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Pilot Inspektor: NBC's "Bionic Woman"

One of the more interesting concepts this development season was the "re-conceptualizing" of 1970s cult drama The Bionic Woman. Ordinarily, I'd have sighed and bemoaned the lack of imagination of television creators for simply repackaging an old series with a flashy new cast and better special effects.

But of course NBC's new drama, Bionic Woman, set to launch this fall, isn't just from any creator but from executive producer David Eick, who had his hand in re-conceiving another 1970s cult series, Battlestar Galactica, for Sci Fi. As any longtime readers will tell you, BSG is one of my favorite current series, so I had built up a lot of anticipation for this project, especially having read multiple versions of the pilot script over the last few months.

So imagine my surprise when I finally saw the completed pilot for Bionic Woman a few weeks back and actually did enjoy it. Some of the concerns I had whilst reading the script had disappeared (a polish by Kidnapped creator Jason Smilovic certainly helped matters) and I quickly found myself sucked into this new world.

It's definitely not your father's Bionic Woman. If you're looking for a sunny story about a gorgeous pro tennis player who finds herself turned into the world's most expensive surgery candidate, look elsewhere. This version is a dark (and at times darkly funny) take on the familiar story. Michelle Ryan, best known for her role as Zoe Slater on long-running UK soap EastEnders, plays Jamie Sommers, a put-upon twenty-something who works a thankless job as a bartender while raising her younger sister Becca (Arrested Development's Mae Whitman), who also happens to be deaf.

On the first viewing, I did take umbrage with the deaf sister issue, which had the potential to seem cloying and OTT. (Oh, she's got this rebellious sister AND she's deaf to boot.) While Whitman is a fantastic actress (her Becca is the very definition of raw nerves and teenage angst), it was a little uncomfortable seeing Whitman play a deaf character. However, now having watched the pilot several times, I think the choice to make Becca hearing impaired is an interesting approach. After all, this is a series that is based on the notion that, in our current age, reconstructive surgery is not only possible but prevalent. Chris Bowers' Will raises this issue early on during a lecture to his bioethics class: is it right for scientists to tamper with nature? Do we have the right to make ourselves faster, stronger, larger bossomed than we were born? Will Jamie have the government agency attempt to "fix" Becca's hearing? And what will the fallout from that be?

They're interesting questions that definitely push the envelope in a show that many have already written off as a typical sci fi actioner. I for one am glad that Ryan was cast as Jamie; she's not only a likable and sympathetic lead but she represents the Everywoman that Eick and co-creator Laeta Kalogridis set out to empower. (After all, Buffy Summers was "just a girl" as well.)

So what's this pilot about? (BEWARE: SPOILERS AHEAD!) We begin with the sight of a blood-covered woman in a hospital gown (Battlestar Galactica's Katee Sackhoff) in a government installation, surrounded by the bodies of her victims. She's feral, unstable, and more than a little dangerous. An entire squadron of men--lead by her lover Jae (Will Yun Lee)--surround her. She asks Jae to tell her he loves her as she pounces; Jae fires his gun, killing her. Several years later, Jamie and her surgeon boyfriend Will talk about their future. Will is about to take a fellowship in Paris and urges Jamie to accompany him; she blurts out that she's pregnant. Their happy evening is shattered when, driving home, their car is struck by a semi and rammed into a telephone pole.

Accident? Not quite. A familiar-looking blonde (Sackhoff again!) slinks out of the semi, mission accomplished. Will manages to escape with minor injuries, but Jamie's body is mangled in the crash. Will has her airlifted to a top-secret government installation, where her blood is transfused with anthrocytes and several of her body parts (arm, legs, eye, ear) replaced with bionic appendages. Jamie attempts to escape the facility and is ultimately allowed to go, but not before alerting Jae, installation chief Jonas Bledsoe (Miguel Ferrer) and handler Ruth Treadwell (Molly Price) that Sarah Corvus (Sackhoff again!) is still alive. Just who did Jae bury all those years ago? And how is her reappearance connected to Will's father Magnus (Battlestar Galactica's Mark Sheppard), who happens to be incarcerated in a federal supermax prison and who started the entire bionics program?

(Aside: Sackhoff and Sheppard aren't the only BSG cast members to pop up; look for Aaron Douglass to turn up as a supermax prison guard midway through the pilot.)

There's a conspiracy afoot, one that involves Sarah Corvus, Will's father, and a mysterious man (let's call him Smith) with a penchant for self-surgery. Jamie unwittingly finds herself drawn into a war between the government and these bionic collaborators. Corvus herself has been making alterations to her own body, cutting away her humanity with a scalpel and turning herself into a machine. Which is all the more interesting because she continually seems to display human emotion, like sorrow, lust, regret, and the need for revenge. She's Number Six with a cigarette and a well-placed quip. Sackhoff's scenes with Ryan crackle with energy and she is perfectly cast as Jamie's new nemesis, the first Bionic Woman, a former military volunteer with more than a few screws loose.

