able to look past the shiny surface of things and make connections that those around her were either too preoccupied or obtuse to attempt.
- Intangibles: Arrow looks good, feels balanced, and moves briskly, unpacking enough background in 42 minutes to comfortably fill a feature, while never letting whatever aspect (action, mystery, interpersonal) it’s currently highlighting overwhelm the others. The show is blessed with the sort of photogenic cast that offers something worth aesthetically following for viewers of both genders, even if, in personality terms, it’s so far all flint and no fire. The intermittent action sequences, however, are excellent from the get-go, heart-pumping displays of kinetic, tightly choreographed chaos, and reason enough alone to check out the show. If five years on a deserted island was sufficient to produce a flawless and finely-tuned killing machine like Oliver Queen, I’ve got to think that people of means would already be clamoring to follow his example. Recognize an awesome business idea when it’s staring you in the face, kid. Label your mystery island as a boot camp slash wilderness retreat slash day spa, and charge whatever you like to attend. Pump out a brochure or, preferably, a hastily coded website, then prepare to watch it crash due to all the traffic.
- Prognosis/Long term outlook: My favorite type of show to binge is generally of Arrow’s 42-minute “hour drama minus commercials” variety. The model for broadcast television complicates matters, with its episode order typically in the low twenties as opposed to thirteen, twelve, or even fewer on cable, so each season becomes by definition a mouthful. Arrow’s pilot is a smooth, slightly generic place-setter that didn’t particularly cry out to me for an immediate encore, though I’m sure it’ll eventually get one. I’ve been repeatedly informed that the show is both worthwhile and compulsively watchable, which is worth a reprieve at least long enough to analyze the data for myself. Still, it’s nothing that’s going to supplant or even impede the looming second season of Daredevil on my priority list.
- Availability: Three seasons available to stream on Netflix; Season four available on Hulu Plus