“I don’t know if you got the memo, but I also won’t be releasing my tax returns!”
That’s the line revolutionary tech bro Jeffrey Tanner (Jeremy Piven) uses to open the speech in which he announces that he’s selling his popular social media aggregator in order to focus on catching his daughter’s murderer. It’s also the only reference that Wisdom Of The Crowd, CBS’ new procedural from The Good Wife’s Ted Humphrey, makes to the current political landscape. If it seems trite, foolish, and unnecessary, it is. It’s also indicative of the amount of thought that this series puts into pretty much everything. The only question anyone involved seems to have asked is, “Can we do this thing?” bypassing gems like “Should we?” along the way. About this one fact, there is no question necessary: Wisdom Of The Crowd is willfully, diligently, and remarkably dumb.
If the Trump joke strikes you as ill-advised, it’s nothing to the concept. After selling his original creation for “pennies on the dollar,” Piven’s swaggering Tanner switches his focus to “Sophe” (pronounced “Sophie,” which is apparently much cooler without the “I”). A social media tool with a vigilante twist, Sophe encourages its users to scour the world for clues to solving Mia Tanner’s murder, trusting that its millions of users will be able to do what the San Francisco Police and Detective Tommy Cavanaugh (Richard T. Jones) could not. Tanner’s conviction that the man behind bars (Ramses Jimenez as Carlos Ochoa) is innocent and that Mia’s killer still walks free consumes him. He gives up everything—though not so much of everything that he can’t have lobster tacos catered for the office—to devote himself to Sophe and to convincing Detective Cavanaugh to get on board.
Much of the pilot episode concerns itself with dismissing any questions viewers may have about the legality, feasibility, or advisability of the premise. Jones’ doubtful Cavanaugh sets them up—legal evidence gathering, privacy concerns, mob mentality—and Tanner; his right hand, Sara Morton (Natalia Tena); and others knock them down, checking those objections right off the list. Whether the answers make sense or not (and they usually don’t) doesn’t seem to matter. It’s nothing but hand-waving, getting those pesky questions out of the way so the show can do its thing. Even when a guy ends up in the hospital, assaulted by a mob who’s decided he’s a murderer, it’s a non-issue. “There wouldn’t even be a problem if we weren’t hacked,” Tanner barks, and that’s all that’s said on the matter.
Tanner and Cavanaugh don’t find the killer in this first hour, instead uncovering another crime, and in doing so, the structure for both a one-hour procedural and a season-long arc. Despite this, the series makes gestures toward being a different kind of series than you might expect, namely in spending time on the personal lives of its characters. We meet Tanner’s ex-wife (Monica Potter), a congresswoman; we also meet his current love interest, who most viewers will spot in an instant despite the fact that the revelation is treated like a twist; both push him to be a better person. Despite these efforts, the emotional core rings far from true. Not for one moment does Piven make us believe that Tanner will actually shrink from the possibility of helping others with his invention; never does it seem likely that Cavanaugh will stick with good old-fashioned policing and leave the fancy tech toys behind. It’s not impossible to create a character-driven procedural—The Good Wife did just that—but to achieve such a thing, a show needs actual characters.
That the one on which Wisdom Of The Crowd centers falls so flat seems a flaw from which the series is unlikely to recover. Piven has a few solid moments at the beginning of the episode, when he’s just a guy walking away from something he built due to a trauma from which any parent would reel. Once he begins his big pitch, however, any nuance that once existed is gone, and we’re left with a sketch disguised as a genius. He’s brilliant, we’re told, and told, and told again. He goes a whole 15 minutes before mentioning Steve Jobs (“That’s me,” he says). When his financial adviser tells him that he’s poised to lose everything, he jokes that his therapist tells him he was never comfortable with money, anyway, then goes home to his luxe apartment. He’s not a regular rich guy—he’s a cool rich guy. It’s hollow writing brought to life by an equally empty performance, and in their one scene together, Monica Potter does more to make Jeffrey Tanner seem like a human being than Piven does in 42 minutes.
“Crowdsourcing is sifting through the dirt until you find the gold,” Tanner tells Cavanaugh. “Ninety percent of anything is garbage, but 10 percent of everything… that’s a hell of a lot of bling.” As a line of dialogue, that’s terrible, but it’s useful as a context in which to raise the subject of the terrific Natalia Tena. Anytime that Wisdom Of The Crowd works, even a little, it works because of Tena, an underutilized artist who manages to take a paper-thin character and bring her to almost vibrant life. This isn’t a series worthy of Tena’s considerable talents, and yet she gives it her all, bestowing a palpable intelligence on scenes that might otherwise play as incomprehensible. When Tena’s Sara explains Sophe, it almost seems plausible; when she stands up for her employees in the face of an irate Tanner, you come damn close to caring.
That’s perhaps the best that can be said of Wisdom Of The Crowd. Despite the ridiculous premise, the hollow performances, the shallow sketches that substitute for characters, and the incredibly thoughtless approach to the emotional lives of those characters, there are still moments when you might actually want to see what happens next. At times, it’s because an actor crackles with energy, and at others, it’s because it just doesn’t seem possible that things could get even dumber. Here’s a useful spoiler alert: They almost always do.