TV

Faith and Clichés and 'Believe'

Television is especially good at pretending intimacy, at inviting you to feel close to emotional situations and worrying for characters you come to know over time.


Believe

Airtime: Sundays, 9pm ET
Cast: Jake McLaughlin, Johnny Sequoyah, Jamie Chung, Kyle MacLachlan, Delroy Lindo, Rami Malek
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: NBC
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Air date: 2014-03-10
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"You stink." So assesses Bo (Johnny Seqoyah) of the man come to save her. The little girl is lying in a hospital bed, having survived a terrible car crash, and this man with longish, maybe Christ-likey hair -- Tate (Jake McLaughlin) -- has just escaped death row via a sewer. He informs her of this bit of plot, matching her tendency to consider the world literally more than metaphorically and also hoping to excuse his disarray, which is extended, he explains, by the fact that the people who've hired him to fetch her hosed him off post-sewer and then made up his face to look broken and bruised, so that he might enter the emergency room on a gurney. With all this story laid out before her, Bo remains focused. "You still stink."

Ah well. During these early moments of Believe -- a special premiere Monday 10 March, before it takes up its regular Sunday night slot -- when the adorably uncanny Bo meets the fellow who will be her protector for the rest of the series, the set-up is too familiar. Her gifts aren't wholly clear yet, but several adults suggest their significance, including Winter (Delroy Lindo), who selects Tate and breaks him out of prison, and Skouras (Kyle MacLachlan), who issues orders over the phone to a lithe, tight-pantsed assassin (Katie McClellan).

Winter wears regular people clothes and patiently endures the complaints of his helper Channing (Jamie Chung): wondering how Winter selected Tate, to look after the girl-who-will-save-the-world, Channing asks, apparently reasonably, "Why him? He's a murderer. Why not me?" On the other side, because there appear to be two sides, only, Skouras, who first appears in black tie as he's about to give some sort of prestigious speech in French, contends with a killer who might best be described as incompetent, able to snap the necks of victims already incapacitated but easily undone by a little girl with a syringe full of something stuck into her behind.

As the adults labor over who will have hold of her, Bo appears at once self-aware and not, as children of such stock tend to be. That she sings a song about the winding road of love before the car wreck at show's start, and that she survives this frankly harrowing event -- choreographed by director Alfonso Cuarón in a way that recalls Children of Men -- aligns Bo with any number of "a-child-who-will-lead-them" types. Her particular gifts have to do with seeing pictures of the future for certain acquaintances, including the young doctor Adam Terry (Rami Malek), whose face in a few close-up offers more profound effect than all the special effects business the show conjures (including a blue butterfly that leads Tate to Bo and a swarm of pigeons that confuses the incompetent killer).

These close-ups recall for you that television, as much as recent shows are gunning for spectacles and expensive effects, is especially good at pretending intimacy, at inviting you to feel close to emotional situations and worrying for characters you come to know over time. Believe underuses Malek (similarly good in the movie Short Term 12 and in the TV shows Over There and 24) in a way that suggests a pattern: each week, Bo will find a person in need to rescue, even as Tate rescues her and is rescued, too.

It might be worth noting the race arrangements of this savior template (the white saviors surrounded by folks of color, either helping or being helped) and it might be worth noting the spiritual messaging, or maybe better, the branding. (You might try counting the number of times people use the word "believe" to encourage each other in this first episode.) In each instance, the cliché overwhelms the occasional brilliance: that opening road accident, again, is a thing of terrible beauty, the event you know will happen as soon as you see the set-up, but the image that will stay with you.

Despite and because of its specific violence, what makes this scene so haunting is precisely its intimacy, its evocation of an imaginable chaos and fear out of metal smashing sounds and a careening camera and a series of illegible single frames. Even as Bo asks at first, "What's happening?", you know, along with her dead meat foster-dad, that "They found us," and that the crash is no accident. It's a crash that marks her specialness, simultaneously your commitment to her and her distance from you.

That Bo's gifts remain somewhat beyond her control or comprehension makes her a puzzle but also predictable. Bo will indeed be on a winding road, as she must be just a bit of a person who will irritate and mystify her jokester-action-hero protector, as she must seem both odd and sympathetic to the adults watching her, in her world and in yours.

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