If there really aren't any new stories left to tell in fiction, then the only hope is that the same old tales are told interestingly. Sometimes, it's just a matter of finding a new approach, whether it's the haunting visual style of something like “Hannibal,” or, going a bit further back, the melding of mob and psycho drama on “The Sopranos.”
Sometimes, though, the only thing making the dusty clichés look pretty are the actors wearing them, which is the case for CBS' “Intelligence” and ABC's “Killer Women,” which debut tomorrow night at 9 & 10 respectively. (Starting next week, “Intelligence” will air Mondays at 10.) Both are assembled whole cloth out of bits of other shows – many of them much better than these – and put all the weight on stars Josh Holloway (for “Intelligence”) and Tricia Helfer (for “Killer Women”).
Both were break-out supporting players on mid-'00s sci-fi epics: Holloway as nickname-dispensing con man Sawyer on “Lost,” Helfer as the many iterations of sexy robot Number Six on “Battlestar Galactica.” With the new shows, they're the unquestioned leads: Holloway as Gabriel, a special ops soldier whose brain has been connected “directly to the information grid,” as boss Marg Helgenberger explains; Helfer as Molly, a rare woman serving in the elite Texas Rangers.
“Intelligence” is, in other words, “Chuck” without the nerd factor – or, if you want to go really old school, “The Six Million Dollar Man” with fewer slo-mo shots. Holloway has been cleaned up just a bit from his Sawyer days, though sometime between the pilot and the second episode, CBS appears to have sent the producers a memo to get his shirt off whenever possible. Gabriel is an elite fighting machine who now also has an actual machine in his head, but is so valuable to the government that he needs an extra bodyguard in the form of Meghan Ory's Riley. Gabriel is still hung up on his presumed dead wife, so there's no sexual tension (yet), but still plenty of opportunity for familiar barbs between hero and heroine.
“You took a bullet for me?” he complains to her at one point. “What the hell are you doing?”
“MY JOB!” she barks back, in unison with every viewer who has ever heard that line before in the thousands of TV shows and movies that have used it.
Gabriel's super powers are the thing meant to set the show apart, but the “Intelligence” writers frequently do a poor job of differentiating how he's any different from someone wearing Google Glass. There are also several moments in only the first two episodes that go out of their way to cut off the source of his abilities – one time while he's riding in an elevator, which makes it seem as if he's a flip phone from 2002 – when they become inconvenient to the plot. Most superheroes (or super spies, in this case) have vulnerabilities, but to introduce them this early, and this frequently, suggests a concept no one really thought through beyond “Sawyer + Bluetooth = kewl.”(*)
(*) There's a scene in the pilot where Gabriel takes on a group of mercenaries at a paintball course, using satellite infrared imagery to spot them behind obstacles, which could well make “Intelligence” Barney Stinson's favorite TV show.
That said, Holloway's charm did not get chopped away with his long hair. Gabriel isn't exactly Sawyer 2.0; the drawl is a bit more mild, the nicknaming absent. But there's enough rugged bad boy-ness to the role – “He's also reckless, unpredictable and insubordinate,” Helgenberger's character laments at one point, as all military and/or law-enforcement bosses on TV must about their most productive employees – that “Lost” fans will not feel ripped off should they show up to support their guy.
And sometimes, that's enough. “Castle,” for instance, doesn't do many new things with the police procedural format (nor with the Unresolved Sexual Tension between its bickering leads), but it has Nathan Fillion being handsome and funny and dashing as needed, and that's carried it into a sixth season.
“Killer Women” is less of a brand continuation for Helfer than “Intelligence” is for Holloway, but mainly because she was really playing so many different characters on “Battlestar” that you can't just point to Molly as Number Six in a Stetson.(**) But it's also an unabashed star vehicle, there to make Molly look good, professionally and aesthetically, at every turn.
(**) Also, Helfer has worked a whole lot more since “BSG” ended than Holloway has since “Lost,” including ongoing roles in multiple series (albeit often low-rated ones like “The Firm” and “Dark Blue”). So she's less defined by any one role.
Molly is one of only two female Rangers, and the first investigation we see her work – Rangers, as she explains, are “brought in on complex cases as support to law enforcement” – involves a beautiful woman in a slinky red dress (Nadine Velazquez) interrupting a church wedding(***) to murder the bride. This is all right on-brand for female-skewing ABC, though “Killer Women” at least avoids the trope of having Molly run into sexist jerks at every turn on the job. She rubs a lot of men the wrong way, but because she's a lone wolf (or, as she quips at one point, “a lone Ranger”) who plays by her own rules, not specifically because she's a female version of the cliché. (Though she does make significant progress in the case because she sees it from a different perspective than the men.)
(***) We actually first see Velazquez (or her body double, since the bulk of the show is filmed in New Mexico) standing in front of the Alamo, before we cut to Molly roping cattle, so we can be clear as to the locale.
Helfer's beautiful, charismatic and has some serious acting chops, and she grew up on a farm in western Canada. She looks the part and is very comfortable playing it. It's all pretty retro and forgettable, though, even Molly's on-again, off-again fling with Marc Blucas as a local DEA agent. I wish she was playing a richer part in a more ambitious show, but that's not what “Killer Women” wants to be.
Neither of these lead actors are household names, though “Lost” was a big enough hit that Holloway's pretty recognizable. (Helfer was prominent in all the “BSG” marketing way back when, but that was in her platinum blonde stage.) Then again, Fillion arrived on “Castle” as the relatively obscure star of several failed series (even if one was the great “Firefly”). Hit TV shows make stars more often than the other way around, and Holloway and Helfer are both strong enough for the amount of hype their characters get.
We're entering a stretch where major broadcast networks and cable channels are premiering or returning all sorts of complex, challenging, entertaining, fascinating new series. (At the same time “Killer Women” is debuting, for instance, FX brings back a much more interesting Stetson-clad gunslinger in Raylan Givens on “Justified.”) “Intelligence” and “Killer Women” aren't trying to be that. They're putting in the minimal effort necessary to make you like their leading man and leading lady, and hoping that will make them hits. TV history says it's not a crazy plan, even if it's a disappointing one.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com