Four years since its finale, it still feels like network TV is chasing Lost. That perfect (well at least for its first season) blend of drama, science fiction, and mystery box thrills, every high-concept fantasy series on the big four (sorry, CW) remains seems trapped on that spectral island. Yet, if anyone can push outside of that tropical box, Alfonso Cuarón and his new series, Believe, seems like a good bet. At least on paper.
Even before Cuarón became an Oscar winning director earlier this month with his hard-earned work on Gravity, he had already proven to NBC (or anyone else) that he knows how to find the human character and emotional beats underneath a fantastical concept. Many viewers still struggle to call Children of Men a sci-fi genre product, in spite of its absurdly post-apocalyptic premise. That’s because besides his visual wizardry, Cuarón also imbued Children with a level of illusionary reality and breathless verisimilitude that made each second agonizing to witness, particularly as the band of heroes dwindled. Similarly, he holds the distinction of directing the only Harry Potter movie with a pulse. Thus, when he pitches a TV show about protecting a little girl from seemingly demonic forces at all costs (perhaps Kee’s child from after she boards the Tomorrow vessel?), you make it.
The pilot presents the mystery of a young girl named Bo (Johnny Sequoyah) in stunning, early detail. With a sequence lifted straight out of Matt Reeves’ Let Me In, Cuarón opens the series he co-created with Mark Friedman (and directed the pilot of) with a bang: a seamless, apparently solitary steadicam shot of a family in a massive car crash. Even more elaborate than the aforementioned film, Cuarón weaves the camera from inside the car on young Bo, singing a song with absent-minded foster parents, before thunderously capturing their demise at the hands of an attacking Sienna Guillory in another car. The steadicam shot continues well after the collision by staying with Bo as she witnesses her guardians get slaughtered before the official credits. “She’s just a child,” the mother pleads. “I don’t care,” Guillory’s Moore cheerfully whispers before snapping her neck. It is one hell of an overture.
Unfortunately, the rest of the episode does not live up to that short burst of brilliance. It is explained early that Bo is a gifted youngster of unknown power, which is not limited in this premiere to being psychic, clairvoyant, and able to apparently summon birds at will. This power makes her a precious commodity that has been protected by a series of foster parents who participate in a larger web of Good Samaritans with their own motives. This group is led by Winter (Delroy Lindo) and Channing (Jamie Chung). One aged and serene while the other is young and impatient, the two offer a good cop/bad cop dichotomy for every decision, albeit Winter’s stoicism always wins out. They end up enlisting a wrongfully convicted man on death row named Tate (Jake McLaughlin) to spring Bo from the misplaced hands of authorities while she’s still in the hospital. In the process, Tate and Bo become the targets of a pursuing Moore, and much of the rest of the pilot is her beating up Tate while Bo frets before saving him via power or otherwise. Kyle MacLachlan also waits in the wings as Skouras, the overlord of Moore and a seemingly invincible corporate hydra searching for Bo’s gifts.
Despite all this talk of Bo being a seeming “chosen one,” at the moment the show seems mostly geared toward an impending status quo about the girl and her newest protector, rugged “I don’t like kids” Tate, going on the run. While much happens in this confusing and often muddled pilot, the takeaway is that the two are getting out of Baltimore and being forced to live together, potentially planting the seeds for the classic “fugitive” TV narrative. And while that timeless TV format being tailored about a Paper Moon premise, all the more intensified when Winter suggests that Tate might be Bo’s father, is intriguing, it currently feels off.
As displayed here, Sequoyah and McLaughlin’s chemistry is about as warmly inviting as the Arctic Circle in February. McLaughlin neither conveys the outrage of his Richard Kimble persona or the soft, curmudgeon underbelly of a man who is secretly searching to become a father. Rather, he appears to be a TV stand-in for a hero while he repeatedly gets punched in the face. Sequoyah fairs better as his counterpart with some decent comedic timing, but did not prove in the pilot whether she can carry an entire series. Meanwhile actors like Lindo, best known for Get Shorty and Cider House Rules, or a briefly cameo-ing Rami Malek are asked simply to look in awe of Bo as she imparts her latest bit of feel-good wisdom while communing with a comatose parent or causing CGI butterflies to drift across the screen. Perhaps she could have summoned up a little more context, too?
Of course, it is only Believe’s pilot, and character arcs can only be seeded in a weekly drama so soon. The selling point of the first episode should be and remains Bo herself. A young, prophesied child who is inherently good, yet is claimed by forces of light and dark? While she has not shown an ability to yet turn water into wine, her penchant for healing the sick and reaching into the souls of others to, well, believe is not exactly the newest story. Indeed, some have previously called it the greatest ever told. Could Bo be the Second Coming of a gender-defying deity? On network TV, I have my doubts, but it certainly feels like it is headed in that direction. Albeit, a preview for upcoming episodes has already revealed that the villains also have their own magical demigods enlisted.
Believe has an intriguing premise with high aspirations. After all, one episode in, I am already seeing (or imagining) biblical allusions. However, at its core, it still needs to work as a weekly TV series, and even with a stunning opening shot that is pure Cuarón magic, there was little onscreen to convince that these are characters worth spending weeks with. Much less the “years” Lindo’s Winter so hopefully promised. Nonetheless, for high-concept fans, there is probably already enough to be faithful about.