Midlife Crisis Crossover calls Scorpion the Best New Series on TV!
That’s my honest assessment based purely on how its pilot stacked up against the nine others I’ve watched so far in my ongoing marathon. When I first read about the premise — the short version is, our government pays wacky hackers to save the world every week — my initial impression was a CSI: Big Bang Theory that would have depressing things in store for me. I feared the limited plot possibilities that would be solved every episode with some combination of “Let’s Enhance!” zooms and frenetic compute-offs in which Our Heroes must TYPE FASTER OR ELSE THINGS EXPLODE, all while we point and laugh at their personal defects. The first twenty minutes of the pilot saw my prophecy fulfilled for the benefit of CBS viewers who prefer that their shows look exactly like other CBS shows.
Then a strange thing happened during the back half of the premiere. This time, things got personal for me.
The series is loosely inspired by the life of Walter O’Brien, a real-life computer whiz whose rise to fame allegedly began by infiltrating NASA systems at age thirteen from his childhood home in Ireland. The TV version of Walter (played by Elyes Gabel) is a disenfranchised, emotionally hobbled, twentysomething genius with the same childhood origin and a young adult’s skepticism in everything and everyone, spawned in part by past dealings with shady government ops. His grudge is personified by the always stern Robert Patrick as Cabe Gallo, a Homeland Security agent whose parents must be so proud that they didn’t give him a TV-action name in vain. Walter owns a cash-poor computer-security firm whose roster possesses their own useful talents and bundled geek traits: Sylvester (Ari Stidham) is a jittery, talkative, overweight, germophobic human calculator with OCDs and family issues; Toby (Eddie Kaye Thomas from the American Pie series) is a fedora-wearing, even more talkative behavioral psychologist with a gambling problem and diagnostic skills that only work on clichéd extras and far-fetched plot contrivances; and Happy (Jadyn Wong) is the female. She’s also Asian, in charge of general engineering, and more irritable than Walter.
Together Walter and his tech-support all-stars grated on me as we met their foibles and were invited to laugh at their expense. Stuff gets real when Agent Gallo brings them a crisis that only super-hackers could solve: America’s air traffic system has just had a Windows-style breakdown on a nationwide scale. If it’s not reinstalled or rewritten soon, planes will begin crashing into tall buildings, mountains, cellular towers, each other, nunneries, baby carriages, and whatever other explosive items happen to be in their way. To ensure their HQ is safely hidden from Gallo and that their wi-fi access remains continuous, Our Heroes set up base camp with their most recent client — a restaurant from which Gallo clears out all civilians except one staff representative, a waitress named Paige (Katharine McPhee, rebounding from Smash). Family issues have forced Paige to bring to work her young son Ralph (Riley B. Smith), who’s silent and detached and messes around with the countertop condiments and accessories with a beguiling curiosity. Gallo apparently overlooks him, but Walter doesn’t.
While the air traffic controllers and crewmen stress out over their helplessness (their ranks including Ghostbuster Ernie Hudson and Revolution expatriate Patrick St. Esprit), Our Heroes run the gamut of computer-suspense motifs, from the simple game of “Backdoor Spot-‘n’-Infiltrate” to “Decrypt the Magnetic Door Lock” to “Which of These Several Thousand Servers Is the One We Need?” to my favorite, “Save the Day Using Obsolete Hardware”, which is like the Voltron Sword of TV/movie hacker attacks. It’s one of the most common finishing moves, but it’s never unsheathed until the last minute.
In between the furious keyboarding and manufactured action tension, Walter tries to relate to Paige by Sherlocking her into compliance, but she debunks most of his deductions and quickly establishes herself as someone who’s not intimidated by guys who get off on proving they’re smarter than she is. To women in general and waitresses in particular, that’s not exactly a rare battlefront. (Sadly.) Walter may be terrible at relating to women, but he’s much more accurate when it comes to connecting with li’l Ralph, who seems to have some sort of condition. Walter and Sylvester both realize Ralph’s tabletop playthings are, in fact, a makeshift chess set made of restaurant stuff. And he’s not bad at it. At all.
After a few more minutes of interaction, Walter confides in Paige, “I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but your son is a genius.”
