The Gates - "Pilot"

The Gates debuts at 10 p.m. Eastern tonight on ABC.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine and I would often rib another friend of ours who was in the incipient stages of the vampire fever that would grip this fair nation of ours soon thereafter by saying that vampires were soon to be added to all of her favorite shows. "Don't worry," we would say. "On this season of House, the hospital is overrun by vampires!" or "This season on Desperate Housewives, Wisteria Lane becomes the home to a nest of vampires." Now, these jokes were potentially a little cruel and not very funny, but a big reason they no longer seem funny is because network television really has become a world where vampires can be tossed into any old premise to make viewers pay attention. True Blood is Dynasty with vampires. The Vampire Diaries is Dawson's Creek with vampires. Both are big hits, particularly for their networks.

So ABC, home of still-successful Desperate Housewives, is banking much of its summer strategy on a show that is, indeed, pretty much Desperate Housewives with vampires (and other things, but the vampires are what's spoiled in the promos and what I'll spoil here). It comes from Richard Hatem, he of the dark, underrated early '00s one-season wonder Miracles, and for a show that seems like it should be camptastic, it takes its premise surprisingly seriously. Not everything on the show works, but there are the elements here for a show that could be a good time. However, ABC has only shown critics the clumsy pilot (they let us see more of Happy Town!), which often indicates that later episodes just aren't as good. If that's the case, proceed with supreme caution.

The Gates stems from a fairly interesting notion: What if a gated community had been constructed as much to keep whatever was within in as to keep whatever was outside out? This idea is directly stated by the protagonist's son in the first ten minutes of the pilot for no real reason (it's not immediately clear why this kid would be thinking this), but as a theme for a dark primetime soap, it's a nifty notion. Similarly, the pilot opens with a rather slow-moving sequence that becomes quite a lot of fun, where a vampire tricks the man who's destroyed her mailbox with his truck to come into her lair, where she drains his blood into one of those perfect, porcelain sinks, taking special care to make sure the stopper's in the drain. It's one of those perfect images that sums up what the show is going to be in a shot or two, and I wish the pilot had just gone off to the races from there.

Instead, Hatem (and co-creator Grant Scharbo) decide to take a rather leisurely, pilot-esque approach to what happens next. We've met the monsters of The Gates (also, apparently, the name of the community), so now we need to meet our hero. And keep meeting him. And keep meeting him. The next 20 minutes or so are spent following around the town's new chief of police, Nick (Frank Grillo), as he first comes to The Gates and then comes to find himself discovering curious question after curious question. Just what happened to the old police chief? What is up with these weird folks who had a man seemingly disappear inside of their house yesterday? And just what might be the dark secret in Nick's past (this being a dark soap, he's contractually obligated to have one)?

Things are no better with his wife and son, whom the show also follows around on their adventures, presumably because they have some connection to the main protagonist. Sarah (Marisol Nichols) doesn't do much other than shop and look supportive toward her husband, but lots of stuff happens AROUND her, so she'll probably become important later on in the season. And son Charlie (Travis Caldwell) inevitably attracts the attention of the cutest girl in school, who, wouldn't you know?, just happens to be the girlfriend of a football player who has some secrets of his own. There's some interesting business in the high school storyline - particularly involving a largely implausible lie detector - but it also stands in the way of what the show should be, which is constant, endless killing. After we've seen a woman drain a man's blood into her kitchen sink, there's really no way to back down from that into more prosaic plotlines, but The Gates keeps trying to.

Fortunately, the supernatural stuff is handled with a bit more panache. It's clear that Hatem and Scharbo have given some thought to how a couple of vampires (with a mysterious daughter) might try to fit in in one of these gated communities, and the scenes set in their house are routinely among the episode's best. I'm not exactly chomping at the bit to see another show with vampires in it, but this show, at least, tackles the question of what happens when a vampire is middle-aged and not a teenager, which is not a new one exactly, but at least something I haven't seen a million times in the last five years. The other supernatural threats, such as they are, are more nebulously defined and seem kind of haphazardly thrown in, as though ABC told Hatem and Scharbo they could have one monster per episode, though they clearly want this to be Knot's Landing in Halloweentown.

To a degree, there's nothing I can tell you that will either convince you to watch The Gates or convince you to stay away from it. I see some intriguing ways the show could expand on the premise as laid out in the pilot, but I also see ways it could go oh so wrong. There are fun scenes here, surprisingly vicious scenes here, and scenes that will make you want to gouge your eyes out with a plastic fork. Every time the show builds up a good head of steam, it then lets too much of the pressure off through a cutesy scene or an outright stupid one (like how Nick's kids sign a weird pact to not let their parents know about their anxieties because ... well ... there wouldn't be a show then, would there?). There are elements of a really good show in The Gates - stemming from the impressively dark tone - and elements of a really bad one - stemming from the flat, disaffected acting. At this point, though, the show needs to either decide to be better or far, far more terrible to be what it could be.

Stray observations:

  • It is possible I am overrating or underrating this. Immediately after watching this, I watched Scoundrels, which is far worse than The Gates in almost every conceivable way but somehow has better acting (for the most part).
  • Our vampire couple, the Ratcliffs, are played ably by Rhona Mitra and Luke Mably. I'm no Mitra fan, but I think she's sort of fun here, and I hope she loosens up just a bit. Mably seems to have a better idea of just how goofy the whole notion of his character is, and I'd say his performance is best in show.
  • Credit where it's due: The final twist of the episode is kind of fun, and it will be enough to bring me back for at least one more episode.