I won't reveal any more but I will say that the fight scenes between Jamie and Corvus are brilliant, especially on the rain-slicked roof of an apartment building as Jamie discovers her strength and cunning while facing off against an opponent who refuses to back down. Production values are high, as would be expected for a large-budget action pilot as important to NBC's schedule as this one. I was worried about the special effects, particularly when Jamie ran or jumped, but they are effective and understated.

In fact, there's only one groaner of a moment that drove me crazy in every single version of the script I read and in the completed pilot. As Jamie uses her newly found speed to escape from the facility, she's seen by a little girl in a nearby car, who tries telling her distracted mother what she's seen. When told not to lie, the girl simply smiles and says, "I just thought it was cool a girl could run like that." It might be true, but it's hitting the nail far too closely upon the head to keep me from groaning aloud. Perhaps a judicious trim might be in order?

Ultimately, Bionic Woman isn't perfect but it is fun, escapist sci fi with some social messages sewn into the lining. While Ryan is a winsome lead, she can't help but be upstaged slightly by the visceral Sackhoff, who sinks her teeth into a role that allows her to act dangerous, crazy, and sexy all at the same time. Someone once said that a superhero is only as good as his rogue's gallery of villains (Batman/Joker, Superman/Luthor, etc.), but with Sarah Corvus as her nemesis, Jamie Sommers might just become one hell of a memorable hero after all.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: Creature Comforts/The New Adventures of Old Christine (CBS); America's Got Talent (NBC; 8-10 pm); Everybody Hates Chris/All of Us (CW); Wife Swap (ABC); Hell's Kitchen (FOX)

9 pm: Two and a Half Men/How I Met Your Mother (CBS); Girlfriends/The Game (CW); Ex-Wives Club (ABC); Hell's Kitchen (FOX)

10 pm: CSI: Miami (CBS); Dateline (NBC); Supernanny (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

8 pm: Creature Comforts.

On this week's installment of the US adaptation ("Self Image; Winging It; Art"), animals talk about what it would be like to fly while some dogs discuss art.

9 pm: Big Love on HBO.

It's the second season premiere of HBO's polygamist family drama Big Love. On tonight's episode ("Damage Control"), Bill tries to regain control of his life after the family's exposure; Barb retreats into her own world; and Sarah discovers she has a suitor.

9 pm: Hell's Kitchen.

No, I don't know why I am still watching this train wreck of a culinary competition. On tonight's installment, the teams prepare for the next challenge after a disastrous opening night while Aaron, unable to cope with the mounting pressure, tries to quit.


The CineManiac said…
As a huge fan of BSG, you had me at Sackhoff & Eick (but mainly Sackhoff) and it doesn't hurt to have Sheppard and Douglass involved to get my Tivo tuned in! Plus Whitman (AD's wonderful Ann. Who?) sounds like she adds some great character to the show.
I mainly skimmed the spoiler section as not to ruin it all, so I can't wait to see it and I'm going crazy knowing you've seen it several times!
Can't wait to see Sackhoff fo balls to the wall as the villian!
Anonymous said…
I just...didn't care for it. I thought the dialogue was terrible and cheesy. I didn't connect with the lead at all. I like Mae whitman, but I was vaguely uncomfortable listening to her speak like a deaf person. Why not just get a deaf actress (Shoshanah what's-her-name from Weeds comes to mind)? I HATED that scene w/the little girl in the car, and I was distracted, because all I could think was that they had to hire two actresses for the scene, get a location, film the scene - they could have put all that wasted money somewhere else. Anywhere else.

So...yeah. Didn't care for it.
Unknown said…
Hi there.

Long time ready, first time commenter.

I was wondering if you happened to know how NBC/Universal is able to make this? If you are unaware with the history of the bionic shows here is an abbreviated history. "Six Million Dollar Man" is based on the novel "Cyborg". "The Bionic Woman" is based on "SMDM" which is based on "Cyborg". Universal no longer has the rights to "Cyborg". The Weinstein Company now has the rights to "Cyborg". This is why Universal is unable to release "SMDM" or "TBW" on DVD. Universal is actually unable to release anything related to the bionic shows, not even publicity stills because of their no longer having the rights to "Cyborg".

So, since Universal no longer has the underlying rights to the bionic shows, how are they even able to make a new version of "The Bionic Woman"?

