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'Crisis' Review: Can Gillian Anderson Save The Latest One-Word-Title Show?

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CRISIS
Gillian Anderson in 'Crisis.' | NBC

I am a sucker for a juicy plot twist. "Crisis" (10 p.m. ET Sunday, NBC) has a few good ones, and the show's crisply executed reversals, not to mention its barreling pace, sustained me through the first two episode that the network sent for review.

That said, what's to separate this show from "Hostages," a failed semi-serialized CBS drama that glumly lived up to its title? People taken against their will are also the center of the story on "Crisis," and while the NBC show isn't quite as humorless and dour as the CBS show, the new drama isn't quite willing to own just how ridiculous certain aspects of its premise are. That's not a fatal problem, but "Crisis" is efficient without really ever becoming enticing. In this era, when all our DVRs and streaming services are stuffed with content that is pretty good or really good, the assessment "acceptable if you don't have any particular expectations" isn't always going to be sufficient.

The larger problem is that "Crisis" failed to do something important, despite the presence of some good actors and the show's ability to manufacture tension. After I'd seen two hours of "Crisis," did I want to see what happened next to any of these characters? Not particularly.

There are so many network shows about crime, skulduggery and crises, but none have managed to nab the real culprit: A failure of nerve that is seriously afflicting the dramas the broadcast networks are churning out. They seem deathly afraid of creating characters that anyone will remember for more than 30 seconds after an episode ends. Some are even forgettable while you're watching.

Thought experiment: Try to remember the name of any characters on "Hostages," "Resurrection," "Believe," "Vegas," "Betrayal," "Intelligence," "Revolution," "Deception," "Touch " "Rake" or "Cult." I can't, and I've watched some of those shows recently. The problem is, due to rote, bloodless character development, most of the people on these shows are as interchangeable as the programs' titles. I almost miss the old, ranting German guy on "Zero Hour," because at least that show was a little bit nuts and to its retroactive credit, the show did its best to save us from the recent plague of one-word titles.

To be fair, one-hour shows (some with one-word titles) featuring forgettable characters have always been with us, but in the last year or two, that trend is on the rise. The broadcast networks' growing inability to create -- or allow the creation of -- characters that serve as anything more than plot-executing placeholders is surprising and a little alarming. Sure, there are exceptions to this rule in the crop of new-ish shows ("Hannibal" springs to mind), but those exceptions are increasingly rare in the broadcast-network drama realm. And don't get me wrong, I like mythologies and energetic plots, but without compelling characters at the center of them, it's hard to stick with these dramas for any length of time.

Even a show like "The Blacklist," which has one memorable character, leans way too heavily on James Spader's willingness to consume large amounts of scenery. As "Crisis" does, "The Blacklist" suffers from what I call Cast Imbalance Syndrome: Almost every character who is not Red serves as a functionary who's there to move the story along. At least that show has the good sense to embrace certain aspects of its cheeseball melodrama: Red's having fun, even if nobody else is.

Nobody has fun on "Crisis," which is understandable, given that everyone is consumed by a crisis I won't give away here. The good news is that, as a corporate executive negotiating a family emergency, Gillian Anderson elevates every scene she is in. The not-great news is that she often shares scenes with an actress playing an FBI agent, a performer who is so unmemorable that I called her "Not Gillian Anderson" in my notes. (You will recall the actress, Rachael Taylor, from "666 Park Avenue." Or not.)

In any event, Anderson and Dermot Mulroney are the only ones who make a lasting impression in this otherwise workmanlike drama. Relationships are sketched out, problems arise and are solved or get worse, and Cast Imbalance Syndrome kicks into high gear when the show focuses on the younger characters, only one of whom makes any kind of impression. Joshua Erenberg brings a winning vulnerability to a high schooler who is unlike all of his Type-A schoolmates, but everyone else is straight out of CW-style Cheekbone Casting.

(By the way, in defense of CW-style Cheekbone Casting, I'll mention here that I generally liked "The 100," which arrives Wednesday on the CW and which stars a lot of young actors. As I wrote in my review, it's not perfect, but it's got lots of good plot twists and it's braver and more interesting than I thought it would be. I've seen six episodes and plan to stick with the rest of the season.)

I wish Cast Imbalance Syndrome was the only problem affecting the pile of hooey that is NBC's "Believe" (9 p.m. ET Sunday, NBC), which premiered March 10. Willa Paskin nailed the show's many problems in her review, so I won't go to deeply into its WTF-ness. The only thing I'd add is that the show, which involves a young girl with vaguely defined powers, is indicative of NBC's magical thinking when it comes to what will save the ailing network -- famous names attached to something, that's the ticket, right? Clearly that worked out well for the Michael J. Fox and Sean Hayes comedies.

"Believe" is advertised as having come from J.J. Abrams' TV shop, which doesn't really mean anything anymore. Some of the shows churned out by Abrams' Bad Robot are good, some are not, but Abrams' career is firmly in the movie realm now, and there are so many shows with his name on them that in the TV realm, his "brand" has come to be fairly meaningless.

Alfonso Cuaron, who just won a directing Oscar for "Gravity," directed "Believe," and of course he did so competently. Despite Cuaron's skills, nothing about the show is remotely interesting. "Believe" seems to think it can coast by on Delroy Lindo's ample charisma, a few fight scenes and a mysterious butterfly that wanders by every so often.

Here's something fairly basic about drama in general: A world with no real rules and no meaningful depth or definition also has no stakes. The powers possessed by the little girl, Bo -- what are their limits and origins? Don't know. Some "good" guys want to protect her. Why? Don't know. A "bad" billionaire wants to kidnap her. Why? Not really sure. What makes him bad? Um, he has a private jet?

Like "Resurrection," the blob of goo that ABC debuted last week, "Believe" substitutes mawkish sentiment for character development and thinks mysterious incidents and procedural beats constitute a story. Oy gevalt. Omar Epps, who is stuck on "Resurrection" playing a thankless cop role, deserves better than that.

Actually, there are good actors on all these shows. Rand Ravich and Far Shariat, the executive producers of "Crisis," created a memorable lead characer on the Damian Lewis show "Life" a few years ago, during a previous crisis-plagued NBC regime. So "Crisis" has potential, but as is so often the case, the various elements don't really add up to much and the final product is less than it could be.

The end result of watching "Believe," "Resurrection" and "Crisis"? I looked up the season premiere dates of "Orphan Black" (April 19) and "Game of Thrones" (April 6).

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