The fall pilot I was most looking forward to was “Person of Interest.” It was created by Jonathan Nolan, (co-author of most of his brother Chris’s movies), it co-stars the always brilliant Michael Emerson (whom I’ve been a fan of since “The Practice”, for which he won an Emmy long before he worked his magic on “Lost”) and Jim Caviezel (who I hadn’t seen much of, but was good in The Thin Red Line)
More importantly, it had a great premise: A reclusive billionaire, tapping into cameras all over the city, develops a algorithm that can predict patterns of behavior, identifying people who will become involved in violent crimes before those crimes happen, so he recruits a former CIA agent to help him intervene. Creepy and fun!
But it may have been the worse pilot I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot of terrible pilots). Not one scene, not one line of dialogue worked. It was a 100% disaster. Emerson’s fine, but all he does is deliver exposition. He’s a plot device, not a character. Caveizel, on the other hand, is absolutely extraordinary: so sullen, so lifeless, so bland… was he whacked out on painkillers when they made this? Did he refuse to star until they put a gun to his head, then stumbled through it under duress? Baffling.
But it hardly matters, given the quality of the script. Yes, Caviezel knows who will be involved in crimes, but he doesn’t intervene proactively. Instead, he follows the person around, waits for the crime to happen, then shoots the evildoers dead and dumps their bodies in the meadowlands. That’s his brilliant modus operandi.
But surely the story will slowly expand and become more interesting, right? Not if they can help it: Emerson fully explains the origin and methodology of his process, then explicitly says, over and over throughout the pilot, that this same procedure will be repeated, in exactly the same way, week after week. He even introduces the pilot’s person of interest by saying: “This week I’m focused on her.” Get it, folks at home? We’re promising that there will be a new, self-contained case every week! No loose ends, we promise! Ugh.If “Person of Interest” showed what happens when you have a great premise with terrible execution, then “A Gifted Man” shows what happens when you have a terrible premise with great execution. Here’s the idea: an asshole neurosurgeon gets weekly visits from the sweet-natured ghost of his ex-wife, who tries to teach him to be a better person. Ouch! Painful!
But this is the best pilot of the year so far. Everybody involved, creator Suzannah Grant, director Jonathan Demme, and stars Patrick Wilson and Jennifer Ehle, are movie people who are new to network TV and haven’t grown complacent about their new medium yet. The characters are vivid and believable. The story is compelling and thought-provoking. The emotions are hard-earned and raw.
Why did one pilot turn out so well and the other so badly? When I was watching “Person of Interest”, I kept complaining to Betsy that it was too “CBS-y”. In other words: the dialogue was too on-the-nose, the emotional moments lacked subtext, and it was too much of a procedural. I got the distinct impression that the original script might have been interesting, but they made the mistake of selling it to CBS, who buried them in notes that utterly violated the premise until the whole thing became a flavorless lump.
I’ve gotten pretty good at singling out which dialogue was written by the creator and which lines were inserted by the network execs (“This week I’m focused on her”), but “A Gifted Man” didn’t seem to have any of those lines.* Why not? Because they sold their pilot to the right network. The concept was so purely-CBS that the network was able to simply trust the very talented creators to execute it as they saw fit. This round peg slid so smoothly into its round hole that no hammering was necessary, so it never got bent out of shape.
* Okay, just one, Wilson is talking to a tennis pro and says something like “Anyone who feels the need to be the best, whether they’re a tennis pro or a surgeon, knows….” That insert about the surgeon was almost certainly added by a network exec who was afraid that we wouldn’t know he was also talking about himself. Still, most pilot have about twenty of those clunky insertions.