'Scorpion': Planes, Cars, and Nerds

It's no coincidence that Scorpion closely follows The Big Bang Theory on Mondays, a show that loves it nerds.


Airtime: Mondays, 9pm ET
Cast: Elyes Gabel, Katharine McPhee, Robert Patrick, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Jadyn Wong, Ari Stidham
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: CBS
Creator: Nick Santora
Air date: 2014-09-22

From its start, Scorpion looks like it wants to be both a fast-paced action thriller and a thoughtful examination of the social difficulties faced by super-geniuses. The first episode manages to do one of these two things pretty well, and with Justin Lin directing, you can probably guess which it is.

Unfortunately, the big action set pieces don’t happen until the last 15 minutes of the episode, which leaves the first 30 minutes to introduce us to Walter O’Brien (Elyes Gabel) and his fellow eccentrics. This could potentially be time well spent in a better-written show, but here it’s mostly an exploration of weirdo-genius clichés.

The show opens with a trio of unmarked black helicopters setting down in a field in the Irish countryside. Troopers stream out, storm a farmhouse, and apprehend a preteen child. Then a very odd-looking Robert Patrick steps out of a vehicle and asks the boy his name, which is Walter. It’s a strange, bracing opening that immediately smash-cuts to the face of a grown-up Walter (Elyes Gabel) in the present day.

We know it’s the present day because Pharrell’s “Happy” is playing very conspicuously in the background. Walter is in a diner, in the process of breaking up with his girlfriend of three months. He gives her a printout of a decision tree he created to help her deal with her own reactions to the breakup. She ends the conversation by conceding, “You may be trying, Walter, but you’re still a million miles from normal.”

This second scene effectively establishes Walter’s autism spectrum behavior, although the word “autism” is never actually used in the show -- not even to describe the young son of the diner’s waitress, Paige (Katharine McPhee), who is lost in his own world, playing chess at the counter with various condiments and containers as his pieces.

The scene also highlights the episode’s obsession with the word “normal”, which is used multiple times to describe what Walter and his friends are not, while also implying that it’s what they’re all striving to be. The main characters pursuit of this goal makes them and the show seem dated and a bit tone deaf.

After Walter returns to his bare-bones warehouse space and Scorpion briefly introduces his three friends, Robert Patrick comes calling again. This time he looks like himself because he’s not covered in clumsy “youthifying” makeup. It turns out that his character, Agent Cabe Gallo, has been keeping tabs on Walter for years, and now he needs him to solve a crisis.

LAX has had a huge software glitch and it’s lost all communication with planes in the air. If Walter and company can’t find a way to get the software up and running again, 56 planes are going to crash in less than two hours.

A few fits and starts later and the gang find themselves set up at the diner, trying to solve the problem remotely. Once here, math whiz Sylvester (Ari Stidham) bonds with the aforementioned child, revealing to everyone what we already knew, that the kid was playing chess all along, not just messing with salt shakers.

Meanwhile, mechanical prodigy Happy (Jadyn Wong) and behavioral specialist Toby (Eddie Kaye Thomas) head to a backup data center to retrieve an older, non-infected version of the software. They fail, but not before a nifty scene where Toby becomes the breakout character of the pilot episode.

Eventually the show also finds a way to integrate Walter and Paige into the primary plot, via a high speed drive across Los Angeles that calls for hacking into the traffic lights, followed by an absolutely ridiculous climax wherein someone plugs a computer cord from an impossibly low-flying passenger plane into a laptop. Said laptop is aboard a Ferrari that is matching the speed of the jet.

With this sequence, Scorpion loses its already tenuous connection to anything like reality.

This connection is tenuous despite the fact that Scorpion is loosely based on the exploits of real life computer genius Walter O’Brien. The show is silly from the get-go, but that isn’t a problem. TNT’s bouncy Leverage, itself a sort of 21st century Mission: Impossible, was similarly silly with a similar assortment of characters.

Still, Scorpion lacks convincing characters: Walter, Happy, and especially Sylvester offer nothing beyond their areas of specialization as a means to identify them. Eddie Kaye Thomas brings more life to Toby, though he has precious little screentime in the first episode. (He may only seem more rounded because Toby has the most interesting field, behavioral science.) If we learned nothing else from Numb3rs, we learned that specially skilled geniuses can't spend their TV time worrying about being normal.

For all the characters' feeble development, though, Scorpion doesn't drag. And Lin's action sequences at the end look great as well as ludicrous. There is zero chance that it’s a coincidence that Scorpion is closely following CBS’ nerd mega-hit The Big Bang Theory on Mondays, a show that loves it nerds and offers a more literal big bang.

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