So here’s the idea: In the near future, humanity’s in the throes of a fertility crisis, with a six-year global dry spell casting a shadow over the world. But when a small group of people realize reproduction might still be possible, will they risk their lives for the hope of tomorrow? If the premise for Lifetime’s newest offering, The Lottery, sounds remarkably like Children Of Men, that’s not a coincidence: Series creator Timothy J. Sexton co-wrote the 2006 feature film (adapted from the novel by P.D. James), and it’s clearly been on his brain since. The Lottery takes a very similar crisis and threads together several characters—Dr. Lennon (Marley Shelton), the scientist who’s made the breakthrough; Vanessa (Athena Karkanis), the White House Chief Of Staff; shadowy government figure Darius Hayes (Martin Donovan); and Kyle (Michael Gaziadei), father of one of the last children ever born—in the hopes of turning in a vaguely thinky dystopian thriller.
It’s a bold move for Lifetime, which has scarce few scripted dramas on its schedule, and only one other current genre-fiction offering in the mix: The Witches Of East End. (Long-running fantasy series Drop Dead Diva ended just last month.) Premiering The Lottery feels like a deliberate shift to align its target demographic with the dark-SF boom that’s saturating television across the board. In a best-case scenario, this is a calculated risk for a network trying to move beyond two (two!) spin-off reality shows starring Abby from Dance Moms. Worst-case scenario, Lifetime will be airing Not Without My Embryo at a time when pregnancy is a politically loaded state. And given the title, the puns suggest themselves. Is The Lottery Lifetime’s ticket into the science-fiction market? In this saturated market, does The Lottery stand a chance? Should you sign up for The Lottery?
The answer is the sort of “who knows” that often comes with having only a pilot available for review. There are a few far-too-neat parallels that feel like a race to finish the necessary setup (drinking game: How many characters suggest things like “hitting the jackpot” before the word “lottery” is mentioned?), and discussions between characters that make sure the series’ themes are established (Do you know this is a story about hope and family? You will!), but there’s also a healthy dose of cynicism lurking in all the conflicting government agendas and the instant commodification of scientific discovery that suggests potential for some interesting gray areas the series is set to explore. There’s also plenty of thriller fodder for those who enjoy a conspiracy theory that trends heavy on the conspiracy; some of the early decisions made by characters clearly unused to battling government machinations offer several opportunities for tension. Jeff Cardoni’s music skews noticeably Jason Bourne whenever the quick-escape thrills are at their most thriller-esque.
Beyond these awkward moments, which are the run-of-the-mill obviousness that often plagues premiere episodes, there are glimpses of the watchable show this could become. The pilot doesn’t present any particularly clever visuals, but director Danny Cannon knows how to ably pace a chase scene or frame a dread-filled cutaway, and the pilot has neatly avoided any overtly futuristic trappings outside the occasional glass phone. The cast (after some changes from an earlier iteration) is solid, though not remarkable, and suggests a scope that will tackle this Children Of Men fallout on the wider scale television provides. If all goes well, the show could find its feet. Certainly some of the early grace notes suggest the show is aware of its B-movie sensibility: A character is stalled by an employee’s sheer lack of interest in his job, there isn’t a cop alive that can’t be sidled past unawares, and the pilot’s big scientific breakthrough involves the groundbreaking measure of trying to create the environment of the uterus, a revelation delivered as if other attempts had been stymied after creating late-spring Denver.
However, tackling a subject like global fertility is a thematic minefield, and in the pilot, some of the moments offered can be remarkably thoughtless. The premise, of course, allows for some amusing world-building in a new relationship paradigm (“I fathered a daughter nine years ago” is the new foolproof pick-up line, and not a single traditional nuclear family appears). However, a mention of a man’s “Somali blood” as a fertility bonus ignores a long and problematic history of the treatment of men of color, and seems markedly tone-deaf for a show that’s wading into so fraught a topic. As if to balance this and prove awareness, there are protesters gathering outside hospitals to decry mandatory fertility testing, clearly meant to mirror current feelings about the American government’s involvement in women’s bodies, but a series centered on so thorny a topic will have to get smarter about exactly what it’s presenting, fast.
Overall, the pilot stalls with the usual introductions, setup, and by-the-numbers twists. There’s a dogged sense of purpose behind it that could, if thoughtfully explored, become a low-budget thriller for a network that’s taking some steps into a brave new world, but there’s an awful lot hanging on that “thoughtfully.”
Created by: Timothy J. Sexton
Starring: Marley Shelton, Martin Donovan, Athena Karkanis, Yul Vasquez
Debuts: Sunday at 10 p.m. Eastern on Lifetime
Format: Hour-long science-fiction drama
Pilot episode watched for review