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'Intelligence' Begins with a Promising Conundrum

Lesley Smith

The smartest parts of Intelligence concern debates over Gabriel's malfunctions as a machine, even as they feel emotional bonds with him.


Airtime: Mondays, 10pm ET
Cast: Josh Holloway, Meghan Orly, Marg Helgenberger, John Billingsley, P. J. Byrne, Michael Rady
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: CBS
Director: David Semel
Air date: 2014-01-07

It may be that popular TV is finally losing its obsession with the undead. At least we have hope, in a second new show that's not about zombies, but instead, another sort of post-human future. CBS' Intelligence, premiering Tuesday (before it begins airing regularly on Mondays) follows Fox’s Almost Human in looking ahead to a world that expands on the one we inhabit today, full of people with titanium joints, hearts that beat courtesy of electrodes, batteries and computer-literate cardiologists, and responsive artificial limbs, not to mention our symbiosis with our screens.

Intelligence begins with a promising conundrum. US Cyber Command scientist Shenandoah Cassidy (John Billingsley) has invented a microchip that will connect a human being to the global information grid. But the connection will only work on an individual who carries an exceptionally rare genetic variation. The best candidate Cyber Command can drum up is a gung-ho Delta officer Gabriel (Josh Holloway), who uses his fists as often as he engages his brain.

Gabriel's selection for the program poses a moral problem for his boss, Lillian Strand (Marg Helgenberger), as she must decide whether he's a very expensive weapon or a person who happens to be hyper-connected. His selection might also have offered the rest of us a chance to watch two good actors explore the complex status of the cyborg as citizen, property, or potential rogue agent.

But no. Writer and executive producer Michael Seitzman just can't resist raiding the Pandora’s box of TV tropes. First, he saddles Gabriel with, well, his namesake, the angel Gabriel, messenger from God, which suggests a kind of Promethean creation at work in the black labs of the US government. Then, in quick succession, he gives Gabriel a missing wife (Zuleikha Robinson) who worked for the CIA and may well have betrayed her country, a gun-toting female minder, Riley (Meghan Orly), and a selection of the usual suspects of international mayhem, such as rogue Chinese agents and Islamic extremists. No wonder that Gabriel’s default expression is pained concentration.

Neither have Seitzman and the premiere episode's director, David Semel, resolved the perennial puzzle of how to present information on computer screens. The graphics in Intelligence are rendered in elegant 3D, but in the end, they're only the same text and graphics one would see on any screen in any office, with exactly the same level of interest. The difference is that they arrive more quickly, without all that troublesome meeting of legal niceties, and finding of bureaucratic loopholes, which may well parallel current surveillance practices, but also saps much-needed tension from the show.

Indeed, Intelligence too often becomes a sequence of scenes where characters look at Gabriel while he looks at cutting-edge computer displays, interspersed with scenes where Gabriel agonizes over his wife’s disappearance, or where brute force (however eloquently shot) saves the day. Along with the characters, the viewer is searching for intelligence.

The smartest parts of the show, potentially, concern Lillian and Shenandoah's debates over Gabriel's malfunctions as a machine, even as they feel emotional bonds with him. Shenandoah showers more time and love on Gabriel than on his own son, Nelson (P. J. Byrne), while Lillian clearly empathizes with her charge's loneliness and even his obsession with his missing wife. But both must also keep track of cost and procedure: when Shenandoah reports to Lillian that Gabriel wastes 25-30 percent of his processing power every day in searching for his wife, they both tut in annoyance, but we see their worry too.

Then, when Lillian orders Riley to keep Gabriel alive, whatever the cost, because he is America’s most expensive weapon, the show suggests our human capacity to create first and think later, shelving as mere inconveniences questions of morality. Lillian and Shenandoah both respond to Gabriel as man or machine, but neither can reconcile these reactions in order to act consistently or balance emotion with rationality.

Intelligence might probe these questions more, and so become richer than the latest show about a tortured male genius outsmarting the bad guys. Or it might just settle for flashy graphics, great action scenes, and underused actors looking good.


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