Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Making a Pitch for the 'Newest' Show of The New Fall Season

Kylie Bunbury is Throwing Heat. (Warwick Saint/FOX)
This fall, everything old is on TV again.

There's a scaled-down home version of The Exorcist. Lethal Weapon, MacGyver and Van Helsing, too. Michael Weatherly left the No. 1 show on television after 13 seasons – 13 seasons! – only to show up this September with a new drama of his own. (What kind of Bull is that?)

Kiefer Sutherland is back with the job Jack Bauer really wanted, as President of the United States in Designated Survivor. Kevin James, Westworld (with Anthony Hopkins, no less), Sarah Jessica Parker, Frequency, Ted Danson, a show abut going back in time (Timeless) and at least two new series (No Tomorrow, Aftermath) about the end of the world. It's like taking a stroll through the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.

That's why, ever since I heard about its coming and its concept, there is one new fall show I've been almost giddy with anticipation to see.

Because I am an absolute fool for baseball.

Because, with a woman running for president for the first time in history, the time and setting are perfect.

Because I'm fascinated to see how the phenomenal executive producer and director, Paris Barclay (NYPD Blue, Sons of Anarchy) and his team can sustain the excitement of the storyline through, say, four episodes.

And because, as far as I can recall, it is unlike any other series ever on television.

The show is called Pitch, about the first woman to play for a Major League Baseball team, and it premieres at 9 p.m. Thursday (Sept. 22, 2016) on FOX.

It revolves around pitcher Ginny Baker, played by Kylie Bunbury, who has fought her way up the San Diego Padres minor league system to make a spot start for the big club – and set off the kind of media frenzy and public hysteria usually reserved for Royal Weddings.

The day she's scheduled to take the mound, Ellen DeGeneres sends a fruit basket. Hillary wires a congratulatory bouquet. The streets around Petco Park are absolutely jammed with delirious fans. And while all that's entirely fictitious, one of the things I like about Pitch is how it weaves real-life sports notables into the storyline. As Ginny meanders to the clubhouse, she passes by screens showing FOX Sports luminaries (Colin Cowherd, Katie Nolan, Ken Rosenthal) weighing in on her odds of success. (Wonder if they participated willingly?)

It also seems realistic that the sad-sack Padres, who haven't truly approached greatness since my Tigers whupped 'em back in '84, might be the major league franchise most likely to take such a gamble-slash-publicity stunt. And with the full support of MLB, the show resounds with being-at-the-ballpark authenticity. (Wonder if the Padres participated willingly?) 
You Can Buy Lauria (L) as a Manager, but Mark-Paul Gosselaar? (Ray Mickshaw/FOX)

Where the bounds of credibility begin to stretch is with Kylie Bunbury, who is, in a word, stunning. I think it's a masterstroke that producers chose a relative unknown Рher FOX bio is just six lines long Рfor their lead, so we can focus on her present role instead of her resum̩.

Word is that Bunbury was cast months before the show went into production so she could learn how to pitch, or at least look like someone who could make it to the majors. However, I might expect a young woman who could throw in the mid-80s (aided by a trick-pitch screwball, the pitch taught her by her father) to have a build more like Hope Solo or Serena Williams than a teen model – which Bunbury once was, in Minnesota.

Obviously, your belief in the possibility of Ginny Baker – wearing No. 43, "one more than Jackie Robinson" – is critical to the success of the series. Like a rookie on the diamond, however, Pitch wisely surrounded their newcomer with an impressive team, a cast of familiar TV players: Bob Balaban as the team owner, Dan Lauria (The Wonder Years) as the requisite crusty Old School manager, Mark Consuelos (Kelly Ripa) as the Padres publicist, and the sumptuous Ali Larter as Ginny's agent.

You'll be fascinated by Michael Beach, another omnipresent actor, as Ginny's stony, unrelenting Sports Dad, obsessed with molding one of his kids into a baseball pro. But I can't get over the casting of Mark-Paul Gosselaar as the team's veteran star catcher, Mike Lawson. Because pitcher and catcher must be two sides of the same brain, he and Ginny are inextricably connected. So your ability to believe in Gosselaar as a perennial All-Star behind the plate is almost as vital to Pitch as seeing Bunbury as a hurler.

The beard he's grown to increase his grizzle quotient didn't help me. If your Gosselaar memory goes back only as far as Franklin & Bash or NYPD Blue, you've got a shot. If you remember him as Zack Morris, good luck.

Ginny knows well her limitations, and her sexist teammates' expectations. "Seventy-five percent of them think I'm the next San Diego Chicken," she sighs. "The other 25 percent just want to see me shower." Yet Pitch clearly intends to take the societal implications surrounding America's first female MLB player far beyond stadium walls.

"This girl is Hillary Clinton with sex appeal," raves Larter's character, Amelia Slater, who says she gave up George Clooney to make Ginny her full-time client. "She's a Kardashian with a skill set. She's the most important woman on the planet right now."

The writing is crisp, witty and topical (there's even a Red Reddington reference on FOX), and a baseball-themed series on the network that's broadcasting this year's World Series can't hurt the show's exposure. It's suspected that when ABC decided to move Scandal to a midseason return, FOX leaped at the possibility Shondaland fans might sample another hour drama with a strong black woman atop the cast.

I think Pitch is going to have trouble hitting a home run, for the same gender-challenged reasons a show like Men of a Certain Age (a personal fave) didn't make it: men aren't going to flock to see a woman play baseball, and most women don't love the game enough to watch.

