Deeper issues on the small screen?: A fall 2015 premier guide

Am I crazy, or have some broadcast TV shows have been tackling more complex, philosophically challenging concepts lately? Obviously there’s my beloved “Hannibal,” but there’s also “The Last Man on Earth,” which–at least when it was about a last man on Earth–was a fascinating study of a thought experiment everyone’s probably pondered. Will that trend continue in 2015? Or will every show just be a clone of “The Blacklist”? Only one way to tell: watch more television. For the moment, I’ve settled for five premiers.

“Blindspot”

An FBI agent (Sullivan Stapleton) discovers Jane Doe (Jaimie Alexander), a naked woman covered in tattoos, in a duffle bag in the middle of Times Square. Doe has no memory of her identity, but she can speak Mandarin, knows Brazilian jujitsu and her tattoos appear to be clues to upcoming international crimes. Deciding that these might be skills useful for both figuring out who she is and helping the FBI fight crime, the FBI enlists her to help them figure out who she is and fight crime.

NBC’s new show has a cute premise, and it certainly could lend itself to philosophical speculation. Memory has always been attached to theories of identity, from the Roman orator Seneca to Christopher Nolan’s “Memento.” “Blindspot” seems to be taking an existentialist slant right off the bat. Memory is not identity, but choice is, one FBI analyst says to Doe, urging her, if she can’t remember old choices, to make new ones.

Nevertheless, the show is fairly artless in its production. There is nothing visually outstanding, and the performances, while solid, lack nuance–with the possible exception of Alexander, who looks mildly surprised by her hidden talents as they emerge. We’ll see how the character of Doe develops, but my suspicions are that “Blindspot” will prove to be an entertaining, but not engaging, piece of high concept…unless the show keeps playing with notions of identity.

“Minority Report”

Between Fox’s “Minority Report” and Amazon’s “Man in the High Castle,” reality bending sci fi writer Philip K. Dick is having a small screen emergence. I am a tremendous PKD fan, but I try to be wary of adaptations, so I had high-ish hopes for “Minority Report” The show takes place a few years after the film of the same name; the precogs, who saw the future and foiled crimes before they happened, have been set free, and crimes are solved like they were in the old days. However, precog Dash (Stark Sands) seeks out sympathetic Detective Lara Vega (Meagan Good) so he can put his partial powers back to use as a crime solving seer.

There was hardly a sci fi writer more metaphysically profound than PKD, so one kind of expects at least a little metaphysical profundity from adaptations of his work. No such luck with “Minority Report.” The first episode actually brought up the issue of arresting people who haven’t committed crimes yet–suggesting themes like fate and individual freedom. But “Minority Report” dodged dealing this those issues almost immediately, and it looks like it will follow a standard monster-of-the-week format. Of course, a show doesn’t have to be philosophically profound to be good, but it certainly helps, especially when it’s offering up the potential of a story penned by Philip K. Dick. I’m no precog but, to quote the eight ball, “outlook not so good.” Oh well. I might keep watching, but I’ll retain my higher hopes for “Man in the High Castle.”

“Scream Queens”

There were a few reasons why I had been looking forward to the premier of this. First off, just look at that lineup: showrunners Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy (“American Horror story”), and actresses Emma Roberts (“Scream 4”) and Jamie Lee Curtis (“Halloween”). Also, I just came off a ten-hour high of MTV’s “Scream” (I binge watched the series in a day), so I figured watching the two-hour premier of “Scream Queens” would be a breeze.

Well, it was. “Scream Queens” was delightfully over the top, funny in the most comically inappropriate places and gory in all the right spots. Someone is killing the sisters of Kappa House. The sorority’s fearless leader is the outburst prone ice queen Chanel Oberlin (Roberts), who tries to rally the sisters and figure out who is mowing the heads off of sorority rushes, all while hiding a few bodies in an oversized freezer herself.

Is “Queens” a deep show? Not really, although you might make the argument that it has a class system critique going on (ABC’s soapy “Blood and Oil” has similar possibility), and it certainly takes comical advantage of teen culture. It is, however, handsomely photographed–between this and “Gotham,” Fox has the best looking shows on broadcast. The question is how long can “Queens” maintain? Playing for camp can be very effective, but there is a fine line between lame and lunacy. “AHS” sometimes got so over the top it toppled over, but perhaps by grounding “Queens” in realit–no supernatural (so far)–it will stay down to earth. As for still looking pretty…that’s just a matter of keeping smart people in the director’s seat.

“Quantico”

Alex Parrish (Priyanka Chopra), with about 50 others, heads to Quantico for the final phase of FBI training. Nine months later, New York is rocked by a terrorist attack helmed by a traitorous member of the Parrish’s graduating class. She’s the chief suspect so, as is the way of things, Parrish goes on the run to solve the case herself and clear her name.

Pleasantly produced, “Quantico” is easy on the eyes–and I’m not just talking about the cast (ABC clearly has a couple of bucks to spend here). There is also the potential, if not downright demand, for psychological speculation on what makes traitors and patriots tick, but if the writers play their cards right, there might also be some serious debate about identity and morality as well. I would have loved to see a “Usual Suspects”/”True Detective”-style juxtaposition between the past and the present, but it looks like “Quantico” has taken us out of the interrogation room. No doubt tension will now arise from more physical and carnal, and less subtle, sources. Regardless, even if the show doesn’t raise too many deeper issues, it looks like a promising new thriller. At least it looks a little different. Case in point…

“Limitless”

I am only familiar with the premise of the film “Limitless”: average Joe takes smart pill and finds himself in thriller. In the case of CBS’s new thriller, the average Joe is adult loser Brian Finch (Jake McDorman), who is given super brain drug NZT by a friend to make something of himself. When his friend who turns up dead, Finch is pursued by FBI agent Rebecca Harris (“Dexter’s” Jennifer Carpenter), who believes he probably is the murderer. But she’s got a soft spot for him, so not only does Harris help Finch clear his name, she takes him on as a permanent assignment to trace the source of the NZT.

