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Pilots, for those who don’t know, are the very first shows that introduce the cast, situations, and premise of a new show to a brand new audience in hopes of getting that audience to come back week after week. These continued visits by audiences ensure that the show gets renewed (that is, continues to survive) by whoever is broadcasting them (ABC, NBC, FOX, or other outlets). Because most shows only get somewhere between 6 to 13 episodes to “prove their mettle” it’s imperative that that first pilot show do gangbusters, or at the very least intrigue viewers enough for them to return for future episodes. Of course, the length of a distributor’s original commitment to a new show depends on the personalities of the show — the creators, the writers, the stars, and even the producers. If your brand spanking new show happens to have stars in every one of the categories above, then you’ll probably get a 13-episode commitment, but even star wattage won’t get you a full year commitment. For that magic “full year” commitment you’ll have to perform well in the limited time the outlet puts your show “out there” (re: into the public) to be discovered.
When it comes to the new Showtime series “Jeremiah,” you can point to one well-known face and one unknown face, but well-known name. “Jeremiah” boasts the star power of Luke Perry (“Beverly Hills 90210″) and the creative mind of J. Michael Straczynski. If the name Straczynski doesn’t register to you, then you’re not a science fiction fan. Straczynski is the brainchild behind the popular “Babylon 5″ science fiction TV show that ran for 5 years. That show produced two spin-offs, the unsuccessful (and now cancelled) “Crusade” and the recent “Legend of the Rangers” TV movie, which ran on the Sci-fi Channel, but has yet to be picked up for a full series. (Remember our talk about commitments and proving your mettle? It would appear “LOTR” hasn’t proven its mettle, much to the disappointment of this reviewer, who was really looking forward to a series based on the TV movie.) Straczynski adapted this new endeavor from a comic book by one Hermann Huppen.
The show stars Luke Perry as the titular character, a 20-something wanderer in a United States (and presumably the rest of the world) ravaged by a virus affectionately nicknamed “the Big Death,” since it killed off everyone over the age of puberty about 15 years ago. This, of course, leaves the land populated by survivors who were pre-pubescent when the world came to an end, so you have a world run by 20-somethings and younger. Jeremiah, we learn, is an odd young man, since he writes letters to his long-dead father in a journal and burns the pages once he finishes.
Enter Kurdy (Malcolm-Jamal Warner of “The Cosby Show”), another wanderer with a bad habit of stealing Jeremiah’s things, namely his fishes. The two meet up again in a decrepit city run by a tough-talking young woman name Theo, who rules the city by intimidation and with an army of toughs and a second army of brainiacs — nerds from the old world now considered “cool” because of what their brains can come up with to help Theo keep her powerbase. Jeremiah somehow gets on Theo’s bad side and ends up a prisoner in her school-turned-castle along with a young man name Simon who claims to be from a place called The End of the World where everything from the old world still works. Theo is determined to find that mythical place even if she has to kill both Simon and a clueless Jeremiah, who is put into the predictable by coincidental circumstances (Simon talked to him in a bar). With Jeremiah’s life on the line, will Kurdy rescue Jeremiah in time? Will Kurdy want to rescue Jeremiah at all or just steal more of his fish?
From the above description, you might think this is one blast of a show. Well, you’d be wrong. “Jeremiah” is not all that exciting. I have to admit I was greatly disappointed by this pilot. The show appears exclusively on the Showtime cable channel and this allows series creator/writer J. Michael Straczynski to write characters who curses like sailors. Unfortunately I’m so used to Straczynski dialogue written for network TV that I was somewhat surprised at the vulgar language in “Jeremiah.” This isn’t to say I’m a prude or anything. After all, I loved Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and that movie would last about 10 minutes if you took out all of its 4-letter words.
It’s just that in “Jeremiah” the cursing doesn’t feel natural, but rather forced, as if Straczynski realized, “Bloody hell, I’m on cable and I can curse!” and began putting in curse words for the heck of it. The same is true of the show’s ample nudity, including numerous gratuitous breasts shots. Mind you I am well aware that Straczynski is trying to portray the “new world” as a world free from inhibitions and the type of “morals” that parents force on kids, and thus the result is a world that resembles something along the lines of Sodom and Gomorrah. And yet, the nudity seems so out of place and unnecessary, as do the cursing. Now if you would tell me I would write a review that mentioned that nudity in a movie was a bad thing I would say you’re crazy. But the fact is, “Jeremiah” has nudity and vulgar language that just doesn’t, well, feel right.
Despite all that, I must say the premise of a world ruled by 20-somethings who had to grow up real fast and on their own is very appealing to me. Unfortunately, I find the execution of the pilot episode to be lacking. The usually very reliable Russell Mulcahy (Highlander) seems to be on cruise control. Or worst yet, he’s fallen quite a bit by the wayside in his later career and has become just-barely competent in his camerawork. Perhaps it’s the TV format that he’s not used to, or for whatever reason, but the result is a TV show that looks stale and lacking in any excitement. The most obvious directorial failure appears early in the show, when Jeremiah arrives in Theo’s city and steps into the middle of a gun battle.
The action is slow and so badly shot and choreographed that the entire sequence comes across as weak and amateurish. I can’t blame everything on a cable show’s per-episode budget because even with a small budget and small cast and crew an enthusiastic director could have done much better than this. The weak execution of the market scene carries on to the rest of the episode, and even wanton debauchery, flashes of breast and other female body parts, and what looks like mud passing for wine, can’t make up for the bad first impression “Jeremiah” has already garnered for itself.
That isn’t to say there isn’t anything good about “Jeremiah.” I like the idea of a world where brains are appreciated and encouraged. (Theo gives her brainiacs “cheerleaders” whenever they do something she approves of, so our nerds finally “get laid.”) Everything in the world of “Jeremiah” is precious, even two batteries that may or may not work. Cars are luxury items and gasoline even more so. I appreciate the journey Jeremiah is taking and his spiritual, quiet side. I like how characters have names that harkens back to the bible and other biblical stories, as the “end of the world” scenario of the show is itself quite biblical in scale. I also like Jeremiah’s burning of his letters to his father, reminding me of how the ancient Greeks used their sacrificial alters as a way to mediate between themselves and Heaven. (The smoke, obviously, is the link between Heaven and Earth, as the smoke from fire alters will usually rise all the way up to the clouds, thus linking the two worlds of human and the Gods.) Is this the purpose of burning the letters?
Does the series have potential? Oh sure, why not. Any show has potential. After all, who thought “Babylon 5″ would be so good past its initial 2-hour premiere? And yet that show is now one of the most beloved sci-fi series around today, and one of this reviewer’s personal favorites, if not the favorite. So you can imagine my surprise to find J. Michael Straczynski’s name and writing attached to this shoddy product. Would I give the show a chance? Yes, I would come back for a third episode, mostly on the basis of my faith in Straczynski. Surely Mulcahy’s lackluster direction won’t continue, since he’s only a one-episode director, and was probably hired on the basis of his past work. With Straczynski at the helm, I have faith that the show can turn the corner and become something good, something monumental — or at the very least, something entertaining.
I’ll reserve judgment for Episode 3.
Russell Mulcahy (director) / J. Michael Straczynski (screenplay)
CAST: Luke Perry