It's hard to be the first. Much as I love the baseball setting, Bunbury and Gosselaar may make it hard for Pitch to get to first.

On the Big Glowing Box Remote (out of 10): 7.5 clicks.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Your "X" Favorite Series Returns...With a Melancholy Drone

Do you really think it's sheer coincidence that a massive Stormageddon is blasting out of the sky and engulfing major East Coast population centers this weekend, trapping people inside their homes where they're more likely to watch TV this Sunday night?

Mulder and Scully are Back..lit (FOX/Frank Ockenfels)
Or could it be the work of...aliens?

The truth is out there – or more accurately, on there, as on the FOX primetime schedule. The network has gone back to the future to exhume one of its all-time defining series, The X-Files, for a limited six-episode encore. It kicks off with a two-night "event" beginning at approximately 10 p.m./9c in the cushy, coveted time slot following the NFL's NFC Conference championship slugfest.

In more than one sense, the return of FBI special agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) to FOX after 201 episodes, a 14-year absence and two relatively unsatisfying feature films is achingly bittersweet. For the better part of the 2000s, no matter how woefully its fall season stumbled from the gate, the network could rely on the midseason January launches of 24 and American Idol to propel it to a string of weekly ratings victories down the stretch. In 2016, however, the clock has stopped ticking for Jack Bauer and Idol is limping into its 15th and farewell season, no longer capable of holding the nation in its thrall as the recording industry's newest pop sensation is unveiled.

And Empire isn't returning until March. For FOX, midseason ain't what it used to be.

So the whole affair also has an air of sadness in that the network felt compelled to reach back to its earliest glory days, mend fences with The X-Files executive producer and creative mastermind Chris Carter and pull one last buzz-inducing January programming stunt out of its hat while it scrambles to figure out what to do in 2017. And it did so with the full knowledge that there now exists an entire generation of vidkid millennials who have no idea what all The X-Files buzz is about.

Well, kidlets, let me tell you: in its mid-2000s heyday, The X-Files could frighten the holy feces out of you on a weekly basis in a way Hitchcock and Serling could only dream about, given the limitations of the medium and censorship in their eras. Even the show's theme song could send chills up your back. (In full recognition of this, the FOX press kit for this mini-blockbuster included a faked-up red FBI "dossier" that played the theme when you opened it.) I remember thinking back then that the song was so identifiable that it should have lyrics, so I penned some on my own:

"There is a scary show
About where aliens go,
It stars Fox and Scul-leee.
It scares hell out of meeee:
Boodlee-boodlee-boodlee-boodlee – BOO!"

So they've gotten the old gang back together, and what do we have? Of course, both leads are older now. Duchovny has enjoyed some Californication and the dawning of Aquarius during the interim years, but the square-jawed former JFK Jr. classmate never seems to age. Maybe it's because of the world-weary cockiness he brings to almost every role. And Anderson has been – hey, where has Gillian Anderson been the last 14 years?

Besides Hannibal and the current A&E/History/Lifetime remake of War and Peace, she's been mostly on the stage and small screen in and around London, where the onetime Grand Rapids, Mich., resident has made her home since The X-Files series ended. Anderson has taken on even more of a pale, porcelain gauntness, like Julie Andrews' baby sister, either because of her living environment or because the blood still hasn't returned to her face after initially being offered half as much money as Duchovny to return for the miniseries. Before the first hour is over you'll also briefly see FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) and the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) – it's safe to say, as you've never seen him before.
Joel McHale (of all people) guests as a conservative TV talk host.
As the script reminds us, however, this is a different age as well. The '90s, you may or may not recall, were an extremely paranoid time in America; the new storyline asks the question, in a post 9/11 era of ubiquitous video surveillance and TSA body scans, are we more secure or more paranoid? "How they police us, spy on us and tell us that makes us safer?" the script asks. "We've never been in more danger."

This conundrum is wrapped in two persons: Tad O'Malley (guest star Joel McHale), a conservative TV and Internet talking head with enough celebrity juice, money and wild conspiracy theories to spring Mulder back into action (Hmmm:'Malley. Wonder if the politically astute Carter is alluding to anyone here?); and a mysterious young woman named Sveta (Annet Mahendru) who claims to have been the mom for a string of extraterrestrial babies...and has multiple scoops taken out of her stomach to prove it. Her very cool last scene in the first hour is proof that Carter's special effects budget for this miniseries is enormously greater than it was back in the day.

I like how Carter manages to review and summarize the entire X-Files history in the first few minutes through photos and stock footage. Theoretically, that should have opened the door to hit this new storyline running, with the pace and action such a classic revival deserves. Sadly, however, the first episode – ironically titled "My Struggle" – plods annoyingly through much of its hour, as if the script and the characters are trying to find their rhythm again.

The action picks up conspicuously as the episode concludes, and morphs into some of the "Monster of the Week" scenarios that X-Files fans grew to love farther down its six-week arc. But longtime fans of the series will need to exercise considerable patience, and newcomers to the Mulder-Scully matrix are certain to wonder initially what all the hype was about.

"It's about controlling the past to control the future!" Mulder rages at one point. "It's about fiction masquerading as fact. I spent a decade of my life in this office, and all the time I was being led by my nose through a dark alley to a dead end. Exactly as they planned."

I feel you, Fox.

Big Glowing Box Remote rating (1-10): 7 clicks