The 2015 fall season begins in earnest this week, with shows that the Big Four networks hope become this year's breakouts.
NBC and Fox offer their best shots on Monday, with "Blindspot" and "Minority Report," respectively, two big swing dramas that lean heavily on successful film and television tropes but with enough creative flourish to make themselves felt.
No small task, given television's current state of overcrowding. So, perhaps, "Blindspot" creator Martin Gero and director Mark Pellington can be forgiven for their over-the-top opener: Amid the relentless neon of Times Square, a duffel bag is discovered, tagged with directions to call the FBI. Is it a bomb? A big pile of Anthrax? No. As men in riot gear shout orders and point guns, the bag opens and a woman emerges shaking and clearly petrified to reveal her naked body, covered with tattoos.
And if a naked tattooed woman shoved in a bag and dumped on the sidewalk isn't "cool" enough, the action quickly cuts to an FBI raid on a den of sexual slavery. Agent Kurt Weller ("Strike Back's" Sullivan Stapleton) has barely captured the bearded creep shouting threats at an assortment of chained-up women (and a baby) when he is summoned to headquarters.
Jane Doe (Jaimie Alexander) now has clothes but no memory at all. Her brain was apparently wiped clean by whoever covered her body with tattoos, which include, quite prominently, the name "Kurt Weller."
Eyes front, the story marches resolutely past all the disturbing implications of this setup — what else might have happened to a woman who has been super-roofied and physically defaced? These early moments are make or break for the story line — if viewers dwell too long on what was actually done to Jane, "Blindspot" will be no fun at all.
But Gero stands by his opening scene, skillfully setting up exposition that ensures Jane is perceived not as a victim but an enigma. While some of us may wonder why Jane had to be naked and in a bag, the combined efforts of Alexander and the always terrific Marianne Jean-Baptiste, here playing the briskly efficient Bethany Mayfair in charge of headquarters, keep the story on point and in genre. (Memo to all networks: Give Jean-Baptiste her own show.)
Weller has no idea who Jane Doe is or why his name is on her back, but with the aid of assorted doctors and "computer experts," it is soon revealed that a) the tattoos are a "treasure map" of crime-related information and b) Jane was apparently Jason Bourne in a former life. She may have no idea who she is or if she likes coffee, but every minute she reveals a pretty amazing skill set.
She speaks Chinese! She can take down three bad guys armed only with a broken broom! She knows how to handle a gun!
As the Lady Sif in the "Thor" films, Alexander is already something of a warrior icon, and she is the main reason "Blindspot" comes out of the box (or that darn bag) with such tantalizing, high-energy grace. Stapleton's Weller quickly becomes a stand-in for narrative expectations: He is used to being the alpha male, and his repeated realization that he doesn't need to protect Jane gives the pilot a healthy, if repetitive, vein of humor.
It's all completely absurd, of course, but smoothly so —"The Da Vinci Code" meets "Alias." Like "The Blacklist," "Blindspot" needs to have unique crimes cleverly solved, preferably at the very last minute. More important, it needs to have main characters we care about, and if none appear as darkly complicated and contrary as James Spader's Red Reddington, Alexander's Jane quickly goes from captive to captivating.
"Minority Report" has the same essentials as "Blindspot" — a mismatched couple, tipped off by imperfect bits of important information, must quickly prevent catastrophe. The initial chemistry between the characters is not as strong, but the package is definitely fancier.
Max Borenstein's serialized sequel to Steven Spielberg's cinematic adaptation of a Philip K. Dick short story, "Minority Report" picks up 10 years after the events of the film. The three "Precogs" John Anderton (Tom Cruise) rescued from the briny depths of murder prediction now live in anonymity, and the vision-based "Precrime" system that enslaved them and so many others has been dismantled. Murders are now solved the old-fashioned way, with legwork and super groovy contact lenses that allow police officers to holographically re-create the crime.
But the youngest Precog, Dash (Stark Sands), continues to have visions, horrific visions of deaths he longs to prevent. So, ignoring the passionate pleadings of big sister and chief Precog Agatha (Laura Regan), he tries to do that.
His visions, always the weakest of the three, are fleet and ragged, so obviously he needs help. Which, with one convenient plot twist after another, he finds in Lara Vega (Meagan Good). Struggling against her own feelings of inadequacy and the glory-stealing tendencies of her supervisor, Will (Wilmer Valderrama), Lara longs for the golden days of Precrime and promises to keep Dash's identity a secret if he will work with her.
Not surprisingly, "Minority Report" looks fabulous, with an endless display of futuristic gadgetry to distract the viewer from the rather humdrum nature of the story: Beat cop meets detective with something extra, and together they attempt to save the world. Stripped of the flying cars, endless eye-scans and giant talking screens, "Minority Report" is "Castle," "Sleepy Hollow" or, for that matter, "Blindspot," with a Precog instead of a crime novelist, a resurrected soldier of the American Revolution or a kickass amnesiac.
Some of the best shows on television are character-driven procedurals, but Borenstein seems so eager to establish the procedural that he underplays the characters.
With just the right amount of twitchy unworldliness, Sands is quite convincing as a man who spent 10 years in drug-induced flotation and another 10 in isolation, though any fear he has of replicating the sins of the past are quickly glossed over. His brother Arthur (Nick Zano) is using his gift in a more capitalistic way, though he too is drawn into Dash's quest.
As the straight man of the piece, Good suffers most from the pilot's rush to solve crime rather than explore character; she doesn't seem at ease in the world of the future and never quite reconciles Lara's obsession with Precrime with her essential decency. It's only been 10 years; surely the notion of people being imprisoned unjustly outweighs ease of investigation.
The pilot directly addresses the horrors of Precrime, but the tone, and very nature, of the show sends mixed messages. Maybe Precrime wasn't so bad, maybe we just didn't do it right the first time.
It's difficult not to find yourself agreeing with Agatha when she implores Dash not to meddle. She wants to protect her brother, but we remember the real meaning of the term "minority report": that the visions were often wrong.
When: 9 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and violence)
When: 10 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-14-V (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for violence)