Deadline Comic-Con TV correspondent Gary Hodges files:

Comic-Con 2011 has begun. It’s 6 PM Wednesday night and the very first panel kicked off in spacious Ballroom 20 (so spacious, in fact, that seating wasn’t even close to an issue, with huge swaths of empty seats throughout): three hours of Warner Bros TV pilots for an energetic audience that wasn’t afraid to cheer and jeer, depending. Aside from too-often repeated promos between each show (pushing comedy 2 Broke Girls, which looked painfully unfunny, and the Smallville DVD set), WB kept things moving along, sometimes moving from one show to the next so quickly the audience seemed almost surprised. It was the first show that got most the jeers, almost from the word go: Supernatural: The Anime Series opened the screenings, and judging by the audience reaction the crowd was mostly neutral on the concept, with a vocal contingent openly hostile (when it was announced S:TAS would be the first show screened, there was audible grumbling). As the show wore on, that malcontents only seemed to multiply.

Produced by Japanese animation studio Madhouse (also behind the recent anime reinterpretations of Marvel properties), the series reimagines the first two seasons of the live-action show. The first episode (“All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 1”) opens with brothers Sam and Dean casually bickering while they eat lunch, when Sam suddenly vanishes. The rest of the episode is spent with Sam trying to make sense of where he’s reappeared, and Dean trying to track him down. Sam is in a post apocalyptic-looking city with a few other individuals who, like him, just woke up to find themselves in the rubble. They all have supernatural abilities, too, and quickly learn an entity called The Yellow-Eyed Demon (amusingly, nobody ever refers to him as less than this; they always say The Yellow-Eyed Demon, every word) has gathered them here in a survival of the
fittest-type game where the “winner” gets to lead his demonic army on Earth. Or something like that.

It’s hard to say what exactly S:TAS’s most egregious error is, or even if there is one: in truth it just seems bland. The art and animation is only fair, and the writing clunky in the sort of way only dialogue translated from Japanese to English can be. I don’t claim any sort of expert knowledge of anime, but I’ve enjoyed enough to know what I saw here was middling. The Comic-Con audience, uniquely qualified to know good anime from bad, was not kind: they laughed at portions that weren’t intended to be funny, clicked their tongues at awkward moments… and when a second episode (“All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 2”) was sprung on the crowd, there was a collective groan-cum-laugh that surely wasn’t what the WB folks backstage hoped to hear. The audience only really applauded when S:TAS was finally over; unfortunately, it was obvious the audience was applauding S:TAS being over.

Next up was Alcatraz from executive producer J.J. Abrams. The series opener starts in the early 60s, with two guards stepping off a boat to find all 302 of the infamous island’s inhabitants mysteriously gone. (True to clichéd screenwriting conventions, one of the two guards is seasick.) Skipping ahead to present day we see tourists browsing the prison’s halls, and a groggy inmate – not having aged a day – waking up and stumbling outside to see the modern San Francisco skyline. This is Jack Sylvane, who seems more bent on exacting revenge on the cruel former deputy warden of The Rock than anything else; waking up in “the future” isn’t as shocking to him as you’d expect.

From there, the plot move briskly: cruel warden is murdered, a cute detective (Sarah Jones) gets the case – and is then quickly booted off it by mysterious G-man (Sam Neill), so she pairs up with an Alcatraz expert (Lost alumnus Jorge Garcia) to try and track down inmate #2024 and figure out why he’s not only alive, but looks to be about 40 years younger than he should. All the while, we see Jack rampaging in the present (partly at the behest of mysterious anonymous phone calls, suggesting some sort of Manchurian Candidate aspect to the show) and recalling his time in prison. Without spoiling the specifics, the show closes with Jones and Garcia joining with Neill to try and track down the other 301 people who vanished from Alcatraz, as he seems to know they will all start popping up here and there, just as Jack did.

