Save Me

Save Me debuts tonight on NBC at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Reviewing Save Me is like admitting the whole game of reviewing TV pilots is a sham. It’s all rigged, because it’s supposed to be possible to draw conclusions about what will happen to a show based on only one episode, a task that’s well-nigh impossible, particularly for comedies. What’s more, there’s plenty of room for circumstance to creep in around the edges, for which this show is an excellent case in point. The material in the pilot is about equally split between good and bad. There are jokes that work and jokes that fail in about equal measure, and for every good creative decision—like some genuinely complex relationships between some of the characters—there is a mind-bogglingly awful one—like the overbearing musical score that saws away in the background throughout. Yet put this show on in the fall, and I might be tempted to overemphasize the good elements, in hopes that the show would coalesce around them. Or, hell, give me more episodes than just the pilot—like the other episode airing tonight—and I can make a much fairer judgment on what I’m looking at.

But NBC has brought this show to the air on the first day after the end of the TV season, and it’s burning off the 13-episode order two episodes at a time over the next seven weeks (unless its ratings are just that abysmal). What’s more, it hasn’t bothered to send out any other episodes of the show beyond the pilot, even though the thing’s been in the can for forever. This indicates a particular lack of confidence in the program from its own network, a distinct sense that NBC would really rather prefer to call a mulligan on the whole situation and pretend it doesn’t exist. There was a time when I would have called this the best comedy pilot of NBC’s 2012-13 season (granted, not a very stunning accomplishment, given the competition), but the longer it’s gone since I first saw it and the less faith NBC seems to have in whatever came after, I’m forced to conclude that the bad elements here are what ended up dominating the show and led to its burial, thus keeping me from endorsing it with even mild praise.

Like too many recent comedy pilots, Save Me is significantly overstuffed. At its center is Anne Heche’s Beth Harper, a suburban housewife whose near-death experience leads her to believe that she now has a direct conduit to God and has become a prophet. Beth’s family at first seems like it will be the star the rest of the show orbits around, and on that score, things are so far, so good. Beth is more than willing to admit she’s given up on her marriage to Tom (Michael Landes), all but daring him to stray, something he ultimately—and somewhat reluctantly—did with Alexandra Breckenridge’s Carly. These dynamics all prove at least somewhat interesting, particularly when Landes, Heche, and Breckenridge are actually allowed to play the complicated emotions at the center of their various couplings. Madison Davenport is solid as Beth and Tom’s daughter, Emily, and there are the makings of an okay family comedy with dark touches around the edges here.

What happens is that creator John Scott Shepherd’s pilot script ends up stuffed to the gills with other elements. Beth and Tom are part of a whole neighborhood of characters who are sketched in incredibly quickly, often much too quickly, and Tom’s workplace gets a few moments here and there as well. This would all be too much for the pilot of a cable comedy, which would likely run 30 to 35 minutes. In a 22-minute running time, it all flies by so quickly that anything that’s meant to have any weight is over and done with in about five seconds. As an example, Beth suddenly has insight into her daughter’s love life, insight that seems to come out of nowhere, and she comes to believe she’s talking to God. But rather than let the weirdness of the premise ride, everybody just scoots on past that as quickly as possible. Is it believable that Tom would decide his wife had completely lost it? Sure. But he makes his decision so quickly that none of this has any emotional resonance. In a show about a woman who claims to talk to God, the talking to God becomes the element that’s treated as the most normal thing in the show’s universe, like it was always at the center of the pitch, but Shepherd gradually lost interest in it.

That feeling of a cable comedy trying to work on a broadcast network is present throughout the pilot’s running time. Tonally, this works better the more darkly humorous it gets—the pilot ends with a moment that should play as a great, ghoulish laugh—but the standards of the broadcast world mean that the show is always undercutting all of its best, darkest notions. (That closing gag, for instance, is played more as something that’s happened to Wile E. Coyote than a human being.) A cable comedy would have given all of this room to breathe. NBC’s approach is to sit right next to you on the couch and loudly keep screaming at you about how much fun you’re having, and how funny this all is, and how you must be laughing, because isn’t it hilarious?

While it’s tempting to be hard on Save Me, there are good elements here. Shepherd comes up with some good lines, particularly in the scenes featuring Heche and Davenport. Heche is a woman who’s been looking for the right TV vehicle for a while, and for at least the first half of this pilot, she holds the whole thing together through sheer force of acting will. (There are whole scenes that feel as if no one in them is behaving as a normal human being, and Heche simply attacks them with a manic energy that suggests she’s simply going to grit her teeth and make the best of this, like she’s in a bad summer stock production of The Music Man.) The rest of the cast is also very good, right down to the wonderful Joy Osmanski, stuck in a nothing part.

Scott Winant’s direction is typically bubbly, and if he pushes the tone too far toward the light-hearted in the end, he’s got a nice eye for the show’s more complicated emotional material in the early going. Plus, religion is a topic TV rarely attempts to tackle, and even though this is more “religion” than anything recognizable as a belief system, there’s something interesting in examining the thin line between genuine religious experience and mental illness. The pilot also gives away the game as to whether Beth is actually talking to God or not, and that choice would be a strong one if the editing left it any room to have weight.

Again, if this show had debuted any earlier—or if NBC seemed to have any faith in it whatsoever, or if it had sent out more episodes, or any number of other scenarios—there would be good reason to hang onto the good stuff and hope for the best. Even as it stands, I may check in later in the season to see if creative changes behind the scenes (original showrunner Alexa Junge was replaced with Darlene Hunt, whose cable sensibilities might be more in tune with what this show is trying to do, and Andy Bobrow, one of my favorite Community writers, joins the staff at some point) led to a renaissance for the show. But as it stands, NBC has given me no reason to have confidence in the show, so it’s only too natural to assume the series isn’t worth having confidence in. Is that fair? Probably not, but then, it’s also rarely wise to cling at shreds of hope for a show that arrives essentially canceled already.

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