There was a period after the instant, explosive success of “Lost” where J.J. Abrams seemed to be creating every new drama on television. I say “seemed to” because in most of those cases, these shows – “Six Degrees,” “What About Brian” and “Alcatraz,” among others – were shows from Abrams' production company that traded on his name in their marketing, but didn't have him around as any kind of hands-on creative force. Every now and again he might actually co-write or direct one of the pilots with his name on it (for the short-lived “Undercovers,” he did both), but Abrams often seems to be most useful simply using his muscle to get shows on the air, and then as a hook to use in marketing. Some of these shows last a while – “Fringe” went five seasons, and “Person of Interest” and “Revolution” are still around – while others have demonstrated the limits of Abrams' name as a drawing card.
With “his” new NBC drama “Believe” (it sneak previews tonight at 10 before moving to Sundays at 9), Abrams has cleverly outsourced the name-branding to one of the few creators in the business with an even higher profile at the moment: Oscar-winning “Gravity” director Alfonso Cuarón, who co-created the series and directed its pilot episode. As co-creator of the show, Cuarón seems less likely to vanish like Martin Scorsese from “Boardwalk Empire”(*), but I also don't expect him to direct an episode again anytime soon.
(*) On last week's video show, Fienberg and I imagined some “Boardwalk” fan running into Scorsese on the street and baffling him with questions about later season characters like Dunn Purnsley and Dr. Narcisse.
And that's a shame, because Cuarón's contributions behind the camera are by far the most interesting part of “Believe.” Take away the technical wizardry of “Gravity” or “Children of Men” – albeit on a much-reduced scale and budget – and what you have is a slightly more action-oriented remake of FOX's short-lived “Touch,” or an incredibly scaled-down beta test of NBC's planned “Heroes” reboot.
The adorably-named Johnny Sequoyah plays Bo, a young girl with various superhuman abilities that the show is vague about, but which include at a minimum variations on telepathy, precognition and the power to control animals. These powers make various bad people – symbolized by Kyle MacLachlan's secretly evil billionaire philanthropist – want to control her, and it makes a handful of good people – led by Delroy Lindo's secretly alive billionaire philanthropist – want to protect her until the time is right to share her many gifts with the world. To keep her safe, Lindo's Milton Winter frees a wrongly-imprisoned Death Row inmate named Tate (Jake McLaughlin) to serve as her protector and parental figure.
The sequences where Bo is under attack from MacLachlan's forces are viscerally exciting – the opening sequence will feel very familiar, in a good way, to “Children of Men” fans – but the characters feel sketchy (or, in the case of McLaughlin as Tate, stiff) and the portion towards the end of the episode where we get a sense of what kind of missions Bo might go on each week is very bland and, again, much more reminiscent of the Rube Goldberg workings of the universe from “Touch” than I imagine anyone on this show would be comfortable acknowledging.
NBC didn't make additional episodes available, and it's entirely possible that later directors like Jonas Pate (who will be the actual day-to-day showrunner) will be able to successfully mimic Cuarón's style in the same way that Jack Bender and the other “Lost” directors maintained most of what made Abrams' work on that show's pilot so special. But even if they can keep showing us Bo's world through Cuarón's eye, more or less, the story and the characters need a lot of work.
The pilot should get some good sampling tonight after “The Voice,” but then it moves to Sundays, where non-football shows tend to die on NBC, and especially opposite the surprise hit of the mid-season in ABC's “Resurrection.” I liked the “Believe” pilot a lot more, if only for the direction of it, but we'll see if there's even time to start asking about when or if Cuarón might have time to direct another one.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org