We tend to give pilots that seem innovative or fresh a whole lot of credit for stepping outside the box. It's fair to say that most of us recognize that collectively, the broadcast networks aren't taking a lot of risks these days, and even when they do, it's not necessarily easy to come up with a fresh story or a concept. So what do we do with pilots or shows that are almost entirely derivative, born from a dozen different sources and inspirations, many of which are obviously visible on the surface? We can't immediately disregard them and ignore the possibility that something more interesting could come down the pike, right?
That's my big question about The CW's adaptation of The Tomorrow People, a property that has existed in multiple iterations over in the U.K. for four decades. I'm not at all familiar with the original show or its various follow-ups, but even if we pretend that Phil Klemmer, Greg Berlanti, and Julie Plec found created this thing after digging through the corners of their subconscious, The Tomorrow People is very clearly indebted to decades of pop culture storytelling. It's The Matrix meets X-Men meets Heroes meets Every Other TV Show or Movie About a Singular Savior Hero-Type. There is—and I'm using this word correctly—literally nothing remotely new about this show. The pilot sped through every expected note, beat by beat, never straying from the kind of 'hero ignoring the call to action' nonsense you've seen in almost every big-budget sci-fi story since Star Wars (don't you kind of wish George Lucas didn't read so much Joseph Campbell?). Few characters really stood out, and the relationships are already so clearly defined and on track to go exactly where you expect them to. Basically, The Tomorrow People is the last 40 years of mainstream pop culture storytelling thrown into a blender, with no ice, and puréed to its most liquid form.
I mean really, what was missing here? We met Stephen Jameson (Robbie Amell, seemingly learning how to act on a scene-by-scene basis) as he described all of his 'weird' problems like headaches, waking up naked next to his hot neighbors, and losing his popular friends. There was voiceover, slow-motion walking through the hallways of high school, and a whole lot of hard staring at the camera that was supposed to look like distress. Stephen's home life is predictably troubled; his deadbeat father took off and left his saint of a mother and goofball brother at home, dying under a stack of medical bills. Worst of all, Stephen's hearing a voice in his head—a voice that sounds quite a bit like a pretty girl.
We saw Stephen get thrown into the underground world of Homo-Superiors, the group of evolutionary superstars he shares various DNA enhancements with. There were multiple bouts of exposition—Here's what we can do! You're special! I'm not special, I'm just in "high school"—and the stakes were clearly, immediately established. Stephen initially resisted his place in the new group, only to be captured, only to then discover that he's probably the most special one of them all. He's Neo, and his dad was like the first Neo, or something. The pilot's big reveal, that Mark Pellegrino's Jedikiah is both the big bad and Stephen's uncle, was a nice touch, but also not really that surprising. Now, Stephen is working to take down the evil Ultra from the inside while learning his new powers, and while attending high school, apparently.
Speaking of high school, I simply don't understand why The Tomorrow People has to take place in that setting. Amell certainly looks much older than high school age, even for TV, and it doesn't add anything to the story. I'm sure the show's producers would say stuff about having the lead character split between these two worlds and 'grounding' him in reality and blah blah blah, but it's stupid. It's okay for TV shows to represent young people who aren't in high school. They can be twentysomethings and not in school. It's fine. Most shows rarely know what to do with characters once they go to college, often giving up on the angle sooner rather than later. So why not just cut all that nonsense out from the jump? He's a metahuman; It doesn't make him relatable when we see him carrying an AP Calculus book in the hallway once every four weeks.
Anyway, even if you didn't watch the pilot episode, you could imagine where this story is headed. Stephen is going to get in over his head with Ultra, probably eventually start to believe that Uncle Jed has some good points, only to be burned badly; he'll likely lose his mother, brother, or token black friend in the process. His relationship with Cara will create tension between her and John, the leader of the Tomorrow People who will grow increasingly jealous of Stephen's innate Neo-ness. Aaron Yoo's fellow Tomorrow Person Russell will probably have nothing to do other than crack wise about how crazy their situations have gotten. Stephen's dad isn't dead, he's actually part of a much larger project involving Homo-Superiors and probably the government. It's all right there; you could write five years' worth of Tomorrow People spec scripts... tomorrow.
