Screenwriters Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver know how to get the party started and keep it lively.
The Summer TV season really kicks off for a lot of viewers on Sunday with the return of HBO’s “True Detective” and the premiere of their star-studded comedies “Ballers” and “The Brink” (and I’ll hit all three in a review tomorrow), but the competition isn’t about to wait as three networks launch highly-touted dramas this week: the thriller “Complications” on USA, the spiritual drama “Proof” on TNT, and the period piece “The Astronaut Wives Club” on ABC. Will any compete with shows like “Orange is the New Black,” “Halt and Catch Fire” and “True Detective” for Summer TV buzz?
The best of the three is the USA offering, “Complications,” premiering on Thursday, June 18th at 9pm EST, starring Jason O’Mara (“Life on Mars”) as a good man forced into violent action by an unjust world. With echoes of “Breaking Bad” in the way O’Mara’s character falls deeper and deeper into an underworld for which he may not be prepared, “Complications” gets more interesting episode by episode, strengthened by good supporting performances and intriguing moral questions, even if creator Matt Nix (“Burn Notice”) sometimes struggles to shape his individual pieces into a cohesive whole.
O’Mara plays Dr. John Ellison, a man at the end of his fuse—note to TV creators: please stop introducing characters in therapy to indicate their complicated psyches. Ellison is tired of repairing victims of gang violence only to send them into a world that will likely just injure them again. And he’s emotionally scarred from the recent passing of his young daughter from cancer. He is going through a truly unfair patch of life when he happens to witness a drive-by. He rushes to the rescue of the bleeding, young victim, when he notices that the car from which he was shot is circling back. The good doctor has no choice. He grabs a gun off the ground and opens fire. Is it the right thing to do? If he doesn’t shoot, at least one person dies and he may get shot too.
Much like Walter White’s decisions in the first episode rippled through the entirety of “Breaking Bad,” John Ellison’s self-defense sends him spiraling. It turns out that the victim in the street has a powerful gang leader for a father. And dad now demands that Ellison protect his son, forcing him to cut corners at the hospital to keep him hidden, and even to go full-blown vigilante on a few of the gang’s enemies who come to finish the job. Ellison’s “Jesse Pinkman” is a nurse named Gretchen (Jessica Szohr), who more readily pushes the boundaries of hospital procedure to do “what’s right.”
What’s most engaging about “Complications” is how Nix carefully considers the impact of one decision on another. I was worried at first that the show was just going to be “Death Wish” meets “ER” as Dr. Ellison took vigilante justice into his precise, surgical hands every week, but it’s not that at all. And O’Mara and Szohr are quite good here (as is Chris Chalke as the liaison between Ellison and the gang). The biggest problem with “Complications” comes down to self-seriousness. A little black humor would go a long way, as the show often feels too dour, as if it’s channeling its importance instead of focusing on its characters, but the heavy lifting has been done here. It's not quite a great show yet, but it could be.
I feel less confident that TNT's "Proof," premiering tonight, June 16th, could make the same transition. It's another show that sometimes falters in the line between making a statement and providing entertaining characters, but more tragically takes a daring concept and often seems to have no idea what to do with it. I’ve only seen the premiere, so the jury is still out on what this show will be week to week, but the first episode has enough deep flaws that I’m not sure they can be fixed.
The problem with “Proof” is that its creators have chosen to tackle the biggest mystery in the world, but have done so with all the energy and personality of a traditional medical drama. (It’s mere seconds before this Medical Drama 101 exchange takes places: “Want to call it?” “Hell NO, I don’t want to call it.”) Jennifer Beals plays Dr. Carolyn Tyler, a woman hired by a multi-millionaire (Matthew Modine) who happens to be dying. He doesn’t want preferential treatment. He just doesn’t like unknowns. And so he asks Tyler to prove or disprove the existence of the afterlife, just so he knows what to expect. Tyler is mostly skeptical, but her recent loss of a child has made her susceptible to the hope that she’ll be reunited with her son again. She also happens to work with her ex-husband (David Sutcliffe) and is having trouble with her daughter (Annie Thurman) because proving what happens after we die wouldn’t be interesting enough without standard medical drama tropes. Beals isn’t bad and Edi Gathegi is better as her put-upon intern, but “Proof” feels like a show that takes complex issues and merely skims their surface.
Even more superficial is ABC’s depressing “The Astronaut Wives Club,” a network attempt to recreate the period piece magic of “Mad Men” with a little bit more soap opera that premieres on Thursday, June 18th. Call it “Real Housewives of NASA.” Based on the book by Lily Koppel, ABC’s drama charts the trajectory of seven women who were married to the pioneers of space travel. They went from relatively traditional spouses to international personalities, especially after LIFE Magazine chose to profile them in the early days of the space race. Some of them formed bonds, some formed jealousies, some formed their own identities separate from their famous husbands. There’s clearly an interesting story here, and I’ve heard good things about the book, but the TV treatment couldn’t be blander.
Sadly, the show follows a depressingly straightforward chronological format—then this happened, then that happened, then a shuttle took off, then that happened, etc. It is remarkably personality-less, largely because its creators make the fatal mistake of trying to focus on a dozen characters in a 44-minute network format. We have no one to really follow or care about outside of Louise Shepard (Dominique McElligott), who gets the biggest arc in the premiere as a woman in denial over her husband’s infidelity and even her own fear that he may die when he hits the atmosphere. McElligott is very good, but everyone else blends together, including typical stand-outs Odette Annable and Yvonne Strahovski. And the period detail feels forced and often fake, like a “Mad Men” costume party. Or, worse, a “Pan Am” one.