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.
The Tomorrow People has already been a TV show twice over, beginning with the Thames Television production that ran alongside the Third and Fourth Doctor eras of Doctor Who. Created by Roger Price—also the shepherd of the Canadian kiddie sketch show You Can’t Do That On Television—the 1970s original and its ’90s revamp center on the representatives of the next step in human evolution. They are telepathic, telekinetic, and teleporting individuals scientifically cataloged under a term Price had previously lent to David Bowie: Homo superior. Developed by Phil Klemmer, the franchise’s new American iteration draws on the terminology and premise of its inspiration (a band of these outsiders, living in seclusion to avoid extermination), though it still manages a few winks toward the creakier, cornier elements of that material. Klemmer’s script, which inducts newcomer Robbie Amell into this brave new world with all the cheek to be expected from a Veronica Mars and Chuck veteran, is heavy with lines like, “We’re called ‘tomorrow people’—we didn’t choose the name, we swear.”
But The CW’s Tomorrow People isn’t predicated on the British original alone: The new show’s pilot plays like a bouillabaisse of past pop-culture products that capture adolescent anxieties and societal shifts, finding success through a genre-fiction filter. It’s an episode of television that exists at the intersection of Marvel’s superpowers-as-puberty metaphors and the half-baked cultural upheaval of True Blood—with a Whedon-esque anti-authoritarian streak thrown in for good measure. The show could devolve into a grab bag of familiar themes and tropes down the line, but its pilot does a remarkable job of synthesizing a cohesive introduction out of those disparate parts. Amell is alternately positioned as a comic-book mutant coming into his abilities, a Buffy Summers-like savior (shame his character is a straight, white male), and a Sydney Bristow-type who’s working to take down a shadowy organization from within. (Again: shame about the straight, white male bit.) That this hangs together at all is testament to the steady hands at the wheel.
Then again, the adhesive holding this together could be the current CW house style, with its three-unique-storylines-per-hour metabolism. The Tomorrow People yields for no exposition, racing through most of the necessary backstory within its first 20 minutes. Taking a cue from the show that first dared to take the network to Comic-Con, The Vampire Diaries (Julie Plec serves as executive producer here), Klemmer’s pilot script burns through multiple moments that would’ve been climaxes on other shows, a dizzying act of escalation that makes the episode seem longer than it actually is. Pacing helps out tremendously here, mirroring the speed (if not quite the agility) of the previous show’s action sequences in a way that doesn’t linger on the fourth of fifth cliffhanger reveal during the most eventful school week of Amell’s life.
Where The Tomorrow People has a chance to assert some originality comes somewhere in the middle of that big-reveal gauntlet, loaded into the long, scary syringe Mark Pellegrino waves in the hero’s face. There’s long been a scientific component to X-Men, but the threat that Pellegrino’s cold geneticist poses to the Tomorrow People feels uniquely creepy, probably because none of his prospective test cases are covered in blue fur. What distinguishes the British sci-fi vintage from its stateside equivalent is a certain mood, atmosphere, and threat of realistically treated danger, which is more a compensation for lack of special-effects budget than anything else. The American remake pulls away from those practical, handmade qualities out of modern necessity, but the basic human cruelty Pellegrino represents and his body-horror-ready designs on Amell, Peyton List, Luke Mitchell, and Aaron Yoo could keep The Tomorrow People grounded—preventing it from lapsing into The Chiseled Jawline Telepathy Fight Hour.
At the very least, Klemmer’s Tomorrow People is always going to be a shiny bauble that’s pleasant to look at, a continuation of The CW’s unexpected move to bring a cinematic gleam and genre intrigue to TV screens with a liberal serving of style and a soupçon of soul. There are some shots and some sets in the pilot that look like the show is getting more out of significantly less money than the Hulk-sized piles of cash Disney is throwing at Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. That’s bound to change as the show gets accustomed to playing with the budget of a continuing series on a second-tier network, a point at which Amell and his fellow Tomorrow People will need to develop fuller personalities or face up to the deeper, troubling implications of what Pellegrino proposes in this pilot—something to fill the special-effects and fight-choreography void. The Tomorrow People could represent the next step in The CW’s evolution, so long as it’s allowed to utilize all the latent potential on display in this first episode.
Developed by: Phil Klemmer
Starring: Robbie Amell, Luke Mitchell, Peyton List, Mark Pellegrino, Aaron Yoo, Sarah Clarke
Debuts: Wednesday at 9 p.m. Eastern on The CW
Format: Hour-long science-fiction drama