Thursday, September 24, 2015

REVIEW: 'The Player' - Alex Kane Becomes the New Player for Mr. Johnson and Cassandra in 'Pilot'

NBC's The Player - Episode 1.01 "Pilot"

Special op-turned-security expert Alex Kane is unable to catch his ex-wife Ginny's murderer. In searching for justice, he crosses paths with a shadowy organization called the House, led by Mr. Johnson and Cassandra King. Kane reluctantly joins forces with the elite organization whose members bet on whether he can stop future crimes.

The Player isn't aspiring to be a great or revolutionary TV series. It wants to be an enjoyable hour of television that features outrageous stunts and tense action sequences. Sure, conspiracy elements are at play as well. But they almost always have to be with every show now. That's the only way a show like this can make any sense at all. The narrative is overly complicated and it doesn't hint that it will be able to handle a conversation about the morality of all of this. But The Player is escapist fun. Something that's appealing to watch that doesn't require an audience's full viewing attention. Those shows are capable of being wildly successful. They have a place in the medium. And The Player does feel like a safe bet to slide into that genre.

Alex Kane is doing his best to be a good person after breaking bad for a significant amount of time. He was able to pull out of that darkness because of his ex-wife, Dr. Ginny Lee. Even though they were horrible at being a married couple, he still listens to her advice every day and does his best to avoid his past self. She holds a huge significance in his life. That doesn't make it too surprising when she is killed early in the premiere in order to get the rest of the story going. It's a horribly overused device. A female character only exists in the pilot to give the male hero someone to care about after she is killed. It's a lame and formulaic way to start the story. Of course, Ginny's murder isn't all it appears to be. Doubling down on it has the potential to go any number of ways for the future. It could continue to make the narrative bothersome with its insistence on how important the character is despite having such very little screen time. Or it could suggest a way for Alex to better infiltrate the darkness that is this nefarious organization.

This premiere really doesn't get into what this organization actually is. It spends a lot of time with Alex out in the field handling this case for him to get any better understanding of who these shadowy billionaires are who take pleasure from inflicting pain on others. That could be something of interest in future episodes - considering this job for everyone is a lifetime appointment where they serve at the pleasure of the house. The action of the story doesn't really need this device in order to work. That makes the premise of the show seem even sillier than it actually sounds. That's a narrative hurdle that the show needs to overcome quickly. The organization has to affect the way that Alex approaches the weekly cases. He has chosen to be the new player. That means he's going to have to development relationships with Cassandra and Mr. Johnson. Making the various pieces of the show more important can only add to the narrative unity. There's a hint of what Mr. Johnson and Cassandra are like. She is covering up a past with Ginny while Mr. Johnson is more comfortable with what they all are doing. But most of the time they simply assist Alex with his case-of-the-week while alluding to how important their fancy technology and system is.

Philip Winchester can be a charismatic lead on an action driven show. Cinemax's Strike Back proved that for four seasons - and here, he gets to use his natural American accent! Alex Kane doesn't have a whole lot of personality to him. The premiere largely takes him from plot point to plot point without taking the time to breath and get the audience to invest in his character. He's working outside the law and doing a bad thing but for the good reasons. It's overbearing as he cries out for Ginny's help to bring clarity to his mission. But that doesn't take away from the grand action set pieces of the show. Those moments work remarkably well. They are engaging and show that Alex is capable of getting things done - both to save lives and to work as the new player.

I liked The Player a lot because it wasn't as self-serious as Blindspot was. Both series are designed to copy the success of The Blacklist. Blindspot more or less lived up to those ratings expectations a few days ago. The Player has a much more difficult task in front of it - seeing as how it's airing opposite the final hour of Thursday Night Football and the return of ABC's recently Emmy winning drama How to Get Away With Murder. And yet, I like what Philip Winchester and Wesley Snipes are doing here. When given room to grow, they can make these characters and premise work despite its ridiculousness. The premiere has that great scene where Mr. Johnson impersonates an FBI agent. That shows just how wonderful Snipes can be. Now the show just has to create more moments like that - keep the fun while also making sure the characters are just as engaging as the story.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by John Rogers and directed by Bharat Nalluri.
  • There's the hint that Cassandra is handling Alex differently than all the previous players. She does things that are atypical but still in line with the rules of the game. That establishes that she has motivation. Now, the show just needs to explain it in a comprehensible way.
  • Cassandra also has quite the skills. She's just as powerful with technology as she is driving a getaway car.
  • Damon Gupton is such a drag as the police detective friend who spends the hour trying to arrest Alex for a crime he didn't commit. He knows that something is amiss with Alex. But that personal quest to uncover the truth doesn't sound that exciting. He exists purely to give some urgency to the story of the premiere.
  • So who actually paid for the guy to kill Ginny, but not really? If he wasn't connected to the story of the premiere, how does he fit into all of this? And is Ginny still alive? Her tattoo wasn't there when Alex saw the body. That could hint that some very powerful people are trying to manipulate his emotions into doing their bidding. The question becomes: Is that Mr. Johnson and Cassandra or the shadowy and anonymous billionaires who have the power to destroy countries if they don't get their way?