Early Thoughts on Pitch, The Exorcist and Dead of Summer

While at the ATX Television Festival last week, I got the chance to screen a few upcoming pilots, one of which premieres very soon and two more that will make their debut this fall. I don’t know how fair it is to write a full-on review based solely on the pilots, but I still thought it was worthwhile to share my first impressions. As someone who loves the festival, I appreciate networks and creators putting their work out there early for TV diehards to check out, so while not everything I have to say is positive, I felt I should at least express gratefulness for that. Have I mentioned how much I love ATX? Okay, without further adieu, some thoughts on these upcoming pilots:

Dead of Summer (Freeform)
Premiere Date: June 28th

dead of summerIt should be noted that I quite like MTV’s Scream (season one at least, I haven’t started the second season yet but am planning to catch up this weekend). I’m certainly not above some good summer popcorn fun with cheesy scares and teen melodrama. I feel like Scream got better as it went along and by the midpoint of the season, it had fully accepted what exactly it was good at doing and the show leaned more on campiness. This was absolutely the right call.

Time will tell if Dead of Summer will do the same because, as it stands, the premiere is very, very funny but almost all of the humor seems unintentional. From some really unsubtle staging (check out how one of the characters reads a magazine) to equally unsubtle clues as to some of the teen angst our characters will be grappling with in the episodes to come, it’s hard not to chuckle at how much this feels like such a Freeform version of a horror movie.

As for the scares, they’re few and far between at this point, but it could achieve the playful creep factor that Scream got pretty decent at last summer. Again, I’m not saying that Scream is a great TV show by any means, but if you can satisfied by some cheap jumps, a dash of gore and an entertaining cast, Scream is just fine and Dead of Summer seems to have many similar ingredients.

Also like Scream, Dead of Summer’s lead character is way too glum, serious and earnest all the time but Elizabeth Lail still does a capable job heading up the cast. In fact, most of the young cast (which includes Zelda Williams, daughter of Robin) does just fine, with the hunky cop character (Alberto Frezza) being most guilty of upping the cheese factor by dealing with this material far too seriously. Obviously Elizabeth Mitchell brings a bit of pedigree to this project (although it’s not like she always chooses her roles wisely) but her character (a woman who has recently bought and reopened Camp Stillwater) is still a bit too ambiguous (by design) for me to be sure how I feel about the performance.

With just the pilot to go off of, it’s tough to say what I think about this show. On one hand, it’s very silly throughout but if the show understands that’s what it is, that’s fine and I’ll absolutely hop on board for a fun, entertaining ride. If it takes itself too seriously, it will quickly devolve into a type of stupid I don’t have much interest in. The show’s creators, Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis (Once Upon A Time) were at the ATX panel, stressing how this was a show about “identity” and one revelation in the pilot in particular drives that point home. But their hope is to delve deep into the stories and secrets of all these characters.

That pitch certainly makes this whole thing sound like it will venture far too close to “afterschool special” for a show full of so many absurdities, but if future episodes prove me wrong and it turns out Dead of Summer knows exactly what sort of ridiculous, escapist summer adventure it should be, I’ll be on board. [For those wondering, Horowitz and Kitsis also said that this is intended to be an anthology series with different seasons telling different stories at the campground and the cast returning in different roles]

Pitch (FOX)
Premiere Date: September 22nd

pitchI was surprised at how much I loved this trailer because, not only am I not really a sports guy, baseball would probably be one of the last sports I’d voluntarily sit down to watch (no offense). But, like anyone with a heart, I love Friday Night Lights and have no problem getting into a sports drama when it’s well done so I was instantly caught up in the infectious heart and energy displayed in the upfront trailer for this new series that highlights the journey of Major League Baseball’s first female pitcher (a story that hasn’t yet occurred in reality).

Immediately after screening the Pitch pilot, I tweeted that it was flawless and I stand by that. This is just such a terrific hour of television, executed so perfectly from the writing to the direction to the fantastic cast, I walked away absolutely in love. Now, to be fair, the trailer gives away the majority of the pilot (save for a few unexpected moments) so I knew pretty much what I was in for, but in the fleshing out of these scenes and ideas, Pitch transformed from a promising idea to what I feel confident is going to be a full-blown obsession for me and many others.

Of course, the Pitch pilot is in a rare and advantageous position of looking somewhat different than I imagine the show will fuction week to week (hard to recreate the drama of a pitcher’s historic first game) but, in my eyes, it also had tremendous hurdles to clear as it told a fairly predictable inspirational sports story in the course of an hour while feeling fresh, smart and thoroughly engaging throughout.

This cast’s bench is ridiculously deep with star-in-the-making Kylie Bunbury absolutely nailing every second of the pilot with grace and precision as Ginny and Mark-Paul Gosselaar doing terrific work as the Padres’ catcher who becomes a bit of a sparring partner turned mentor for her. Dan Lauria, Ali Larter, Mark Consuelos and many others round out this top-notch cast, most of which are doing some of the best work of their careers.

I’m always nervous to get this excited about a pilot but, no matter where the series goes from here, this is one excellent hour of television and nothing can change that. Aside from being instantly addictive and impossibly watchable, Pitch seems poised to be one of the most positive breakout hits we’ve had in quite some time. Look, I love the dark, gritty, very raw and real direction that much of TV has taken, but a new show full of hope and inspiration might not be a bad idea. Not to mention, at least with the pilot, the show’s done a really great job at introducing a character that is not only a wonderful role model for young girls but a real and interesting character and that’s certainly not nothing;

I’m getting pumped for more just writing about this. Thank God FOX decided against holding this gem until midseason….but is it September yet?

The Exorcist (FOX)
Premiere Date: September 23rd

exorcistAdmittedly, I’m a little leery of getting hooked on this one and was actually kind of happy when the trailer made the whole thing look super boring because I’m not especially keen on watching a show about demon possession every week. A two-hour movie or a one-off episode of something? Sure, fine. But demon possession stories aren’t my favorite, both from a personal perspective and from a creative perspective because so many of the beats remain the same no matter what the differing details may be.

There are certainly a few scenes featured in the episode that are all too familiar if you’ve ever watched anything about possession but as far as that type of stuff goes, they’re handled very effectively here. One scene in particular is brutal to behold but you can’t look away. If those are the type of scares that work for you, it’s no surprise that The Exorcist may be a perfect fit, but the good news is that the show is actually a whole lot more.

While I found the trailer to be a bit dull, I was actually pretty instantly intrigued by this pilot. It does such an impressive job of creating this creepy atmosphere while never being too heavy-handed in its set-up. The characters and the situations we meet them in are pretty interesting as well, with Geena Davis leading the cast as a long-suffering mother afraid that there may be some sort of evil presence in her home. While that plot looks fairly tired and overdone based on what we see in the trailer, we’re quickly introduced to some elements that make it far more absorbing. Even the main priest character works despite being bogged down with the TV priest cliches of being absurdly attractive and the type of unorthodox priest who seems to only halfway believe in his religion (and not at all in the devil). I rolled my eyes at those things but Alfonso Herrara does really good work with what he’s given and gets you invested in the character.

It’s still clear that this show is set up to be a bit of a slow-burn and this certainly wasn’t a pilot full of non-stop shocks and scares, but it did quietly build a world that I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t interested in exploring some more. It’s certainly not unreasonable to question the necessity of an Exorcist TV series, but this pilot does make a compelling case for its existence. The most promising aspects of the pilot are honestly hard to talk about without being a jerk that spoils the fun, but I can promise you that, at the very least, this first hour is worth your time if you’re into this sort of thing and this could end up being a very good show if it’s able to live up to the promise of its pilot.

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