Who: “Intelligence,” aired on network TV, specifically on CBS, winter 2014 Mondays at 10:00 PM.
What: “Intelligence,” a science fiction action drama set in the near future, in which a federal intelligence agent, played by Josh Holloway (Lost), has been implanted with technology that allows him to function like a computer, interacting with other computer and microchip-based equipment for the instant retrieval of information, except that his human intelligence further augments this experimental technology and possibly provides an evolved consciousness and/or set of abilities beyond the initial implantation.
Gabriel (Holloway) has been implanted with highly experimental technology, which allows him, a trained intelligence agent, to extrapolate and retrieve information at the speed of a computer, provided that his implant can interact with other computer-based technology in his vicinity. In addition, his human imagination, emotions, and thought patterns add unforeseen dimension to these abilities. Marg Helgenberger (CSI) plays Lillian Strand, Gabriel’s commanding officer, who places the protection of this asset – Gabriel and his technology – at highest priority. She hires former secret service agent Riley Neal (Meghan Ory, Once Upon a Time) to protect the skeptical Gabriel, while spies from America’s competing foreign powers, such as China, vie to purloin the technology. In the premiere, the technology’s inventor, Dr. Cassidy, (John Billingsley) is kidnapped, and he is coerced into placing a faulty prototype in a Chinese national; however, the prototype does not work, and Lillian soon discovers that the Chinese national is “off the grid,” such that she must strike a deal to save the lives of everyone involved.
When: The series finale aired on CBS, Monday, March 31, 2014, at 10:00 PM.
Where: The show is set in an unknown metropolis, though it is heavily implied that the fictional intelligence agency for which the central character works is in Washington DC.
Why: It’s science fiction, it features the deliciously yummy Sawyer from Lost in an equally charismatic and roguishly charming role, and it boasts an interesting premise, which could either blossom into intelligent (snicker) storytelling or fall into a formulaic weekly action formula that does not distinguish itself after all. My hopes about the show were tempered and cautious at best, but I love Josh Holloway so much, I decided to give it a look.
How – as in How’s It Going? (Thoughts)
As the primary TV viewing season rounds to a close and as new season schedules are announced by the networks, they have been making sweeping and swift final decisions regarding what stays and what goes, i.e. what is renewed for another season and what is canceled. Because the purpose of this blog is to be more editorial about particular shows this viewer watches rather than a major entertainment news outlet to report scoops, spoilers, and other television-related sound bytes (for now), this blogger will report the cancellations and reviews as I have time to write about them.
CBS, approximately two weeks ago, canceled Intelligence, among others. This viewer rated the pilot of this program four stars, meaning that the show generally appeared to be intriguing, though this viewer saw potential pitfalls in the premise. The review of the pilot can be read here.
Intelligence, owing to a competent ensemble cast and a sophisticated science fiction premise that did not pander to the viewer, promised so much potential, so much depth of story and emotion to be mined from a state-of-the-art microchip planted in main character Gabriel’s head, but the writers and producers meted out the story in a parceled, terror-of-the-week format that ultimately proved to be a disservice to the show’s potential for longevity. In other words, legitimate chances for fascinating, intriguing, sweeping story arcs with philosophical and emotional implications for characters and viewers alike were possible and existed but were either squandered outright, or the writers procrastinated too long in introducing some of the overarching concepts that would follow Gabriel and his support team at US Cyber Command into the field with his fancy, computerized brain to protect and maintain. The result, this viewer would surmise, is that the show had trouble retaining loyal viewers, ultimately leading to lower (and dropping) ratings that prompted CBS, arguably the most successful of the major networks right now, to cancel a show that might have survived on a different network.
For this viewer, several missteps by the writers caused me to lose some interest in what might happen to Gabriel and/or Riley and/or the team at CyberComm early in the show’s only season; I watched all thirteen produced episodes but only with casual attention, until the final two episodes of the series. First, while Mr. Holloway brandishes his particular charms and affability well throughout the thirteen produced episodes, his Sawyer-like wisecracks – since he seemed to be playing a less angry version of the same character – and simple country-bred charms ended up ultimately one-note and without nuance or variation. True, I would enjoy watching him all day based on his looks alone, but, in the end, I wanted, as would likely any reasonable viewer, for his character to grapple harder with his circumstances, grappling which only began to percolate in what is now the series finale; Mei Chen, the Chinese national who received Dr. Cassidy’s duplicate microchip in the pilot, suggested that Gabriel was superior to “humans,” and the double agent at CyberComm further barbed that the program governing the chip was named “Clockwork” based on a nineteenth century tale where a man becomes a robot or a thing not human when he adds machinery to his body. In fact, none of the ensemble characters were provided much depth or back story, with the possible exception of Lillian Strand, and that’s only because her father is a high ranking intelligence official (played by Peter Coyote), from whom she seeks ongoing approval but who clearly has a double agenda of his own.
