This fall, Sullivan Stapleton and Philip Winchester both find themselves starring in profoundly stupid new shows for NBC.
On the one hand, this seems appropriate. The duo spent the past four years playing brothers in arms on Cinemax's “Strike Back,” a slick, fun, but at times fairly silly action series that wraps up in a few weeks. “Strike Back” was many things, but smart was rarely among them. (This final season kicked off with a terrorist act that wouldn't have happened if Stapleton and Winchester's boss had literally just said the phrase “He has a bomb in his bag” on one of about seven or eight different occasions.)
Still, “Strike Back” was so good in other areas – particularly the rapport between the two leads, and the staging of the various fight and chase scenes they found themselves in constantly – that it was easy to forgive the goofier moments, or the sheer improbability of these two surviving so many hostile situations over the years. It was, from first to last, better than it needed to be.
These new shows? They're both significantly dumber, albeit in different ways from one another. I wrote about Stapleton in “Blindspot” last week, but that's a show that literally doesn't function without a premise that makes no sense as presented, and that has virtually no chance of being worth the effort whenever the time comes for the creative team to explain why everything has happened this way. Given the amnesiac tattooed lady at the center of it, it's impossible to watch a single second of it without thinking of how stupid the whole idea is.
Winchester, meanwhile, is the eponymous hero of “The Player,” which debuts tonight at 10. It also has an unnecessarily complicated and loopy premise, but one that's easier to ignore a lot of the time, even though the show doesn't seem to want you to.
Winchester plays Alex Kane, described by a friendly cop as “Vegas's biggest pain in the ass security consultant.” In the pilot's opening minutes, we see him foil an assassination attempt on a visiting dignitary through a bit of swashbuckling that wouldn't have looked out of place on Winchester's last job, even if he gets to use his natural American accent here. Winchester's a charming guy with range who looks convincing with a gun in his hand; a show where he was simply Vegas's biggest pain in the ass security consultant might well be enough.
But “The Player” creator John Rogers, the man behind TNT's “Leverage,” has something flashier – even if it unfortunately draws attention away from the sturdy core of the show – in mind: Kane gets mixed up in an elaborate game involving technology that can predict crime before it happens, the super-wealthy who bet on the outcomes, and the work of “pit boss” Mr. Johnson (Wesley Snipes) and “dealer” Cassandra (Charity Wakefield). So it's “Las Vegas” meets “Person of Interest” meets a half-dozen different conspiracy thrillers and '80s action shows, and Snipes is required to deliver line after line of dead-serious dialogue laced with gambling metaphors.
It's an idea that Kane rightly calls ludicrous when he first hears of it, and one that the pilot episode, at least, doesn't get nearly as much value out of to be worth the bother. Take the whole high-concept premise out of the equation altogether and, say, make Johnson into Kane's boss(*) and Cassandra into his co-worker, and about the only thing that changes about the opening story is the amount of eye-rolling required to get to the good moments when Winchester's simply being allowed to kick ass, take names, and brood a bit about how he may enjoy killing bad guys too much. None of that stuff is riveting (on a much cheaper budget, “Strike Back” weekly did action better than any of this pilot's set pieces), but it gets the job done and suggests the shape of a show that could be built around its very solid leading man.
(*) Snipes has two modes: Funny Wesley (“Major League,” “Demolition Man,” and any movie with him and Woody Harrelson) and Cool Wesley (“Blade,” “Murder at 1600,” etc.), though occasionally (say, “Passenger 57”), he's able to be both at the same time. Your mileage may vary, but I much prefer Funny Wesley, which is why my favorite moment of his in “The Player” pilot is a bit near the end where he's assuming another identity to get Kane out of a jam. For a few moments, he stops being grim and stoic and boring and reminds you how he became a movie star in the first place. Made me wish that was the real character and the whole pit boss thing is just an act, instead of the other way around.
For the premiere at least, the crime game is almost like that fan theory about how Indiana Jones is totally irrelevant to the plot of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” – that the outcome would have been the same if he had never shown up. That's odd, because why would Rogers devote so much time to a concept that can be so easily excised from his first story? But it's also a bit of a relief, because it suggests “The Player” has the potential to be enjoyable even if the premise seems like a high-risk, low-reward gamble.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org