Believe (NBC)

If belief were enough, “Believe” would make the cut. But execution matters, and “Believe” has been struggling since the pilot. Its saving grace at the moment (versus “The River,” a darker but decent idea sunk mid-season a few years ago by flawed execution) is that its wider demographic might provide additional stability until everything settles.

“Believe” tracks the weekly adventures of a little fugitive named Bo with as-yet-unspecified mental powers (although so far we’ve seen telekinesis, telempathy, animal summoning, and even some precog) and her protector Tate (an escaped convict), running from the research thinktank that bred and trained her for its own purposes.

Sounds like an idea with potential bite? Well, not as currently implemented. The mix between Alfonso Cuarón and JJ Abrams is an odd one, resulting in  a hybrid that seems part “Firestarter Lite” and part “Highway to Heaven.” The simplistic but heartfelt resolutions seem aimed in flavor of ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” crowd (oddly, the latter seems darker), rather than kind of edgier work you’d expect from Cuarón’s involvement. Instead of some dark topics and incredible action sequences, we just get a little girl who intrudes into a different person’s life every week and helps resolve some painful issue in their lives — something Tate once refers to appropriately as her “door-to-door Chicken Soup for the Soul bit.”

With that kind of angle, “Believe” so far isn’t working well as a serious drama, but I suppose if NBC wanted to add a “feel good” show to its lineup, it could have done far worse. Bo’s relationship with Winter (the head researcher who trained and eventually took her from the facility to protect her) is endearing, and the fledgling connection between strong-willed Nate and Bo (where neither knows how they’re related… or at least Bo pretends not to) seems natural and real enough.

In fact, casting is one of the show’s strengths. Jake McLaughlin’s Tate is less articulate and more prickly than Sawyer from “Lost,” yet remains likeable because you know he’s not quite the jerk he aspires to be. And Johnny Sequoya in her first front-and-center role as Bo is intriguing — she’s cute, smart, sassy without being repulsive, the kind of self-assured and empathetic little girl who inspires you to believe even if you think she has no clue about how life really works. Delroy Lindo as Winter, protecting Bo against exploitation by his former partner Skouras (Kyle MacLachlan), projects a love for the little girl that remains palpable and untarnished; and MacLachlan’s ruthless pragmatism is balanced by an idealism for how Bo could help humanity to improve. One of the best scenes so far, in fact, has been the brief meetup between Winter and Skouras in a local delicatessen (a riff on the “coffee shop bit” in Michael Mann’s “Heat”) where they unexpectedly sit down to discuss their differences of opinion.

However, as mentioned before, the show kind of “plays” at suspense without being suspenseful. Every episode, there’s a lot of running, a lot of hiding, a lot of Bo disobeying Tate’s incessant nagging and doing things that almost (or actually) get them caught, then Bo doing something that helps them escape without hurting anyone, and… cycle, rinse, repeat. The old “Incredible Hulk” TV series could make this format work, but… in today’s TV world? The times, they been a-changin’.

And the action sequences are unbelievable: When people normally would get shot, the perpetrator doesn’t fire; when Bo could use her powers, she does so in the slowest and least effective way possible; escape routes conveniently occur in places where they normally wouldn’t (like the storm tunnel trapdoor in the hallway of a death-row maximum security ward, way back in the pilot). And so far, while Tate was chosen to protect Bo so that Winter wouldn’t lead anyone to her, literally every episode so far involves Winter personally stepping in like a deus ex machina to save them. Why not just keep Bo with Winter, at this rate?

“Believe” also utilizes repeated story flashbacks without seeming to be quite comfortable with the story device. “Lost” and some other series have been able to show flashbacks, flashforwards, flash sideways, flashing in every which way but loose, without ever needing to tell us “when” they happened by using setting, character appearance, timely pop culture elements, and other clues organic to the scene to signify time and setting… but “Believe” consistently stamps ugly subtitles on the screen to spell it out for everyone (and at least in one episode, multiple times for the SAME time period). A little more visual distinction in the scenes or a little more trust for the viewers would go a long way.

Finally, I was hoping for more honesty in a show where both Abrams and Cuarón were involved, but the story keeps selling out for the “happy ending.” [Note: HIMYM viewers disgruntled by their series finale might be more satisfied here.] For example, a soldier breaks off an engagement to his fiance without explaining why [although the reason is legitimate], and when Bo reintroduces the couple years later, the ex-fiance tells him (truthfully) that she still does love him, but she’s engaged to someone else, so they can’t be together now. Bo seems confused and a bit distraught by this turn of events, Tate feels bad but makes it a “teachable moment” about how sometimes things just don’t work out even when your intentions are good; and then “Believe” backpedals with a rather absurd “Snidely Whiplash” moment that suggests it doesn’t have the courage to enter ambiguous places.

Enjoyment of the show will depend on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for a light, happy fix of goodwill, with a dash of the fantastic, then you might enjoy “Believe.” If you don’t like shows where people carry guns and girls throw cars but no one gets hurt and characters are more a plot contrivance of the plot than exploring the grit accmulated by living in a fallible and uncertain world, then it’s becoming more and more difficult to believe that “Believe” will go somewhere meaningful.

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