THE RUNWAY – YOUR 2017 PILOT SURVIVAL GUIDE: CBS DRAMAS

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jenny lumet

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Unt. Jenny Lumet

(fka Higher Ground)

Logline: Members of an elite team of investigators for the Northeast Regional U.S. Hate Crimes Unit solve myriad crimes against humanity as they confront their own biases.
Cast: Sharon Leal, Omar Metwally, Grace Rex, Sheaun McKinney, Brad William Henke, Zach Appelman, Kevin Daniels
Creators: Jenny Lumet (W / EP), Katie Couric (EP), David Marshall Grant (EP), Alex Kurtzman (EP), Heather Kdin (EP) Richard Shepard (D / EP)
Studios: CBS TV Studios, Secret Hideout

An uncomfortable blend of serial and procedural storylines, Higher Ground (for ease of reference) follows Lt. Naomi Barr (of the NYPD Hate Crimes Task Force) and her team as they investigate the suicide of a Mexican girl (Monica), which Naomi believes might actually be a hate crime.

As this pilot-specific investigation proceeds, the pilot simultaneously sets up a far meatier serial storyline involving Naomi becoming a pariah amongst law enforcement officials when she charges a few of her own brethren with a hate crime: the death of an innocent, 15-year-old African-American girl.

Though the pilot certainly has a lot of potential, I initially struggled to engage with it altogether. There’s a lot of emotion described, but very little of it is actually felt. Naomi’s experience is alien to us until Nate lays it out in dialogue, suggesting this could have used another pass to render exposition more capably.

Next, Lumet’s writing style must have its admirers, but I find it off-key for a pilot about hate crimes (not to mention a tough ask for a writer’s room). This reads like a comedy-drama, and the stakes feel much lower than they should. In addition, there’s just so much detail in scene description and dialogue on occasion that I struggled to pin down the crux of dialogues and scenes.

The pilot also mistakenly assumes that we will care about Naomi’s investigation because Naomi cares. We know nothing about the victim Monica except that she’s dead, and we don’t meet her relatives, her friends, or anyone grieving her death for a fairly long time. In the absence of these “reaction” scenes to make Monica’s death mean something, it feels difficult to empathize with Naomi’s mission.

In addition, there are almost no real reversals in the course of Naomi and her team’s investigation. Other than Monica’s missing boyfriend Keith, and an eventual realization that Monica might actually have killed herself, there appears to be very little that Naomi can’t deal with. The mystery itself is frankly unimaginative.

The pilot ends on a fairly propulsive note, indicating that Naomi charging police officers with a hate crime will provide a multi-episode arc. That said, I do wish the pilot had fleshed out this storyline a bit more, introduced us to the officers in question, as well as the victim’s family, to generate stronger interest. At present, while curious, I don’t care enough to see this storyline through.

Overall, I’d say this is an ambitious series, with a compelling protagonist in Naomi. Her backstory is intriguing, as is her relationship with her sister (the pilot ends with the suggestion that they’ve both survived a highly traumatic incident from their past, and the perpetrator is still at large). But the procedural elements are utterly lackluster, and the pilot lacks focus. If this goes to series, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a writer’s room significantly upping the focus on the serialized storyline. 

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