[This post contains details from the premiere of Scorpion, which aired Sept. 22]
Television isn’t lacking for genius protagonists, procedurals centered around the proliferation of modern technology, or even a combination of the two… particularly on CBS. From The Big Bang Theory to Person of Interest, to the network’s new CSI: Cyber, viewers might start to think every CBS producer has a brilliant best friend with a penchant for hacking but ineptitude for small talk.
So the debut of another new CBS drama, Scorpion, bears little in the way of surprise when it comes to its smart hackers who need help communicating. There’s an undercurrent of important social discussion that is underserved in the pilot. But what the episode may lack in originality or subtlety, it makes up for in the promise of a fun, high-tech procedural—though one that may be difficult to replicate.
Scorpion opens with military helicopters zeroing in on a house. It’s a big, dramatic shot—until their target, a hacker by the pseudonym of “Scorpion,” is revealed to be a kid, Walter O’Brien. The soldiers and agent Cabe Gallo (Robert Patrick) take the poor adolescent into their custody, at which point the pilot flashes forward to Walter, now an adult played by Elyes Gabel, working a tech support job at a diner.
Walter’s life post-arrest is revealed at the pilot’s end, but for now he operates with a crew of similarly brilliant but awkward geniuses, when Gallo returns to recruit Walter. Their glossed-over history is hinted at though not clearly explained, but eventually the agent convinces Walter and his team to help fix an issue endangering thousands of lives.
LAX’s control tower is suffering from a bug found in its recent software update. Fifty-six planes are out of communication and can’t land at LAX, Long Beach, or Burbank. Gallo convinces Walter and his team—with the help of a promised $50,000 apiece payday—to solve the problem. Gallo feels the team’s set of skills are vital to the mission, and so he bluntly spells out what each person can offer (an unfortunate case of Scorpion’s “tell, don’t show” policy):
–Happy: “a mechanical prodigy”
–Sylvester: “a human calculator”
–Toby: “a world-class shrink”
–Walter: “one of the five smartest people in the world” (which raises the question of whether the government has a running list of World’s Smartest People on a corkboard somewhere in the Pentagon)
The first half of Scorpion plays out like a standard procedural without any messy crime scenes. The team operates out of the very same diner Walter worked at, while waitress Paige (Katherine McPhee) and her son Ralph watch from the sidelines.
The mother and son duo are a case of the show’s duality—there’s the promise of something interesting, but Scorpion bogs down its potential with hackneyed execution. Walter sees himself in Ralph, who Paige can’t connect with. Walter wants to help a fellow genius like Ralph and repair their relationship, but Paige is primarily used as the “normal” person who helps the socially troubled nerds relate to the world. The character trope damages any work the show is trying to accomplish in demonstrating the difficulties those with social anxieties suffer.
As for the rest of Walter’s team, Toby is served best, as Eddie Kaye Thomas works with some of the episode’s funniest dialogue. He’s cocky but easily fallible; he finishes other character’s sentences because he can read people so well. It’s good to see his character have, well, character, because most of the others feel devoid of memorable qualities.
Happy and Sylvester are more troublesome. Happy’s “mechanic with a short fuse” schtick is too familiar, and she and Sylvester feel ancillary to the plot. Sylvester is meant to have plenty of heart but doesn’t always know how best to help. His big moment in assisting the team feels unnecessary while, without any meaningful character traits, his emotional beats lack the needed punch.
With Paige at Walter’s side, however, he makes progress on the case through a series of Dr. House-like revelations (often with the same off-camera stare). The story ambles along, but then, out of nowhere, Scorpion kicks into high gear.
Fast and Furious 6 director Justin Lin’s attachment to the pilot makes all the more sense when Walter and Paige race to a nearby airport to download old, bug-free software from one of the planes still in the air. The excellently shot sequence is a reminder of just how well Lin can direct action. But when the two reach the tower, their speed proves almost for naught as Walter is unable to download the software as the plane flies overhead.
Walter concocts a maniacal plan to drive a Ferrari on a runway mere feet underneath the plane. He and Paige hardwire a laptop to the plane with the help of a co-pilot, who drops down with a cable through the plane’s wheel. They successfully receive the data while barreling down the runway, not by way of four brilliant minds working in concert, but by the pure insanity of Lin’s directing.
These sequences are some of the best action likely to air on network television this fall, but they’re a reminder of what the rest of the show may be missing. Such thrills are unlikely to be replicated often, which is a problem when the case leading up to the action barely registers.
More than that, several members of Walter’s team, including Paige, who is made an official partner at the end of the episode, need drastic fine-tuning to become more than caricature cutouts.
The dichotomy between perceptions of “normal” and what normal actually is seem to be at the heart of Scorpion, but in the end the pilot doesn’t go quite so deep. For a show about a group of geniuses, Scorpion’s strengths lie in how exciting and big its action can be. When the show tries to be smart, it ends up looking dumb, but when it resigns itself to being loud and silly, it succeeds.
Lin’s crazy action and the promise of investigating what it means to live like Walter and Ralph are reasons enough to watch the pilot, but the episode’s problems linger after the sheen of fun fades away. Scorpion has a long way to go, but with so many geniuses on screen, hopefully there’s just as many refining the show behind the camera.