The premier of “Limitless” picked up some of the movie’s “ain’t-this-cool” sheen, from the way the world transformed from drab blue to vibrant gold when Finch took his medicine to his constant narration, interspersed with graphs and time-lapse photography to explain his motivations to the audience. The fourth wall is still in tact, but Finch is certainly chipping at it. However, the notions of drug abuse that were part of film have apparently been swept under the rug by the end of the first episode, so it looks like we’re in for a “guy with special powers helps the FBI stop a monster-of-the-week” show.

Wait a second, why does that sound familiar? Right, there were two other shows I just talked about that can be reduced to that formula: person with interesting powers helps the FBI (the Federal Bureau of Investigation in “Blindspot” and “Limitless,” the Future Bureau of Investigation in “Minority Report”) to solve crimes. This is not so promising.

I realize my beloved “Hannibal” was superficially the same formula…although, to be fair, it was a slight subversion of “let’s help the FBI”; likewise, I haven’t heard “Minority Report” or “Limitless” compared to a pretentious art film, nor have I heard their characters discuss the nature of reality. As soon as that happens, believe me, I’ll be happy to apologize.

Silence: MTV’s “Scream” and remembering Wes Craven

We lost Wes Craven the other week. Craven was never my favorite director–although I do have a soft spot for Freddy Krueger–but in reviewing his work I have come to realize what an intelligent craftsman he was. Craven was a meta-filmmaker. Not subtly, like Alfred Hitchcock,who was more interested in the psychological implications of film as a voyeuristic vehicle, but somewhat blatantly, less intellectually perhaps, but in no less a valid way. Craven’s point was simply that we like scary movies because we like being scared and we like movies. As a result, his movies were fun–the self reference of “Scream” and the media savvy of its sequels, even the wisecracks and dreamscapes of Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare of Elm Street series, were clever winks to the audience. It also didn’t hurt that Craven’s seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of film made him a highly controlled director. Craven will be missed for the elegance and intelligence he brought to horror, but he will mostly be missed for the sense of fun he brought to his scares.

So it was with trepidation that I approached MTV’s “Scream,” which ended earlier this month. It will be one of the last things that bears Craven’s name, so I wanted it to be good, but I know that television adaptations can be letdowns–especially from a television station whose idea of “compelling” can be teenage plastic surgery. So imagine my surprise when “Scream” ended up being not bad at all, especially for fans of the film series.

There are tons of references to the original “Scream,” some so subtly woven into the series I had to re-view the movie to catch a few. Aside from a killer on the phone (the mask is different this time around), there is: a first murder by a pool, a missing parent, a pair of lawbreakers and a party that goes horribly awry. Some of the show’s characters act as mirrors to characters from the film as well, so we have a walking collection of horror trivia, a pushy reporter and a burgeoning filmmaker. There’s also a nice homage to “Pulp Fiction” in the ninth episode, as well as scads of verbal references to quality horror from Hitchcock’s “Psycho” to Bryan Fuller’s “Hannibal.”

But “Scream” is more than a set of clever references. The show functions as a critique on high school pecking orders, but also on social media and instant communication, which is usually perceived as making us safer and more connected, but here it is turned into a tool of division and danger (seriously, you’ll start to wonder why anyone trusts text messages after the second episode). A dedicated horror fan might be a bit disappointed by the seeming lack of murders a few episodes in, but there is gore galore when there is gore, and a couple of murders in the last couple of episodes are quite creative. My favorite part–getting my kicks less from blood and more from atmosphere–came during the abandoned party scene. Even the music, a mixture of pleasantly downbeat indie rock and oddly Vivaldi-esque incidental music, is a nice surprise. There are also some talented players in the group, including John Karna, who is quite comfortable as the too-smart slasher movie guru Noah Foster, and the delightful Carlson Young, who is a master at handling her high school snark as slightly sophisticated and believably world weary 11th grade queen bee Brooke Maddox.

“Scream” isn’t “Hannibal,” but it’s probably better than “Bates Motel,” which declined in quality after its first season when it stopped understanding its central characters. “Scream” has no such problem (yet…it is scheduled for a second season) as it never forgets that high schoolers are pretentious backstabbers. It really does get hard to tell who can be trusted–you probably will suspect the real killer, along with a sea of people who aren’t murderers but are doing genuinely bad things.

None of the directors can quite match the visual intelligence of Craven–except perhaps MTV vet Jamie Travis, who has racked up an impressive number of surreal comedy shorts and helms the stunning pilot episode and season finale. But the show does have a tendency to slip into soap, particularly in the first half after a lull in the murders. Unlike “Pretty Little Liars”–not that I watch that show, of course–the soap is not so outlandish as to provide enough camp to muscle through. So it’s curious when the final reveal borders on incredulous to a noticeable degree, and the character in question undergoes a rather unbelievable personality change. Oh well. Maybe incredulity is why we watch horror movies to begin with. Maybe that’s the fun of it.