The MCC 2014 Pilot Binge: Kickoff and First Down

Utopia!

Not a codeword for the new fall TV lineup.

And now for something completely regrettable:

I have a short list of TV shows I follow every year, but I don’t watch nearly as much TV as the average internet user my age. I don’t connect with what many of today’s sitcoms consider “humor”. The Wire ruined all ordinary police shows for me for all time. We don’t subscribe to any premium cable channels. I’m not remotely interested in any show that describes itself as “sexy”. My list of disqualifiers goes on and on.

This year I’ve decided against my better judgment to dare myself to do something different. I spent time this weekend reading the official annual “Fall TV Preview” cover features in the latest issues of Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide, and compiled a list of the new shows that merited full articles or capsule previews. I omitted a few premium-cable shows for the one reason mentioned above (the pirating option is off the table) and a few online-only streaming shows for assorted logistical reasons. That left me with a list of twenty-six TV shows in all.

My plan over the next three months is to see if I can handle watching the first episode of every single one of these twenty-six shows and report the results here on MCC, for better or for worse. My hope is I’ll find some diamonds in the rough, maybe a few unexpected pleasures. My basic thought line is “Let’s do this goofy thing and see what happens,” rather than “I’m gonna suffer mightily on purpose and then spew out an unoriginal, scathing indictment of the pale wretchedness of network TV!” I’m looking forward to a couple of these (and only a couple), but I apologize in advance if this becomes “Twenty-Two Short Entries About Crap TV”. I promise I’m not hoping for that.

Those twenty-six shows are, in order of scheduled premiere:

Utopia (Fox): 9/7
The Mysteries of Laura (NBC): 9/17
Red Band Society (Fox): 9/17
Madam Secretary (CBS): 9/21
Gotham (Fox): 9/22
Scorpion (CBS): 9/22
Forever (CBS): 9/22
NCIS: New Orleans (CBS): 9/23
Black-ish (ABC): 9/24
How to Get Away with Murder (ABC) 9/25
Selfie (ABC): 9/30
Manhattan Love Story (ABC): 9/30
Stalker (CBS): 10/1
Gracepoint (Fox): 10/2
Bad Judge (NBC): 10/2
A to Z (NBC): 10/2
Mulaney (Fox): 10/5
The Flash (The CW): 10/7
Cristela (ABC): 10/10
Star Wars Rebels (Disney XD) 10/13
Jane the Virgin (The CW): 10/13
Marry Me (NBC): 10/14
Constantine (NBC): 10/24
Mike Tyson Mysteries (Adult Swim): 10/27
The McCarthys (CBS): 10/30
State of Affairs (NBC): 11/17

A couple of their pilots are already available online. You’ll notice the first show has premiered, officially launched the new season, and inspired a thousand disgusted headlines. That brings us to:

MCC 2014 Pilot Binge #1: Utopia

Thank the Lord this is the only reality show on the list. Not my favorite genre.

Many of you are already aware of Fox’s latest experiment that not many people are watching. It’s a simple yet inherently disastrous premise: can an entire civilization be founded from scratch by fifteen voluntary American reality-show contestants? What if you selected fifteen radically disparate participants with no experience at government or Sim City and sent them to camp together with marching orders to make a country? And you gave them virtually no guidelines? And every time someone’s voted out, they’re replaced with another fame-seeker of equal or lesser value? And the project was meant to last for a full year?

It’s a miracle half the participants weren’t dead by the end of the two-hour premiere. As things stood, one ended up hospitalized, another teetered on the brink of turning rapist, and a couple others nearly came to blows. Maybe it wasn’t such a fabulous idea after all for their first group decision to be a collective yell of “No rules! LET’S PARTY! WOOOOOO!” followed by throwing themselves a bourbon-fueled chug-a-thon. Just like our Founding Fathers did on July 3, 1776, I’m sure.

The launch group was drawn from all walks of life to ensure maximum diversity and discord. Among the represented demographics were the homeless ex-convict, the happy yoga instructor, the attorney who knows from laws and contracts, the conservative arsenal collector, the stereotypical Kentucky moonshiner, the angry chef, the doomsday prepper, the polyamorist, and several other, quieter, nicer ones you presumably gotta watch before they turn slasher on you. This motley crew is given five acres, a barn, two cows, an indeterminate number of chickens, a lake, and a waterfall, all of which they’re meant to implement for world-building while over 130 cameras surround them, their time codes ticking upward patiently while waiting for everyone to fight and fight and fight. Or sex and sex and sex, whichever happens first.

Curiously, hosting all of this is Dan Piraro, cartoonist and creator of the long-running single-panel comic strip Bizarro. I was not aware of his involvement when I hit “Play” and blinked several times when he introduced himself and I recognized his name. I can only imagine the confusion on the faces of the average viewers who don’t read newspaper comics as they laid eyes upon this oddly tailored gentleman, let alone the surprise among us old-fashioned folks who still follow a few strips. He and his fedora are unlike any TV host I’ve ever seen on any kind of show before, and he made it easy for me to select a Favorite Thing about this show.

Second favorite (almost by default) is Jonathan, the Pentecostal pastor who struggles to remain pure and faithful in an environment where free love and skinny-dipping are among the first laws of the land, and where some competitors have expressed their vision of Utopia as a country without God. I groaned and hid my eyes from his introduction because I expected any number of clichés, but he’s not at all the caricature I had feared the casting director would select. All his words and deeds in the pilot were solidly aligned with what I’ve come to expect from our own pastors. I was fascinated watching him connect with the other Utopians, establish his credibility, and comport himself with sincerity, generosity, and respect for others as he represented and even witnessed for the Kingdom of God. I’m relieved beyond words that the producers didn’t sink low enough to recruit from a Westboro Baptist farm team.

(I imagine a lot of reviews contain sections like that one. “They’re all glamor-seeking dolts except for that one I agree with. That one’s different!”)

For all that, it’s a shame I don’t have the blind fortitude to follow along with Jonathan’s brave journey into reality-TV darkness. I alternated between wincing and rolling my eyes as screaming matches ensued, alliances were formed, sexytime was sought, obstacles were contrived, and IQs dropped by the minute. My notes are filled with proposed chapter titles such as “The Chicken Harnessing Plan”, “The People v. Captain Rapey”, “Compost Facto”, “Breasts and Fingertips are Pretty Much the Same Thing”, “Alcohol Poisoning 1, Twisted Steel and Sex Appeal 0”, “Conflict Deflection Manicures”, “Everybody’s Pixelated”, “Save Water or DIE”, “We Ruined Dave’s Birthday”, “Red v. Aaron: the Violencing”, and “The Chicken Autopsy Job”. I guess it…wasn’t boring?

Maybe the underlying thesis is that humankind will naturally find its way out of Lord of the Flies if left to their own devices, and wouldn’t it be cool to see what form it takes if The MAN isn’t around to dictate terms or offer sage advice derived from millennia of recorded human experience. Any pretense of sociological profundity is buried beneath two hours of predictable crassness, irritating personality clashes, and the kind of amoral pandemonium I’ve come to expect from internet comments sections. By and large it’s exactly as execrable as I’ve assumed all reality TV to be. The unfair generalizations I brought with me remain 100% unaltered. However, I might look for Jonathan’s name in future articles about the show if it’s not canceled by October, just to see how he fares. Even if he doesn’t achieve whatever passes for “winning” in this mess, I pray he survives spiritually and physically intact through the ordeal.

(MCC 2014 Pilot Binge stat: Number of minutes passed before I wanted the show to go away: 13.)

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