What would you do if you discovered you had the power to see the future, or to absorb and make use of all the knowledge in human history, or simply kept discovering new and unexplained abilities at all hours of the day?
In the real world, you might try to make a fortune on the stock market, or work to end world hunger, or develop a working time machine.
On television, though, you'd use your powers to fight crime. Always.
The TV business has yet to meet the characters whose unconventional skills can't be used to help close murder cases. We're entering the eighth season of a novelist working as an NYPD consultant on ABC, and both Leonardo da Vinci and Ichabod Crane have both somehow become part-time sleuths in recent series. It's a format that not only has a long commercial track record, but that's simply safer and easier to put together than to try something more complicated or unconventional with these characters. There will always be an appetite for crime procedurals of some form or another, and thus there will always be a supply of writers who know how to make them.
Now on the first two days of the TV season, we get a trio of shows where characters get blessed – or, in some cases cursed – with special abilities, and who of course immediately become the unofficial partner of an earthy law-enforcement type who's had to get by all these years with only gut instinct and whatever training their profession offers. Monday night at 9, FOX has its TV sequel to “Minority Report,” while at 10, NBC debuts “Blindspot,” and Tuesday at 10, CBS gives us “Limitless.”
“Minority Report” is the only outright bad one of the trio, but all three are so generic in different ways that they left me daydreaming about alt-reality versions of each where the characters found something – anything – else to do with their gifts.
In chronological order:
“Minority Report” is a direct sequel to the 2002 Steven Spielberg film of the same name, but it's also a complete spiritual inversion of it (and the Philip K. Dick story that inspired both). In the movie, Tom Cruise is head of a future police agency that uses the powers of three psychics named Agatha, Arthur, and Dash to prevent murders before they happen, only to realize that their visions don't represent an absolute vision of the future. Once the public realizes that many people have been arrested even though they might have never actually committed a crime if left unchecked, the program is shut down, and cops have to go back to policing the (relatively) old-fashioned way.
The movie presents this decision as the only morally correct one, while the TV show treats it as a mistake. We pick up 11 years after the pre-crime project was shut down, and one cop studying a murder scene laments, “Can you believe we used to stop this stuff before it happened?”
While Arthur (Nick Zano) and Agatha (Laura Regan) have moved on to other things (a version of the series with Arthur as the main character seems a lot more fun than what we get), Dash (Stark Sands) is not only still consumed with visions of violent deaths, but determined to prevent them. He teams up with local cop Lara Vega (Meagan Good), trying to help her out while staying off the grid in a society with even less privacy than what we enjoy today.
The dialogue is leaden and cliched – “You forget,” Agatha warns her brother: “The only future you cannot see is your own!” – and some of the whiz-bang technology from the film looks less impressive now that other movies and TV shows have had 13 years to copy it into present-day.
The boyish Sands (a two-time Tony nominee who also played the sympathetic lieutenant in “Generation Kill”) does what he can to make Dash seem off-kilter even when he isn't having visions, but neither he nor Good have much to play. And while some of the references to the way life and culture have changed by 2065 are amusing, there's quickly a sameness and predictability to them. (Vega's mother, concerned about how kids today date, lectures her daughter, “When I was your age, we had this thing called Tinder…”) It's like a watered-down version of “Almost Human,” a sci-fi cop show FOX aired only a couple of years ago, which wasn't great but at least had personality in a way this one lacks utterly.
After (spoiler) Dash and Vega close their first case together, he asks her, “What happens next time?”
“Shouldn't you be telling me?” she replies, and it's a wonder they don't clap each other on the back and laugh, followed by a freeze frame and jaunty end credits music.
“Blindspot,” meanwhile, is a crime procedural that tries to dress itself up in conspiracy thriller drag, with very mixed success.
Jaimie Alexander (Sif from “Thor” and other Marvel movies and shows) is a woman found zipped inside a canvas bag in Times Square, naked, covered in bizarre tattoos from head to toe, with absolutely no memory of who she is.
One of those tats features the name of FBI Agent Kurt Weller (Sullivan Stapleton), which somehow gets him placed in charge of a task force devoted to figuring out who this Jane Doe is, what all her tattoos mean, and why she keeps surprising them and herself with exotic skills, like speaking an obscure Chinese dialect or being able to fight off two larger assailants with ease.
Because she doesn't know who she is, Jane is less a character than a plot device. Between her tattoos and her skills, she becomes the cause of, and solution to, all of the task force's problems, and sucks the tension out of most scenes because it's inevitable that she'll display the right ability of piece of knowledge at the exact moment it's needed.
The mythology feels like mystery for its own sake, and even the characters on the show start wondering why whoever inked up Jane didn't just call the FBI anonymously to tell them about the terror threat she leads them to in the pilot. I imagine creator Martin Gero (“The L.A. Complex”) has an elaborate plan for how Jane ended up in this predicament and what all the tattoos mean, but if the characters don't pop, none of it matters.
Stapleton's a treat as one half of Cinemax's buddy action drama “Strike Back” (whose final season wraps up in a few weeks), but this role strips away all that's fun about him and doesn't give him any interesting characteristics (save an iffy Southern-ish accent that's different from his iffy generic American accent on “Strike Back”) to compensate. He's just gruff and puzzled about Jane, no more, no less. And Alexander's appealingly vulnerable, but has nothing to do beyond that.
Finally, we have “Limitless,” yet another movie sequel, albeit one so recent and direct that Bradley Cooper not only produces, but cameos (with the promise of occasional reappearances, depending on his schedule) in his role from the film.
Our main character here is Brian (Jake McDorman, most recently of ABC's unfortunate “Manhattan Love Story”), a struggling musician who finally finds direction – and a way to live up to his full potential – when an old friend offers him a pill of the same wonder drug that made Cooper into a super-genius in the movie.
As Brian explains it to us – in one of so many bits of voiceover narration as exposition that Michael Westen from “Burn Notice” would be jealous – once you take this pill, “You remember a lot more than you think you do. Every experience you've ever had, every idea that came to you in the shower, then slipped away while you were brushing your teeth, is yours for the taking.”
Not only does he recall everything he ever learned even in passing, he can assimilate new information and skills at a staggering rate, and can calculate complex equations – say, the stopping rate of a subway train when the emergency brake goes on relative to its distance from him, or how long he can hang on to the edge of a fire escape – faster than a super computer. Or at least as fast as the Josh Holloway character from CBS' very similar, and short-lived, “Intelligence.”
The law-enforcement sidekick in this case is Jennifer Carpenter from “Dexter.” As with Stapleton, the move from premium cable to broadcast network isn't a smooth one for her, as it deprives her of the ability to swear at length. McDorman is fine, albeit playing a character pitched as a very friendly puppy dog who one day learned to stand on his hind legs. And in the pilot, at least, Cooper is just there to deliver exposition and technobabble, and to help establish why Brian winds up helping out the FBI, as opposed to following in Cooper's footsteps of making a fortune and running for public office.
Of these three shows, “Limitless” is the most competent at what it's trying to be, even if what it's trying to be is a middling CBS procedural. “Blindspot” could turn into something interesting given some of the talent on hand, but the gimmick at the center of it feels like more trouble than it's worth for both the show and the mysterious conspiracy that put Jane Doe in that bag. And one doesn't need the gift of precognition to know that “Minority Report” – which already went through some retooling just to arrive in this sub-mediocre form – isn't likely to improve.
But if all of them are still around by, say, February sweeps, I'd love to see a thematic crossover of sorts where each show does an episode where their heroes spend their whole hour doing something other than solving warmed-over mysteries.
GRADES: “Minority Report” C- / “Blindspot” C / “Limitless” C+
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org