Though I guess it can hardly be called “mid-season” at this point, new shows are still trickling onto the TV schedule (as others are being quickly cancelled: “So long, Andy Barker, P.I.”). One new show poised to take over the mantle of Lost, with its continuing plot, mysterious back-story, and ensemble of varied characters is Drive. Several groups of desperate people compete in a secret, illegal, cross-country car race across the U.S. The premise sounds cool, but the big question is how the creators are going to sustain the story over more than the slated 13 episodes (let’s hope even those will all make it to air).
Drive got off to a pretty good start by airing two episodes in one night, then a third episode the following night. So even though it only premiered a week ago, we’ve seen three episodes already. Especially for shows with a serialized story and where you need to get into some of the details to get hooked in, this is a clever strategy. So, the details are that this race is worth 32 million dollars for the winner and the racers are somewhat arbitrarily chosen by a mysterious group of race organizers. Each set of racers is given a cell phone on which they receive instructions and clues which they have to follow to make it to the regular check points. The last racer to make it also receives a penalty that they need to fulfill to stay in the race (and we’re not talking merely 10 pushups either). The main character in the show seems to be a landscaper named Alex Tully (played by Firefly/Serenity’s Nathan Fillion). Someone kidnapped his wife (played by Angel’s Amy Acker) and he has to win the race in order to get her back. He’s joined by a suspicious woman who’s got some connections to the race herself. Through some manipulation and some life-and-death circumstances, they become racing partners. Other teams include a father-daughter pair (Dad’s a rocket-scientist who’s got some health problems), a Desert Storm soldier and his wife, an ex-con and his rich-boy half-brother, a new mom leaving behind her possibly abusive husband, and an opportunistic woman and her two friends. Each one of them has all kinds of personal baggage and part of the story is to reveal what makes them all tick, and why they are competing.
I have to hand it to the show’s writers for coming up with all kinds of things that can happen to these characters during a road race. I was afraid it was going to be scene after scene of dashboard dialogue inter-cut with car chases (by the way, the car chase scenes aren’t bad). I guess it’s part of the contrivance of this show that while the characters meet situations that take them off the road for a while, they end up neck-and-neck for the climactic driving scenes. The mysterious conspiracy angle is turning out to be pretty cool too. The race organizers don’t just control the race, they seem to have their fingers in all kinds of things. The racers never know when someone they meet on the way is actually working for the race organizers to get them back in the race. Plus, there’s the question of what the true motives of these organizers are: it’s a bit X-Files shadow-government meets Lost’s Dharma Initiative/The Others–basically deus ex machina done right. Like all good races, Drive is off to a roarin’ start. Mondays on Fox (4 out of 5)
Another new show in the entirely opposite vein is Thank God You’re Here. After copying the British Whose Line Is It Anyway?, U.S. network TV has poached another improv show idea, from Australian TV this time. In each episode, four actors “compete” by getting dressed up and thrown into a scene they know nothing about and asked to improvise the rest of their way through. As they walk onto the set, they’re greeted by the words, “Thank God You’re Here”. The show is OK for a laugh every week. The idea of watching semi-well-known actors such as Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander and Wayne Knight, Malcolm In the Middle’s Bryan Cranston, Joey’s Jennifer Coolidge, and Star Trek’s George Takei mad-lib their way through a scene has got built-in humour potential. My favourite moment was Jennifer Coolidge as a beauty-pageant contestant responding to the question of what she would change to make the world better by dead-panning, “I never really liked dry ice.” Unfortunately, that kind of (no pun intended) dry humour is a bit lacking on the show. Without the benefit of a funny script, the actors usually resort to the obvious, less clever jokes. Plus, the setups can be seen a mile away. When they walk on the set, they’re always asked to give their character’s name (which usually ends up being either ridiculous sounding, or obviously ironic). Even after only three episodes, the gags are getting a bit tired, so much that I usually stop watching the last sketch when all the contestants are together and asked to sing some kind of improvised song. It’s too too brutal. Wednesdays on NBC (3 out of 5)
So even though mid-season has been a fertile period to debut some cool new shows like Drive, Thank God You’re Here suggests that it’s still a bit of a dumping ground for easy-bake non-scripted shows as well. [Oh yeah, don’t forget that Heroes is back on April 23. Yay!]