Sadly, even Holloway and Ory’s snappy chemistry became pedestrian and flat in the hands of writers who couldn’t capitalize on a spark reminiscent of Tracy and Hepburn (or maybe Astaire and Rogers) that floated effortlessly between these two actors. While platonic partners, the fact that they traded casual barbs in an entertainingly easy way was not used often enough as comic relief; they were always so focused on preventing and/or undoing some terrorist or foreign threat to computers all around the country, and then Riley would reassure Gabriel, or vice versa, that their sometimes gray actions were acceptable, even though the world itself is not so black and white. I think the most disappointing part about this show is that the creators did not take enough risks, when the mere premise of the program created several springboard opportunities for them to do just that. Even if Gabriel and Riley never became romantic, their friendship was still largely superficial, brought about by Riley’s job/duty and the adrenaline-based situations in which they found themselves. Aside from sharing a beer, frequently at the end of episodes, the most in-depth conversations that presumably brought them closer were hinted at but rarely shown in a satisfying manner to the viewer.
What’s more, even the “cyber rendering” that Gabriel could do with the chip, in which he visualizes scenarios and extrapolates further details based upon programming algorithms and processes in the chip itself, was often used in a manner that screamed “Deus Ex Machina.” Gabriel’s accessing the chip, frequently in the tightest of spots, felt too contrived and convenient at times, which undercut the tension of a show ultimately about spy warfare between national governments.
The biggest flaw this viewer noted in the pilot was how the program could sustain itself over time. In the pilot, Gabriel’s personal stake and reason for volunteering for the “Clockwork” program was to find his wife/girlfriend, a double agent for a foreign power who he was led to believe had died. He found her, and she jumped out of the window in the second episode of the series. At that point, she was clearly gone, and yet, the time he spent grieving for her was minimal at best, quite a contrast from his obvious desperation to find her, against all odds, in the pilot. Sure, Riley acknowledged his loss verbally and encouraged him to take a breather and process the grim reality that he watched his once-alive wife plummet to her death, but number one asset Gabriel kept on chugging, and each episode thereafter explored sometimes interesting but mostly unrelated cases, either on American or purportedly foreign soil. Once that piece of the story centered on Gabriel’s wife was effectively nullified, there was no connective tissue between individual episodes except for the sporadic reappearances of Mei Chen, and an ongoing turf war between CyberComm and the CIA (headed up by Lance Reddick, Lost, Fringe). The last two episodes of the series witnessed Gabriel targeted for assassination, along with Mei Chen, as part of a larger agenda propagated by the Iranian government and a sleeper cell embedded at the highest levels of the American government. Gabriel gets shot in the penultimate episode and is framed for the murder of a high ranking official, but he seeks shelter and safety at his mother’s house; only then, in the surprising chemistry between Holloway and the actress playing his mom, is the viewer allowed some true glimpse into the back story underlying Gabriel’s character and his involvement in the Clockwork initiative.
The truth is, the writers had started to offer some jumping off points for longevity – particularly Gabriel’s struggle to accept and/or define and redefine his humanity, and Lillian’s precarious position as the daughter of a corrupt intelligence official in either the State or the Justice Department and the leader of this division that houses Gabriel – as the season evolved. The intrigue didn’t really begin until this series ending subplot emerged, however, which was tantamount to disjointed exposition that arrived too little, too late. The writers really should have taken more time to explore the characters, elongated the search for Gabriel’s wife, or rendered the hunt for Gabriel by elements within the American government as a season long arc, broken up only at intervals by the stronger “cases of the week.” Sadly, hindsight is 20/20, and Intelligence could not survive the vicious ax of cancellation.
The finale provides minimal satisfaction, as there is a cliffhanger moment between Mr. Strand and Mei Chen. In the end, this viewer would be hard pressed to recommend this show on the merit of its only season, as it fails to sustain the novelty and intrigue of its premise and becomes somewhat formulaic, even as the writers clearly struggled to find that formula, particularly when the foundation and premise were so original to start.
I’m not sure why writers these days are shying away from serial arcs, even in procedural shows, which Intelligence marginally became. Shows like Bones, which balance elements of both case-of-the-week and overarching story, tend to last the longest. The trick is to find the balance that works best for the show at hand. Intelligence and its writers simply did not find that balance in time.
Intelligence likely deserved to be canceled because the writers could not capitalize on its truly intriguing pilot premise in a way that demanded loyal viewing over the long haul. It was a nice idea, but they couldn’t pull it off in the end, which presents a cautionary tale to anyone aiming for a program with similar ideas.
Also, at times, Intelligence channeled Person of Interest a little too closely, a show which appears on the same network; the Machine on this show was Gabriel, and the operation was legitimate, but sometimes, music, pacing, and cinematography felt very similar to the sister show. Furthermore, the opening credits were far too long and too wordy, with Marg Helgenberger explaining in voice over (and, perhaps, this was pandering a bit) the Clockwork program and Gabriel’s abilities with the chip at length. They could have saved two minutes by eliminating that opening sequence altogether.
Ok, I’m done. This viewer is a bit frustrated by the outcome of this show. Squandered potential is disappointing.
THE FUTURE OF THE SHOW:
Canceled! The entire series, produced to the tune of thirteen episodes, aired fully and ended in March 2014. If it appears on a streaming service like Netflix, watch at your own risk, given the observations above.