Fall Premieres 2013: The CW

October 5, 2013
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AntennaFallCWFox 3As everyone’s favorite pretend broadcast network, The CW suffers from low ratings and benefits from low expectations. This has allowed them to sneakily cultivate a range of interesting genre fare and scheduling experiments, among those networks to shift to 13-episode seasons (with The Carrie Diaries) and angling to carve out a science fiction niche. This doesn’t mean they’re not also doubling down on franchises like The Vampire Diaries or building toward syndication with a procedural like Hart of Dixie, but in the post-Gossip Girl era The CW has transitioned into a channel willing to take their basic goal of appealing to women between the ages of 18 and 34 in new directions (and measuring those numbers in new spaces like online streaming that sister channel CBS has been less willing to embrace).

Reign [Premiered 10/17/2013]

In this CW-ification of the story of Mary, Queen of Scots, a teenaged Mary (Adelaide Kane) arrives at the French court and upends the dynamics between Prince Francis (Toby Regbo), his parents, his bastard brother Sebastian (Torrance Combs), and a surprisingly youthful—some would say hunky—Nostradamus (Rossif Sutherland) who predicts Mary will bring the family to its ruin.

Maria Suzanne Boyd [Georgia State University]

Close your eyes and imagine you are watching Mumford and Sons or The Lumineers perform at a renaissance festival. Got it? If so, then you have a good feel for the overall tone of the CW’s new historical drama Reign. The pilot offers a nicely blended mix of fun, intrigue, danger and sex, and in keeping with the CW’s stable of regular programming there is also a hint of the paranormal. Adelaide Kane helms the overtly beautiful cast in her role as the young Mary, Queen of Scots, and it is nice to see her exercise her acting chops beyond her stoic portrayal of Cora on MTV’s Teen Wolf.

If gross historical inaccuracies do not bother you, Reign has the potential to be a delightful, guilty pleasure. The pilot exceeded my expectations both in relation to the production value of the program and the narrative setup.  The sets and costumes were dazzling, the large cast of characters was efficiently introduced, and the season’s main conflict was clearly established.

Put simply, Reign can best be described as Scandal meets Game of Thrones. This show has easily earned a spot on my DVR.

Alyx Vesey [University of Wisconsin-Madison]

This melodrama about Mary, Queen of Scots, as the teenage bride-to-be of Dauphin Francis wants to be many things, but “period appropriate” isn’t one of them. Following Marie Antoinette, the soundtrack utilizes marketable contemporary indie folk and validates such pop anachronism by securing artists like The Lumineers and music supervisor Liza Richardson.

Foremost, Reign wants to put the “rip” in “bodice ripper,” serving its demographics’ hormonal impulses with scenes of voyeurism, masturbation, infidelity, and post-adolescent erotic intrigue. It also wants to capitalize on ABC Family’s success with Pretty Little Liars by foregrounding Mary’s fragile bond with her handmaidens as they encounter regal treachery (prediction: the whole French court is “A”). Finally, it wants to legitimate itself by shading the margins with political machinations and grisly violence.

But for all its demands, Reign is timid. The young cast lacks distinction. They all have excellent cheekbones and offer tepid line readings. Kane is no match for Catherine de Medici (Megan Follows, forever Anne Shirley), who will call upon the supernatural (Nostradamus is her confidant) to prevent her son’s impending marriage. If Mary wants the crown, she’ll have to take on her mother-in-law first.

The Tomorrow People [Premiered 10/09/2013]

Robbie Amell stars as Stephen, a high schooler hearing voices who discovers he’s not crazy; he’s simply one of the Tomorrow People, a superhuman species with powers— Telekinesis, Teleporting, and Telepathy—threatened by a government containment program, Ultra, and its leader Jedekiah (Mark Pellegrino).

Myles McNutt [University of Wisconsin-Madison]

Having been responsible for writing the summaries for each and every new fall series, I’ll say this for The Tomorrow People: there’s enough going on that there isn’t enough room for it in the above. We didn’t get to the sentient supercomputer, or Cara (Peyton List) and John (Luke Mitchell) as Stephen’s guardians in this new world, or the daddy issues underpinning the whole shebang.

However, we also didn’t get to the ideas of The Tomorrow People, which are pleasingly evident in this pilot. While far from new, the questions of humanity percolating through the pilot are effective, and the duel for Stephen’s allegiance offers a setup—Stephen working undercover with Ultra—that feels both sustainable and dynamic. Nothing in the show’s mythology is new—the daddy issues are particularly unoriginal—but the math in the pilot feels well calibrated.

Yes, Robbie Amell clearly looks his twenty-five years and has no business playing a high schooler. Yes, the sentient supercomputer is a bit on the nose. Yes, Sarah Clarke is woefully underused as a generic, overworked mother. However, there’s a bit of a wink to The Tomorrow People that keeps it from drowning in self-seriousness; while far from brilliant, there’s enough here to suggest a show capable of evolving into a solid piece of genre television with the right guidance.

