For six seasons of Lost, Josh Holloway played the next best thing to Han Solo. As a con man with a rusty sense of ethics but an ever-growing heart, Holloway provided a grinning counterpoint to the show’s melodrama and metaphysical theatrics. After Lost ended, the actor struggled to find projects worthy of his rough-and-ready charisma, sticking largely to guest star and cameo roles. Intelligence, CBS’ new “man with a microchip in his head” action-thriller, puts Holloway in the leading role, playing technologically enhanced intelligence operative Gabriel Black. It’s great to see the actor get the chance to anchor a series of his own, but even Holloway can’t redeem cliché-addled scripts and a premise 40 years past its sell-by date. Kurt Russell might have made a go of this stuff in 1969’s The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, but these days, it’s hard to be impressed by someone who can perform tasks slightly faster than someone holding an iPhone.
That’s an oversimplification: In truth, anyone looking to imitate Gabriel’s masterful microchip would need a solid computer, some hacking skills, and a strong wireless connection. The problem is that characters on genre shows have been using similar equipment for years, and the sight of an actor squinting at CGI images floating around his head doesn’t make the research any more compelling. Worse, the show doesn’t seem to realize its blunder; both the pilot and the second episode have scenes of Gabriel standing in a lab, surrounded by technicians, straining to find an answer a few seconds before they do.
One of the primary jobs of a superhero show—and for all its counter-surveillance trappings, this is basically a superhero show—involves convincing the audience that the hero in question is special, that their talents and determination put them above average human beings. It’s the power fantasy combined with the sense of morality and responsibility that makes the fantasy palatable. The minds behind Intelligence clearly understand this, as the show has many, many scenes of characters discussing how valuable Gabriel is, how critical it is that he be protected, how dangerous it would be if he went rogue. And yet all these exhortations fall short, becoming increasingly ludicrous in their efforts to ignore the obvious: It’s just not that big of a deal.
It’d be forgivable if Intelligence boasted a strong ensemble or gripping adventures. But while the actors are solid, their characters don’t inspire enthusiasm. Marg Helgenberger is all no-nonsense authority as Gabriel’s boss, Lillian; there’s a suggestion she might be playing a deeper game than is first apparent, but there’s no reason to care. John Billingsley plays a tweedy, brilliant scientist exactly as one might expect, and his and Lillian’s arguments over Gabriel’s various obsessions and shortcomings are textbook examples of trying to generate tension out of thin air. As Riley, a former Secret Service agent tasked with protecting the government’s investment in Gabriel, Meghan Ory is present, but not much more than that. Her character is such a grab bag of exposition-inspiration (as an outsider, people need to keep explaining things they already know to her) and forced banter that she barely qualifies as human.
Of the cast, Holloway makes the gamest effort to turn in a likable, coherent performance, but Gabriel’s clunky dialogue and muddled, dull backstory (missing wife who may or may not be a villain) don’t give him much to play with. Nominally, he’s a daring, risk-taking badass who refuses to play by the rules; in practice, those terms apply, but they fail to organize themselves into anything distinctive.
That’s true of the episode plotting as well. The first two stories are boilerplate rescue missions and “stop the terrorist” assignments that allow little room for distinction or imagination. The occasional touch keeps this from being a total train wreck; there are hints that the writers’ willingness to embrace serialization might take a turn for the compelling down the line. It’s always possible that Intelligence might warm to its subject, giving Holloway more to do than look morose and occasionally quip. As it stands now, though, Intelligence is a title that serves as a punchline.
Developed by: Michael Seitzman (from the novel Phoenix Island by John Dixon)
Starring: Josh Holloway, Marg Helgenberger, Meghan Ory, Michael Rady, John Billingsley
Airs: Premieres January 7 at 9:00 p.m. Eastern on CBS. Airs regularly on Mondays at 10:00 PM starting January 13.
Format: Hour-long science-fiction thriller
First two episodes watched for review