Anonymous said…
I thought the pilot was fun and enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I'm not totally sold on Michelle Ryan as the lead (Sackhoff overshadows her in every scene they share) but the production values were good and the mystery interesting enough that I would definitely tune in again. I was really impressed by the car crash and the battle scene on the roof in the rain. I think they showed creativity in a genre that can be easily predictable. There are enough mysteries to keep you guessing for awhile and I think that Michelle Ryan could easily grow into the part.

I also hated the scene with the little girl in the car but that was the only thing that made me cringe whereas most of the new pilots have my cringing the whole way through!
Anonymous said…
I did not like this pilot at all. I thought Michelle Ryan was really weak and showed no charisma or spark. In fact I thought a lot of the acting was weak in general. The dialogue was laughable at times, especially any scene with her and her doctor love interest.
I did love, love, love Katee Sackhoff. I wish she was the Bionic Woman.

I liked the fight scene but I think it came far too late in the hour. It's never a good sign when you spend the entire episode thinking of ways it could be better.

I am pretty disappointed because I was really looking forward to this one, and after watching the pilot I don't have a strong desire to even try out the series.
Page48 said…
My introduction to Katee Sackhoff was "White Noise 2", I've only just started watching "Battlestar Galactica", prompted by the shared DNA with "Bionic Woman".

I've seen Michelle Ryan on "Eastenders" for years and have to say that it's great to see her breaking into the North American market, especially in escapist sci-fi television, which is a favourite genre of mine.

I must confess that, as a die-hard "Alias" fan, I often looked at Michelle Ryan strolling the markets of Albert Square and was reminded of a young Sydney Bristow, so I am really excited now to see if Michelle can become my Sydney substitute.

Currently, I'm watching Michelle in the BBC's "Jekyll", (more escapist TV)and I have to admit that I am enjoying that show as well.

How do so many people get to see the pilot? I've scoured every torrent site in the free world and I can never find un-aired pilots for any show. Clearly, I'm out of the loop.
Jace Lacob said…
Page 48,

Pilots aren't available via torrent sites or similar. The only way to get these ahead of time is to either work in the television industry or know someone who works in the televisionary industry. In my case, I work in TV development & acquisitions (my day job, anyway; the blog is my side project), so my job requires that I watch every single pilot (and read every single pilot script).
Ike said…
Finding a torrent of a TV pilot ahead of its airing is rare, although a few shows, like the pilot of "Tru Calling" from several years ago, and the first ep. of the recent revival of "Doctor Who," have leaked out. Somehow the studios generally do a good job of preventing pilot leaks. I wonder how they accomplish this when virtually everything else on Earth (provided it's sufficiently popular) can be found in a torrent. Are they stringing up pilot-leakers by their toenails from the Hollywood sign?
vibe666 said…
there are torrents of around 75% of the current pilots doing the rounds on the usual sites at the moment, inc. the bionic woman.
Scott said…
I saw this last night and thought it was quite fun. Not brilliant, but it had anough to be an 'Alias' type nonsense fix. I agree Sackhoff was the best thing in it, but felt Ryan did an ok job in the lead and I think this will be the start of big things for the ex Eastender.
Zennie said…
I too watched the Comcast-posted pilot and found it a guily pleasure. I've seen it twice. My full take is here -- Bionic Woman -- but I'll remark for this space that I only had an issue with scene pacing. But on the second go-round I got the need for it given that they were covering a lot of story ground. I just hope it's not a habit, this stuffing of storylines.

Katie Sackhoff is a total hit, but with Ryan. I mean, I love how Ryan plays the stranger-in-a strange land part. See, she's totally vulnerable, even after she's tossed Sackhoff's character around like a sack of trash.

I look forward to more -- are they accepting spec scripts?
Anonymous said…
I found the new bionic woman show to be no different than the "million other cookie cutter" science fiction shows that have taken to the air waves in recent years.

Am I the only one who noticed how grossly over-saturated this show was with it's frequent and ever-so-long bombardment of commercials and bottom-of-the-screen fly-by ads? It was impossible to really lose yourself in the show because of these extremily irritating and overly-saturated distractions.

When the original Bionic Woman and SMDM originally aired, many of us were glued to the TV and were always ready for more.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I give the original two series a 9.5 each. I give the new bionic woman series a score of about 2.9. I certainly won't go out of my way to watch it every week like I did with the "real" Bionic Woman and Six Million Dollar Man.

It's too bad it turned out to be such a disappointment. I was really hoping for a lot more. It was possible.

For example, I saw the "Phantom of the Opera" play twice. When the movie came to the big screen, I really didn't think there was anything at all that could have been done to top the play. When my curiosity drove me to see the movie, I was spellbound. Not only was it as good as the play, it far surpassed any expections I had - it was incredible.

I guess I was hoping to have a similar experience with the new bionic woman series. Oh well, you can't win them all...NEXT...


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