[05/31/11 - 02:16 PM]
The Futon's First Look: "17th Precinct" (NBC)
By Brian Ford Sullivan (TFC)

Please note: As a courtesy, please do not reproduce these comments to newsgroups, forums or other online places. Links only please.

Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2011-2012 season, now in its sixth year! Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season (or one that didn't make the cut) and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot. Keep in mind that a lot can change from what's being screened right now - recasting, reshooting, etc. - but we still want to give you a heads up on what you should (and shouldn't) keep on your radar in the coming months. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!

[IMPORTANT NOTE: The following is based on the original sales presentation which was screened to us privately or supplied by a third party NOT an informational, not-for-review screener provided by the network in question.]

(written by Ronald D. Moore; directed by Michael Rymer; TRT: 43:34)

The network's description: No official description was released.

What did they leave out? Kristin Kreuk had been cast as the wife of Jamie Bamber's character however she was not featured in the presentation.

The plot in a nutshell: "Oil, electricity, coal: the power that drives modern society," Deputy Chief Inspector Wilder Blanks (Eamonn Walker) explains in the opening narration. "But what if science had never been invented? What if we relied on... magic? What if plants and fire powered our world? And what if the police solved crimes in ways that we can't imagine? This is 17th Precinct." And with that we meet Detectives Bosson (a scruffy James Callis, with his native accent) and Longstreet (a clean-shaven Jamie Bamber, sans his native accent). A man has been murdered in the North Beach area of the City of Excelsior (think San Francisco, but covered in CGI plants).

And what at first appears to be your typical police investigation proves to be anything but: Longstreet waves his hand and captures pictures of the crime scene into a blank book; Bosson casts a spell that allows them to literally trace the path of the blood spatter to its place of origin; and most improbable of all, the coroner necromancer Dr. Morgana Kurlansky (a raven-haired Tricia Helfer) literally speaks to the dead body for a few moments. It turns out the man in question is Donald Pynchon, the city's Executive Prophet - the man responsible for Excelsior's annual forecast for the coming year.

Even worse, the 17th's Chief (the aforementioned Wilder Blanks) is receiving visions of his own: that "an old foe has returned to strike at our way of life," a group known as the Stoics. To combat the ominous threat, he reaches out to Mira Barkley (Stockard Channing), a once famed homicide detective who's exiled herself to an easier life in the robbery division. She reluctantly agrees only to find herself paired with the fresh-faced James Travers (Matt Long) not to mention reunited with her old flame Lisa, now Liam, Butterfield (Esai Morales; "I'm not Lisa anymore, inside or out," he notes), Blanks's number two at the station. Their first case: a nuisance call involving an apartment building that might have a curse on it.

And so we follow Bosson and Longstreet, Travers and Barkley down their respective procedural rabbit holes, learning a little bit more about life in Excelsior along the way: cars are driven without steering wheels; small discs that fire bursts of magical energy serve as the police's sidearms; the "internet" is a series of pneumatic tubes with smoke passing through them; and plants, lots of plants, serve as the city's seemingly endless power grid. Ultimately their cases start to overlap: Pynchon was killed before he could deliver a prophecy foretelling the same doom and gloom from Blanks's visions and said curse was done in order to murder a woman, a professor in magical engineering at Cal. It seems someone or a group of someones is killing the leading minds in the world of magic. Or are they? Like any procedural, not all is as it initially seems.

What doesn't work: It's just a weird show. Tonally it's played just like any other procedural: chyrons indicate places, dates and times a la "Law & Order"; forensics play a big part of the investigations a la "CSI"; and hell, even the opening teaser ends on a David Caruso-esque moment (Bosson: "He was too busy to see his own death coming."). What you actually see however toes the line between silly and cool. A "gunfight" between Blanks and a suspect set against the backdrop of total silence due to a spell the latter cast in order to sneak up on his victim: cool. Longstreet rushing to look up if Pynchon ever gave a lecture in Montecito by waving his hand in the middle of a fog machine: silly.

Kurlansky raising Pynchon to hear his parting words set to the tune of Massive Attack's "Teardrop": cool. Bosson waving his hands around in the middle of blood pools: silly. It's a delicate balance, one that would definitely tilt even more towards the latter if it weren't for the inherent coolness of seeing the aforementioned "Battlestar Galactica" alums performing said acts. What really disappoints however is how little we learn about our heroes. The lead cops are your standard rookie/veteran and jaded/empathetic duos complete with corresponding stilted personalities. Fair enough in the world of procedurals but, considering the pedigrees involved, one definitely has higher hopes going in.

Not helping is that a lot of the gobbledygook in the show feels like for gobbledygook's sake. The motivation for Pynchon's murder feels unnecessarily convoluted, not only because it obscures the central themes of the show (which we'll get to in a second) but because it leans so heavily on the inherent MacGuffin nature of magic. Without any rules to guide what we're seeing, literally anything can happen and by any means and for any reason. How can one "investigate" that?

What does: To its credit, there's a truly interesting kernel at the core of the show: the idea that because of magic, their society is devolving to the point that logic and reason have no place in it. In that kind of world judgments are made based off visions and feelings, punishments are given based on whims and flights of fancy, all things you and I know to be open to interpretation but they treat as ironclad.

Moore and company then posit that in that world a revolution is starting in the form of the Stoics, a terrorist group who want a society based on logic and reason, based on "something they call science." And they'll destroy all magic to get it. Framed from that perspective the show gets all the more compelling as if anyone can put a philosophical war as the backdrop for a TV series it's these guys. Plus darn if the show doesn't end on a wonderful note: the method of the Cal professor's murder? A piece of metal. "What is it?" Travers asks. "It's called a bullet," Barkley answers.

The bottom line: Disappointment sated by the feeling something great could ultimately have emerged.

  [may 2011]  


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