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Thursday, September 13, 2007

"Bionic Woman" Review: A Pilot is a Tricky Thing

As I’ve said many times, a TV pilot is a tricky thing.

You have to introduce all of the characters and set up the plot while making the episode compelling enough to make people come back.

Unfortunately, the pilot for NBC’s “Bionic Woman” doesn’t really succeed at any of those…

“Bionic Woman” is the story of Jaime Sommers (Michelle Ryan), a 24-year-old bartender who’s raising her teenage sister after the death of her mother. Her boyfriend, Will (Chris Bowers), is a scientist and a professor of bio/environmental ethics.

One night, the two go out to dinner and Jaime tells Will she’s pregnant; and he proposes. As they are discussing their future on the car ride home (Yes, there are a lot of “Alias” undertones here.), a semi hits their car in the side, causing it to flip wildly. Will survives nearly unscathed (the semi hit her side), but Jaime is critically wounded.

Will has Jaime taken to a secret medical facility where they implant her with bionics to replace her amputated legs and arm and her eye. Will, who we quickly learn is part of an underground group that experiments with bionics, convinces the group to let Jaime live so she can be their next test subject.

Realizing that Jaime will never go along with the training and other plans the group has for her, Will helps her escape and tells her to live her life like nothing ever happened. Of course, that lasts for all of about two seconds as Jaime gets involved with some of the group’s darker secrets.

And there are a ton of secrets as the pilot introduces mystery after mystery. First, there’s the mystery of what this group is and what it does (The show’s website gives much more background than the pilot, including a name, the Berkut Group.). There’s the mystery of Will’s father, who developed the technology but then ended up in prison and may be behind Jaime and Will’s accident. There’s the mystery of the man who apparently wants Will dead.

And then there’s the mystery of Sarah (Katee Sackhoff), Berkut’s original test subject. The group thinks she was killed (We see her die in a flashback at the beginning of the episode.) after going insane, but she wreaks quite a bit of havoc in the pilot, including driving the semi that hit Will and Jaime.

But maybe the biggest mystery of all is why we should care about Jaime, since she’s the least interesting character of all of them. It is the members of the Berkut Group who prove the most fascinating, but the pilot is so anxious to get on with the action that it doesn’t take any time to introduce them properly (I guess that’s what the website is for.).

In fact, NBC has done the show a great disservice by not allowing the pilot to run two hours. Not only would it make the premiere more of an event, but it would have allowed more plot development. I realize that the plot will develop more as the show goes on (or at least I would hope it does), but the ridiculous pace of the pilot may turn some people off before it has the chance.

For example, Will’s involvement with the group comes way too quickly. It would’ve been more interesting to see him sneak around behind Jaime’s back. This would also have allowed some more drama after the accident as Will would have to juggle saving Jaime’s life with the prospect of making Jaime a soldier.

But in all honesty, the entire backstory was a blur as the show hurtled toward its big dramatic action sequence. One member of the group says that eventually Jaime will realize she’s being held against her will, and then in the next scene, Jaime says, “I’m being held here against my will.” How did she come to that conclusion so quickly? There were no signs that pointed to that. Then when Jaime returns to her normal life, she struggles a little, but soon she pieces everything together and rushes off to fight the bad guy. Since they gave her that annoying little sister, they obviously want to focus a little on her personal life, so why don’t they show us her struggle to deal with her escape from death and what it means to her life?

Of course, the answer to that is because the show so desperately wanted to get to the big action scene that it didn’t care how it got there. And in doing so, it shortchanged the story of its main character.

So when Jaime and Sarah fight it out in the rain on a rooftop, it’s actually Sarah that we’re more interested in since Katee Sackhoff dominates the episode. It’s a great scene, but it just rings a little hollow. By jumping one rooftop, Jaime realizes she can take on another bionic woman? And for what? What about the sister she was so concerned about a half-hour earlier? It just doesn’t work.

There’s already some drama behind-the-scenes on this show which hopefully will mean improvement, because there are definite kinks to be worked out. As I said earlier, the teenage sister is a complete annoyance, so if she’s going to stick around, she needs a little more substance—as does her big sister, the show’s main character.

And as good as Katee Sackhoff is, there’s a fine line between cool and campy, and she crosses it more than once with her performance. But in her defense, she’s just reading the lines she’s given. Calling a timeout to the fight just to smoke a cigarette? Whatever…

I love Miguel Ferrer as the head of the Berkut Group and Molly Price gives a surprising, but excellent performance as Ruth, another group member. And even though we only get a glimpse of the backstory between Sarah and Jae (Will Yun Lee), it proves to be the most interesting story of the hour.

There is a lot of potential here, but I don’t know if viewers will give the show a chance to live up to it. I have to admit I won’t…

“Bionic Woman” premieres Wednesday, September 26th at 9 p.m. on NBC…