But! I still didn't hate it. Not only is there something comforting about a pilot that almost shamefully embraces its paint-by-numbers construction, there's also a sense that The Tomorrow People burned through all the set-up nonsense in the pilot so that it could get to (presumably, or perhaps hopefully) more interesting stories sooner rather than later. All three members of the show's primary creative team have worked on shows that started in fairly derivative places before making the leap to something more—even if that something more was just a much better version of the familiar concept. The Vampire Diaries' pilot, which Plec worked on, was frankly pretty awful, the worst kind of zeitgeist-chasing Twilight mush that gives paranormal romance a bad name. Berlanti's Arrow started out better, but certainly hit a lot of bumps along the way before the second half of Season 1 took a heightened, fun turn. So even The CW is known for putting out shows with just-fine, obvious pilots that turn into more fascinating projects.
The big question mark moving forward with The Tomorrow People then is not necessarily how the story will move out of this uber-familiar territory, but how the primary cast members will help make that process easier. In the early episodes of The Vampire Diaries, the melodramatic stories were pretty tepid, but the show's leading trio kept it afloat by sheer power of personality alone (go back and watch Ian Somerhalder chomp down on scenery in the first half-dozen episodes; it's nuts). Despite having a sturdier foundation to build on, Stephen Amell certainly made Arrow better as the creative team worked on the show's world and tone. With The Tomorrow People, I'm not so sure that kind of easy-ish transition period is as possible. Robbie Amell looks the part—i.e., he's pretty, strong-jawed, and white—but he didn't bring a whole lot to the table in this first episode. The scenes where he was asked to be especially emotional, like the conversations about his dad, weren't very strong. Although his performance wasn't embarrassing, it wasn't good either. He's not the anchor the show needs, or at least he wasn't here.
Luke Mitchell and Peyton List weren't given that much to do in the opening hour. They were as fine as fine can be. But if the lead isn't charismatic and the two primary supporting characters—or in CW speak, the other two members of the primary love triangle—aren't great either, the whole enterprise leaves a lot to be desired. Mark Pellegrino and Aaron Yoo are professionals, and did well with what they had, but they can't carry the whole series, especially as the fourth and fifth leads. I understand why The CW casts shows the way that it does, but the hope is that at least one of the very, very pretty people can bring it on-screen, or at least seem electric in that young and attractive kind of way. Maybe the actors have it in them and the pilot didn't quite inspire them, or maybe they just need time to find a groove. In either case, the scripts and the performers just have to come together better. Fun, not even great, performances can make a story like this immediately more enjoyable. Above all else, that's what The Tomorrow People needs.
This pilot wasn't good, but it wasn't bad either. It was mostly just a big shrug. But there is a lot of room for improvement, and various track records that suggest improvement is likely on the way. I'm not ready to disregard it quite yet.
– Somehow, this pilot made New York City look like Vancouver trying to look like New York City. Danny Cannon's shooting gave the episode the kind of sleek, blue hue-y vibe he brought to Nikita, but yow. It'd be nice if The CW and WB TV actually spent a big chunk of money on a pilot for once. Though to be fair, the special effects highlighting the characters' abilities were solid as can be on this level. They didn't look outright bad, which is an accomplishment I think.
– Sarah Clarke playing a mother with teenage boys makes me feel odd. I'm also just waiting for her to reveal herself to be an Eastern European Ultra spy and for her to kill the younger brother. She's always evil.
– The idea that the Homo-Superiors can't kill is interesting. In theory, the show could do some cool commentary on evolution, killing, and hahahahahaha. Sorry, for a second I forgot that this is a CW sci-fi drama.
– Can you spot all of the show's references or straight-up lifts from other pop culture items?
– I'll be curious to hear what people who are familiar with the original version(s) think of this one. Fire away those comments!
What'd you think of The Tomorrow People's series premiere?