Paige is stunned to learn that Ralph’s seeming developmental issues are of a nature wildly different from what she expected. The pilot doesn’t have enough space to go into a full diagnosis, not while Paige’s past remains untold for now, but it explains a fair amount. Walter labels him “mentally enabled” (I’ve never heard that one, and it sounds a tad elitist to me) and confesses to her that people like himself and like Ralph, despite their preternatural intellect, frequently manifest a whole slew of other mental and emotional issues, such as all the stereotypes we were supposed to chuckle at earlier. As Walter elegantly puts it with a surprising self-awareness, “Sometimes people like us need repair before we can fit into your world.”
Around this time, I began having flashbacks to my own childhood. At age four I was already doing magazine word-search puzzles more quickly than my mom and grandma could. I was allowed to skip kindergarten partly because my lower-class family had no way to get me to school (our township’s half-day kindergarten classes didn’t have bus service) and partly because I already had reading skills. Once I reached the age for school-bus travel, I was labeled “gifted” and allowed to take the occasional extracurricular classes at various times in elementary school. Granted, much of my potential went to waste from age 21 onward due to a toxic synthesis of hard times, neglectful atrophy, and mental malnutrition. Even before that, I was outnumbered and intimidated by the well-bred, library-owning, upper-class students from age 15 onward. But I remember what it was like to be different from the average kids, to be judged by the majority for standing out in the wrong ways and failing to fit in properly, to be the disconnected loner hanging out in the corner while everyone else “got” how mingling and socializing worked.
That young introvert’s overlooked insecurities continue to dog me in adulthood. A few moments in this episode clawed into the scabs I’d forgotten I had. For once, it was refreshing — enlightened, even — to see anyone involved with a network show recognize that state of mind, to understand how it feels, and not to hold it up to sitcom ridicule. It sucks that the first half of the episode shows no such cognizance, though.
The second half repurposes that creaky foundation to set up the hiring of Paige the waitress as a full-time team member, after proving her usefulness when events go astray. The promos and early press articles sold her role insultingly short, referring to her as the team’s “translator”, implying that the four geeks would keep on being geeks, while her job would be to convert their tech jargon and mumbled gibberish into ordinary English that a CBS viewer can understand. That’s an oversimplified take on how modern companies work. More sensibly put: while the geeks do their incomprehensible job behind the scenes without having to explain the unvarnished details to outsiders, Paige will be in charge of communications with clients and other external third parties, keeping them updated and pacified, passing messages and requests back and forth as needed. Today we call that “customer service”.
Having spent twenty-six of my years in that field (for better or for worse), that’s something else I can relate to all too easily. Paige’s employment history, her brightness in her own way, and her challenging mothering experiences all probably give her the essential qualities needed to tackle the job and to justify her role on the show. Calling her “customer service” is a lot less demeaning for all involved than using ill-fitting words that imply “the geeks all say smart things, and then she says dumbed-down things.”
Also noteworthy: the pilot’s climax, which surpasses a Sleepy Hollow level of absurdity and intensity as Walter and Paige drive a Ferrari at killer speed down a runway while trying to plug a laptop into a very long ethernet cord being dangled precariously from a jumbo jetliner flying just a few feet over their heads. Finally, something to do besides type and argue! This inspired, nonsensical, spectacular circus stunt caps off another not-boring effort by director Justin Lin, whose resumé includes three Fast and the Furious films as well as three episodes of Community (including the greatest of them all, “Modern Warfare”). Frankly, it’s the only pilot scene this year that’s had me immediately rewinding for an encore.
Deep down, I doubt Scorpion can maintain this much all-out excitement and prodigy psychoanalysis for the balance of a full season, but it’s certainly off to a rousing start. I’d like to see the showrunners continue taking their characters and their flaws seriously, maybe resist that CBS temptation to yuk it up whenever Sylvester does maths in his head like Data or whenever Happy snarls at the guys for being such male inferiors. If Scorpion turns into the lamentable action version of that one deplorable sitcom that refuses to die, I’m logging out and letting them talk to the firewall.
[For more information on the MCC 2014 Pilot Binge project, please visit the initial entry for the rationale, the official checklist of pilots, and links to completed entries as we go. Thanks for reading!]