From executive producers Alfonso Cuarón (Academy Award-winning director of Gravity and Children of Men) and J.J. Abrams (Emmy Award-winning producer of two or three new shows a year) comes Believe, a new speculative fiction drama on NBC. Believe centers around a young girl (Johnny Sequoyah) with extraordinary psychokinetic abilities, and her gruff, ill-mannered caretaker (Jake McLaughlin). Together, they must stay one step ahead of billionaire geneticist Skouras (Kyle MacLachlan) who wants to use Bo’s powers for his own ends.
The debut episode, directed and co-written by show co-creator Cuarón, starts off visually ambitious but is ultimately a very by-the-numbers television pilot. The opening scene is a stunning and well-executed long take (one of Cuarón’s favorite devices) that continues unbroken before, during, and in the aftermath of a brutal car crash, but once that moment has passed we’re dropped firmly back into pragmatic TV direction. Over the next hour, we’re delivered no more or less than what’s expected from an hour-long pilot episode. We’re swiftly introduced to the regular characters, the overarching series conflict, and what individual episode stories might feel like, before being delivered a crucial twist in the last sixty seconds.
Top billed out of the cast is Jake McLaughlin, who plays Tate, a man who’s only minutes from death row execution when the episode begins. Tate claims to be innocent of the murders he’s been convicted of, but doesn’t expect anyone to Believe him. (That’s weird… what just happened there? It’s probably nothing). At literally the last minute, he’s busted out by the mysterious Milton Winter (Delroy Lindo) and his team, who more or less extort him into taking care of Bo, a preteen girl whose superpowers include telepathy, levitation, precognition, and command over birds. Bo is intelligent, confident, and outspoken, but apart from her more flashy powers appears to be her ability to inspire the best in others, and to help them Believe in themselves (There! That, just there! You all saw that, right?). Milton, who’s been a part of Bo’s life for years, is convinced that she will change the world for the better but that she must remain a secret until the right moment, if only to keep her from being exploited by Skouras, who’s set up as the Magneto to his Professor X – former partners who’ve since become mortal enemies.
Throughout the pilot, Tate continues to ask Milton why he, despite being a convicted murderer and a contemptible asshole, has been chosen to be Bo’s companion and protector. Indeed, it’s impossible not to ask that question as a viewer. From the moment he’s rescued from prison Tate proceeds to be rude to literally every person he meets, especially those trying to help him. He’s thrown into combat with an agent of Skouras’s organization twice and, in both instances, needs to be rescued by Bo. When Milton entrusts him with a duffel bag full of cash for his and Bo’s quest, he attempts to run off with it at the very first opportunity. Even Bo, the kid who wants the best for everyone, doesn’t seem to like him. Why the hell is Tate being trusted with parental responsibility over anyone, let alone a super-powered kid on the run from a powerful shadow organization? The episode’s last-minute twist provides an explanation that, in hindsight, should have been obvious and sort of forgives Milton for taking such a risk.
The second episode, “Beginner’s Luck”, is a vast improvement over the pilot. While the pilot seemed determined to dump as much information on the viewer as possible, “Beginner’s Luck” has a more leisurely pace and really takes the time to explore each character’s motivations, especially those of Skoura, who’s shaping up to be much more than a straight-up villain. Like Milton, he feels a paternal responsibility for Bo, who spent most of her life being raised and studied at his facility along with a slew of other superpowered kids (That’s right – Bo’s not alone). The dynamic between Bo and Tate is less cartoonish in “Beginner’s Luck” and feels more like two human beings stuck together in a lousy situation.
Apart from the Skoura plot, the first two episodes also see Bo using her gifts to aid one-off guest stars, Incredible Hulk style. Bo is a very independent, proactive character and, despite falling into some “precocious kid” rhythms, Johnny Sequoyah delivers a strong, mature performance. She is genuinely convincing as a kid who’s accustomed to crazy and tragic stuff happening around her on a daily basis. She’s a born superhero, always thinking of others first, but she’s clearly got her own personality and her own hopes and hang-ups. Watching Bo develop into a full-blown posthuman messiah could indeed make for a compelling television series.
Is Believe world-shaking television? Not remotely. But the strength of the concept and the lead actress, plus the significant leap in quality between the first two episodes, makes this drama one to watch out for as the story unfolds this season.
Believe airs Sundays at 9pm on NBC.