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 the SCI FI channel. 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 I 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 Jaime 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 her 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 bosomed than we were born? Will Jaime 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 Jaime; 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, Jaime and her surgeon boyfriend Will talk about their future. Will is about to take a fellowship in Paris and urges Jaime 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 Jaime'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) are replaced with bionic appendages. Jaime 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 super-max 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 Douglas 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. Jaime 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 emotions, 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 Jaime'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 Jaime and Corvus are brilliant, especially on the rain-slicked roof of an apartment building as Jaime 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 Jaime 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 Jaime 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, Jaime Sommers might just become one hell of a memorable hero after all.
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Jace is an LA-based television development and acquisitions exec who watches way too much television for his own good and would love a TiVo for every room in the house. (He’s halfway there.) His blog, Televisionary, can be found at televisionaryblog.com.