Two weeks ago saw the premiere of two new shows on NBC and ABC, and although Rise, a drama about the staging of Spring Awakening in a small town high school, and For the People, a legal drama in the Shonda Rhimes tradition, are quite different shows, they shared some similar flaws in their pilot episodes. And this post will be just about the pilot episodes because I haven’t gotten around to watching the second episodes yet.
I’m not entirely sure what to make of the first episode of Rise. It should be a simple premise–the new head of the school’s theater department (played by Josh Radnor) tries to put on Spring Awakening and meets resistance due to its controversial subjects–and yet it seems like the pilot struggles to effectively convey it. Part of that is due to the strange mixing of the show’s different elements: the assembling of the cast, the connection the teens have with the musical, and the characters’ home lives are all jumbled together with no driving plot, and it leads to all these elements feeling underbaked. I think the show would have been better off taking things more slow, spending less time developing the personal stories of its characters and making the casting of the musical happen all at once so that some characters aren’t already rehearsing before others are even involved.
The biggest illustration of this problem comes at the end of the episode, when the school’s principal tries to shut down the production and the students reject his decision by burning the props and costumes for the show they’re told to do instead. However, only one of the characters outside of Josh Radnor’s has even been shown to care about Spring Awakening, specifically, and so this moment comes across as totally unearned. And given that it’s the climax of the episode, that’s a pretty big issue.
So, yeah, I dunno. There’s some potential to Rise, and I’ll maybe give it a few more episodes to even out its storytelling, but one of the most important things a show needs to do in its first episode is to give the audience a reason to care, and this pilot was so overstuffed with premises and story seeds that it was never able to make any one of them especially compelling.
Speaking of “overstuffed,” that about sums up the pilot of For the People. The show follows six new public attorneys, three in defense and three in prosecution, in the “Mother Court” in New York. It’s a great premise that allows for the show to feature both defense and prosecution in lead roles while giving its characters a home base (and while allowing for genuine uncertainty about which side will win a given case), but even with conveniently pairing of its characters into three different cases the show’s pilot feels like it has no room to breathe. As a result, one of the six main characters gets only a few minutes of screentime across the whole episode, and even the more-or-less protagonist’s case is woefully underdeveloped.
Part of that undervelopment is just from what I think is a mismanagement of the material, though. The case in question is a young man being prosecuted for trying to blow up the Statue of Liberty, except it turns out the whole plan was the product of FBI agents coaxing the man into becoming a terrorist. This brings up really meaty questions about the morality of the government doing this and the culpability the man has given that he was radicalized against the United States by the United States, and what exactly is the legality of all that, but these quandaries are shoved entirely into the background so that the case can be a proving ground for the protagonist. This is fair enough in a vacuum–it’s more important in a pilot episode to establish the characters than to engage in an interesting but inconsequential story–but if the only point of this plotline was for the sake of the protagonist’s character, then it feels like a waste to have the case be so interesting in its own right.
Otherwise, though, I think For the People shows a lot of promise. The secondmost important plotline involved the protagonist’s best friend going against her boyfriend in a case, and the tension this caused between them was interesting and engaging and the case was at the right level of development so that it felt meaningful without overshadowing the foreground plot. And while the third case was weird, feeling like it got cut off at the end of the second act, it contained good establishing moments for its protagonists. The show also contained just enough scenes outside the main cases to feel like it had a little bit of room to breathe, including one nice moment where Leonard enters Kate’s* office after winning his case and asks her why she’s not celebrating like the rest of the office, and she says “I never celebrate people going to jail.” It sounds kind of silly described like that, but it worked really well in the episode and Kate is already a standout character.
*I absolutely had to look up these characters’ names because I don’t think they even get mentioned in the show.