Melanie Kohnen [New York University]

I probably wouldn’t have watched The Tomorrow People’s pilot if I hadn’t seen it by chance at San Diego Comic-Con. While I watch a number of CW programs, nothing about the premise stood out to me, and the pilot confirms this at first glance. The Tomorrow People is a cookie cutter CW show featuring a mostly white ensemble cast of attractive young actors who portray outcast characters bound together by a shared supernatural fate stemming from genetic difference (think X-Men). If it hadn’t been for the last scene, I would have had no interest in watching the show again.

But Stephen’s decision to work for Ultra surprised me and makes me curious about what is ahead on the show. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by this twist because Stephen’s decision embodies the ambiguity of so much millennial-oriented television, in which questions of belonging are not easily settled. Ultimately, the pilot suggests that biological family and a family of friends, good and evil, social outcasts and corporations are not extreme opposites, but co-exist. If The Tomorrow People builds on this ambiguity, it has a chance to exceed its too-familiar premise.

Bärbel Göbel Stolz [Indiana University]

This US remake of a 1970s UK teen sci-fi show did deliver. It is a teen drama that provides love triangles, high school bullies, a societal system that has to be rebelled against and displays at its center teen angst, all wrapped up in a coming of age story. In millennial fashion, the coming of age as Stephen comes to terms with his outsider status and powers develops at lightning speed, crystallizing within just 42 minutes.

The Tomorrow People also throws in Abel and Cain, a little bit of The Matrix’s Neo, X-Men mythology, and gender norms we have grown accustomed to in much of teen male melodrama (physically strong, non sexually-threatening males who’ve been partially orphaned; smart females, emotionally torn; bad-boy side-kicks). Given these elements, you may think “seen it, been there, I don’t care.” Yet, this show does provide a few interesting alterations from the norm that could be intriguing down the line, the most interesting one being the lead character’s choice—after just finding out some important truths about himself—to work for the enemy, most likely as an infiltrator.

All in all: If you expected a CW show, you got exactly what you expected.

The Originals [Premiered 10/03/2013]

In this spin-off from The Vampire Diaries, the Original family of Klaus (Joseph Morgan), Elijah (Daniel Gillies), and Rebekah (Claire Holt) arrive in New Orleans to play a part in an ongoing struggle for power between vampires, werewolves, and witches in the Big Easy.

Karen Petruska [University of California – Santa Barbara]

I’m a fan of The Vampire Diaries, but I am NOT a fan of Klaus, the character whose rabid fan base prompted the CW to create a spin-off based on his petulant, whiny, egomaniacal, and—oh yeah—completely immortal hybrid werewolf-vampire character. I am giving The Originals a chance, though, since it has finally removed Klaus from TVD. The pilot suffers from too much exposition and a lack of focus. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised.

The character at the center of the action in this pilot was not Klaus but rather his brother, Elijah. This is a smart choice because I suspect a little bit of Klaus goes a long way, even with his biggest fans. Elijah, on the other hand, not only has a code of honor but also tends to get stabbed on a regular basis by his brother with a magical stake (that renders him pseudo-dead); as a result, Elijah is a character for whom you can root, while Klaus is an irredeemable “dick,” as program co-creator Julie Plec called him on Twitter last night.

The fact that Klaus remains irredeemable, though, now has me intrigued. His greatest crime on TVD was his immortality, which rendered all actions against him inevitably futile: inaction is the death of a plot-based program. If The Originals chooses to focus less on Klaus to consider more the stakes of Klaus’ redemption for his long-suffering siblings, I may be able to get behind that. Beyond the Original family, other characters—particularly those of color—will likely suffer as pawns of Klaus, an unfortunate perpetuation of discomfiting racial politics that weakened TVD, as well. My determination that The Originals is not as bad as I expected is not high praise, but coming from a Klaus hater, it is pretty dang impressive.

Kyra Hunting [University of Wisconsin-Madison]

While the pilot form is always a fraught one, The Originals walks a particularly high tightrope as a spin-off of a very serial show, The Vampire Diaries. In this respect, it was quite successful; providing a logical motivation for introducing non-viewers or sporadic viewers of TVD to the history of the Originals while providing enough new material to engage fans. While it felt weighed down at times, the narrative conceit of a supernatural turf war, with the pregnant woman’s body as pawn, was interesting. The Originals narrative and dark aesthetic, which often felt like a mafia movie, also could appeal to male viewers who are underrepresented in TVD audience. While it seems improbable, in practice, that the series will gain a large number of non-Vampire Diaries viewers, its move away from this show’s valorization of romantic love to a focus on, and problematization of, familial love provides a nice bookend for Vampire Diaries fans. While there was a little characterization regression, and a “you send one of mine to the hospital I’ll send one of yours to the morgue” machismo that put me off balance at times; I found the first episode’s engagement with questions of power, loyalty, and love, as alternatively revelatory and weakness, a compelling direction for The Vampire Diary’s storyworld.


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