Of all the shows screened, Alcatraz is probably the one with the broadest appeal and fewest obvious issues. That being said, the show has qualities I’m not sure are admirable, or even enjoyable anymore – namely, the teasing of a mystery that will be revealed in a very contrived, gradual way for as long as the audience will allow. What do I mean when I say contrived? Well for example: Sam Neill’s character clearly knows more than he says, it’s obvious to every character in the room, yet nobody forces the issue, nobody asks obvious questions, and nobody demands non-enigmatic, clear answers (blame Lost for making this acceptable: Benjamin Linus invented this game). Personally, I find characters not asking obvious questions any normal person would ask simply because it’s too early in the season to ask them a lazy way to write; others are more tolerant of it: the show seemed to be play well and got enthusiastic applause in the end.

Third in line was The Secret Circle. Fifteen minutes in I wrote in my notes: Harry Potter meets Gossip Girl. Which – though simplistic – gets your head about 75% of the way there. Teenaged girl Cassie is out and about when a mysterious man approaches her home, performing little acts of symbolic magic: pouring a bottle of water out on the street causes the plumbing in the house to go haywire, and lighting matches sets the house ablaze, killing her mother. One month later, we see Cassie moving in with her grandmother (her father died before she was born) in the town her mom grew up in, and – like Harry Potter – everyone seems to know her, even people she’s never met. Turns out: almost everyone in town is a witch, Cassie’s mom was a witch, and Cassie’s a witch too.

I can’t tell if The Secret Circle is about being a girl in high school with a little bit of magic added, or about witches with a little bit of adolescent female drama added – because while often it’s evenly blended, it also spends a lot of time being purely one or the other. When adults are screen without the kids, it feels closer to something like a True Blood (though decidedly less sexy or scary); when it’s just the tykes, it can sometimes feel more like 90210. Likewise, while the show itself looks well-produced and slick, it also felt inconsistent: sometimes interesting with decent acting, other times feeling and sounding like dumb teenaged girl fanfiction. Take my favorite line, spoken of the show’s bitchy girl: “Faye’s always been a bit unpredictable. You never know what she’s going to do next.” But then it will throw in something charming enough that even a grown man – presumably well outside of the show’s target audience – can forgive the clunkiness. I will say this: it’s easy to watch, and while the audience snorted at a few scenes (Cassie’s bedroom window lining up with that of the often-shirtless boy across the way was ripe for mockery), people seemed to enjoy it overall. In short: fun, albeit derivative and shallow.

Lastly came Person of Interest, starring Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson. (In all of the official info for this show, Caviezel is only ever noted as having been in The Thin Red Line – never his more recent role in The Passion of the Christ. Not surprising, just an observation.) In it, Caviezel is a former soldier and CIA agent who – after losing the woman he loved – now’s just a crazy hobo, beating the crap out of not-very-tough-looking toughs on the subway. Early in the show he’s approached by Emerson, who plays a character disappointingly similar to the one he played on Lost (he knows everything about you, but you don’t get to know too much about him), “Dr. Finch”. Dr. Finch has a job offer for the lost, directionless badass: come to work for him preventing future crime.

It seems Finch wrote a software program meant to sort through and make sense of all the data the government collects in the post-Patriot Act world (cell phone records, e-mails, images, everything); somehow, it started occasionally spitting out social security numbers of people who will be involved in a crime in the future. They might be the victim, they might be the perpetrator – there’s no way to know, only that they will be a
part of something ugly if someone doesn’t intervene first.

From the first episode, it was hard to tell what to make of the series, or what the typical show would look like. Presumably, each episode would be Caviezel and Emerson working to either save or cap the next person on their list – but the pilot is burdened with also laying the groundwork for the show’s somewhat complicated concept, making the entire first episode feel a little hurried and superficial, with too much to do in an hour. And with no big mystery to tease an audience with for years and years, ultimately the show is going to rest on how interesting they can make each week’s new victim/perp. Can they do it? This remains to be seen.