Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
Lucky 7 begins by earnestly sketching its cast, the seven strivers at a gas station in Queens who enter the lottery together every week and, if the title is any indication, are about to win. Based on British drama The Syndicate, created by Kay Mellor, the premiere plays like an American speaking a foreign language—hitting every last vowel and consonant, just to be clear. There’s Matt Long’s working-class avatar, an earnest do-gooder so strapped for cash he and his pregnant wife are living with his passive-aggressive mother. Also under that roof is Long’s ex-con cousin Stephen Louis Grush, who works at the station with him. Then there’s Isiah Whitlock, the mentor-manager; Lorraine Bruce, the overweight and ashamed victim of infidelity; Luis Antonio Ramos, the responsible Hispanic mechanic; Summer Bishil, the Pakistani girl whose taxi-driver father is gently and not-so-gently pushing her into an arranged marriage; and Anastasia Phillips, the other one.
Right on cue, they win—but Lucky 7 is one of those ironic titles like Fantasy Island. As soon as the winners start toasting to the happy future, Mr. Roarke pokes through the sound mix intoning, “That depends on what the future holds in store.” Among the predictable conflicts laid out from the beginning are issues about which employees actually chipped in for this week’s ticket, Grush’s debt to some gangsters, and an anvil that Phillips drops hinting that she might have some issues (fraud? a vague sense of intrigue?) that will get in the way of her receiving her payments. But the biggest problem is that, the night of the lottery, Long and Grush orchestrate a robbery of the gas station, which results in Whitlock going to the hospital. Now detectives are on the case, Whitlock has unwittingly become a living, breathing guilt trip, and Long looks like he’s seconds away from giving it all up to go back to the way things were.
It’s probably more accurate to say he’s about a season away from that, though, since the premiere begins with an in medias res scene showing a bit of what becomes of Long’s character. In fact, the other new series from executive producer David Zabel, the soap opera Betrayal, also opens with a Damages-style glimpse into a future where things aren’t so soporific. “These are not procedurals,” Zabel explains. “They’re character dramas. The device teases audiences with how crazy, dramatic, or elevated that things are going to become.” That’s certainly one accomplishment of the opening, although a car chase resulting in that guy from Jack & Bobby tossing wads of cash out his window is hardly a nuke going off in Los Angeles. Really, all that counteracts the unfamiliar characters and the clichéd scenario is the image of money raining down on bystanders. Some people are scrounging up wads from the street. Ramos just stands there awestruck.
One idea hammered home is that Ramos’ virtue stands as a bulwark against the pervasive vulgarity of cash. A woman with a broken toaster kisses a wad of green in ecstasy. The lottery is performed in that sickening pageant way, cut with poor Bruce sitting at her homemade feast waiting for her husband to come home. A whole network of associates crawls out of the woodwork to celebrate with one of the employees that night. Money isn’t the root of all evil, exactly. It’s just so tawdry. If Lucky 7 has a perspective on money, it’s that of a little kid with a boo-boo: Blood is gross but essential. Those poor souls who slave at that gas station aren’t greedy; they just need enough to get by.
Except for Grush, that is. Lucky 7 is so squeaky-clean at the start it’s like Sunday school. The U.S. justice system has already decided for the audience that Grush is playing a bad guy, and, whaddyaknow, here he is pressuring knockoff Michael Corleone into a robbery. On the other side, there’s a diverse Taxi ensemble with nothing but sympathy (a hospital stay, family hardships). And in the middle is Long, caught between good intentions and one fateful lapse in judgment. While there’s plenty of time for the jackpot to churn up the temptations of easy money, this is an awfully elementary start.
In spite of the undercooked ideas, there’s reason to hope. There’s not a dud in the cast, and the diversity is already compelling. Bruce’s heart-on-her-sleeve performance vividly fleshes out Denise. She’s not just a wife to feel sorry for. She’s the cheerful one at work, she practices her life on karma, and she has complicated self-esteem issues. Having originated the role in Mellor’s The Syndicate, Bruce is a model for the light first-episode roles. The dialogue may be underlined, but it’s clever. Most of all, the way director Paul McGuigan shoots money, lingering on those alienating moments where everything distills into people and wealth, centers the show like nothing else. Nothing has room to sprout yet, because the pot is crammed with seeds, but time and sunlight and a lot of serious consideration by the writers could yield plenty of fruit.
The problem is, as Lucky 7 well knows, television is all over money already, from the shriveling wealth of Two And A Half Men to the hardening poverty of 2 Broke Girls. Reality television doesn’t just thematically outclass anything Lucky 7 could hope to say about gaudy, greedy America. It formally embodies that filth with its garish lighting, sparkly gowns, and chintzy mansions festooned with cameras. That’s a lot to place on an already overworked series premiere, but Lucky 7 fits into a whole line of American windfall shows, from the late 1950s Nielsen mainstay The Millionaire to NBC’s short-lived Windfall and beyond. Those kinds of series play like experiments, logging the effects of the mother lode on people from all walks of life. Conversely, with its easy irony and moral determinism, Lucky 7 is too thin to be anything but a watered-down version of Luck.
Created by: Jason Richman and David Zabel
Starring: Matt Long, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Lorraine Bruce, Luis Antonio Ramos
Debuting: Tuesday at 10 p.m. Eastern on ABC
Format: Hour-long drama
Pilot episode watched for review