Pilot Review: BELIEVE

Alfonso Cuaron AND J.J. Abrams! What could go wrong? (Several things.)

A girl lives among us. She will change the world. If she survives.

–Title Card of Doom

There are few directors hotter right now than Alfonso Cuaron, who just earned himself an Academy Award a couple weeks ago for Gravity. Anything he’s attached to is going to be worth a look, but the announcement last fall that he was executive producing (and directing the pilot for) an NBC series filled me with… well, it filled me with questions. Add J.J. Abrams to the mix, who still has yet to put his name on anything as successful as LOST (as far as television goes, anyway), and you’ve got something buzzing with — at the very least — potential. But what have they cooked up for us?

Well, it’s not very original, to start. A mashup of themes and tropes we’ve seen before many, many times, Believe is part Firestarter, part Heroes, part Touch, and a whole lot of bland nonsense. It centers on a young girl named Bo (the impeccably-monikered Johnny Sequoyah), who’s got some…special abilities. Of course, it’s just the pilot, so we don’t really have a handle on what those are, but she’s an empath, a mind-reader, a telekinetic, an excellent screamer, and kind of a precocious brat. She’s floated through different “foster families” — not in a legal sense, but in a “protect her from the bad guys” sense — until her latest set of parents get themselves killed in a car crash that she, naturally, survives.

Leading the forces of good is a man named Milton Winter (Delroy Lindo), who, along with his team, goes to great lengths to keep her safe and hide her from whatever shadowy organization/government seems to want her for her abilities. Winter’s latest plan involves springing a man from death row — long-haired, bitter, and actually innocent Tate (Jake McLaughlin) — and assigning him the recently opened position. The pilot is dominated by Bo and Tate’s initial meeting at a hospital and ensuing chase scenes, as a deadly assassin chick (Sienna Guillory) is hot on their trail.

This leads to the climactic WTF moment you’ve seen in the commercials, as the assassin discovers Winter’s safe house, and Bo unleashes a flock of birds (I know!) to cover their escape. Suddenly Tate and Bo are on their own, without any of the cash Tate was promised as payment, but with the knowledge that there are some pretty determined people to catch both of them. Winters promises his team will “protect” them, whatever that means — it doesn’t mean guns, because they’re “the good guys,” you know — but it seems like Bo is going to have to do most of the work here.

There’s a bit more plot and explanation than this, but it was all pretty rushed and confusing. Tate accepts the job of being Bo’s guardian because, as a death row escapee, he essentially has no other choice. Unfortunately, he and Bo dislike each other right off the bat. When the girl gets personally involved with a doctor at the hospital (Rami Malek), telling him how his dad is proud of him and he’ll fall in love with a woman named “Senga,” even showing up at his house to remind him, Tate doesn’t really buy a word of it — even though he himself is unable to explain why he suddenly started crying the moment he first saw Bo. (Her explanation: “You remembered how good you used to be.”) Okay then.

If Cuaron is going to have a hand in the storytelling going forward, as is reported, that will hopefully be a good thing, but his tin ear for dialogue (a lot of it meant to be funny) is still an issue here. There are a few sequences that are actually neat and exciting — thinking first of the Children of Men-apeing single-taker that opened the show, and a couple fluid handheld moves later in the episode — but he’s not the series’s director going forward, and he’s not the showrunner. In fact, they’ve already replaced showrunners twice: Jonas Pate (Deception) replaced Dave Erickson, who replaced Mark Friedman. That doesn’t sound like a show that knows what it wants to be.

In any case, the pilot is decent if unremarkable. Sequoyah manages to not be annoying as Bo, and McLaughlin brings a Karl Urban-esque glower that, one suspects, will warm up over time. The two bounce off each other well, which is pretty critical. The minor characters are essentially paper cutouts at this point, save Lindo’s overly earnest Winter, and we don’t actually have a clue who the bad guys are (though Kyle McLachlan has something to do with it). It’s always nice to see Rami Malek, too, though it’s hard to say if he’s actually going to be a recurring character. The producers have already reduced Guillory’s role, apparently opting for a dreary “bad guy of the week” structure in lieu of more serialization. That’s another bad sign.

Ultimately, there’s just not a lot here to be excited about, especially on an epically crowded Sunday night lineup. Believe feels too overly familiar, and while it doesn’t take itself too seriously (a bit of wordless confusion at the hospital between Tate and the assassin was the pilot’s best gag), the actual plotting is convoluted and relying too heavily on the “Mystical Child” archetype, which bores me to tears. But NBC is pretty desperate to make it work, given the names involved and the heavy promotion its received — I just won’t be a part of it. Decent pilot, but not enough for me to commit. Maybe you’ll disagree.

Oh, and Tate is actually Bo’s father, so there’s that. Hoo boy.

As a single hour of television: B-
As something trying to make me come back for more: C+

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