Broken (ABC) pilot preview: Half-baked, half-bold, half-good

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Also known as “Please don’t go“. Created and executive produced by Meaghan Oppenheimer (We Are Your Friends). Directed by Jeremy Podeswa (Six Feet Under, The Tudors, Game Of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire). Also executive produced by Reese Witherspoon (Gone Girl, Wild, Hot Pursuit), Casey HaverBruna Papandrea (Harvey Milk, Wild, Gone Girl, Warm Bodies). For ABC, ABC Studios & Pacific Standard. 62 pages.

Description: The personal and professional life of Gemma Avon, a ruthless divorce attorney in Dallas. Raised in the trailer parks of Texas, she has left behind a life of struggle amid squalor, working her way into a corner office and mansion in Dallas’s most prestigious neighborhood. But beneath her facade of togetherness, she’s plagued by self-destructive tendencies and long hidden family secrets that begin to unravel her life when her sister Jules comes back into her life…

With Anna Paquin (True Blood, Roots, X-Men, The Piano), Blair Underwood (Agents of SHIELD, The Event, LAX, Sex & The City), T.R. Knight (Grey’s Anatomy, The Good Wife, 11.22.63), Charity Wakefield (The Player), Penelope Ann Miller (American Crime, Mistresses, Kindergarten Cop), Enrique Murciano (Bloodline, Power, Without a Trace), Thad Luckinbill (Nikita, The Young and the Restless)…

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This year, ABC execs are into procedural shows while Castle is coming to an end. At least that’s what have been said in the news. But their pilot slate doesn’t reflect upon it yet. Next year, maybe. Not that it is a good idea anyway… After Conviction, which is the closest they have to a straight procedural (read the preview), and John Ridley’s heavy-serialized detective show Presence (read the preview), here comes Broken, previously known as Please Don’t Go (which was a way better title I think), starring Anna Paquin. But first, it’s not a police procedural. In fact, police is not involved in this, at all. And the procedural element is tiny. It’s mostly a legal drama dealing with one of the most public and expensive divorce cases in the state of Texas where billions of dollars are at stake. We will follow its twists and turns throughout the season, with probably a few minor cases added to the mix along the way. As I see things, it’s a good compromise, more in ABC’s wheeelhouse, but it also makes it a weaker contestant for a series pick-up. This, plus the fact that it could have been better.

It all starts with a flashback of Gemma’s childhood when she was a scared eleven-year-old girl taking charge of her fragile 3-year-old sister the day their mother hustled them out of the house, because of a man who may or may not have been their father. Stepfather? And may or may not have been dangerous. We’re not given any answers to those questions, yet. In fact, most of our questions in this pilot are left unanswered overall. It’s a good strategy so we come back to the show. But for that, we need to care. And I’m afraid we don’t. Too many secrets? In present day, Gemma is a successful lawyer but not that good a person. She’s tough as nails. She has a big mouth. She can be chilly and a real bitch. She knows how to hurt people. Her clients love her for that. She never gives up. She’s restless. But it has a price: other people hate her. She don’t have any friends but many enemies. Even in the firm she works for. Her biggest nemesis is Mark (T.R. Knight), a very competitive colleague. One of them is meant to become a partner soon. Their rivarly is an exciting perspective with sharp dialogues. Classical but efficient.

And then, we learn something that changes everything and makes Gemma a real ABC heroine in the vein of Olivia Pope & Annalise Keating. And the show a bit more dramatic. No, she doesn’t kill anybody. She sleeps with her boss, James (Blair Underwood) even though she’s happily married to a nice rich guy. Too nice probably. She asks him to join her in the middle of the night and they fuck like animals in his car. He asks her to tell him “I want you to fuck me“. Which she does. Needless to say, ABC won’t let that happen. I mean, it’s written “he fucks her, hard, his hand wrapped tight around her neck.” We won’t see that exactly. In fact, the words “fuck” or “motherfucker” come back like 10 times throughout the script. I guess it was written for cable, before they realized the content was not cable-worthy. But the language is, on paper. Sorry, Anna. You’re not on HBO anymore. I think the whole problem of this script resides in the fact that it’s not written as a network show. It takes too much time establishing the story, the characters. It’s okay on cable. It’s not on a network. You need to make sacrifices so the viewers get hooked quickly before they’re tempted to change the channel. It’s sad, but that’s how it works now. Broken might be too old school for its time.

The other problem is that it’s too reasonable, sane. The sister character should have been crazier, more disruptive. Maybe we’ll discover later that she’s a real psycho but for now she’s just a lost girl who’s making the same mistakes her mother did, which means falling in love with the wrong guys and going full drama queen when it gets complicated. The sisters’ relationship is interesting though. Plus, we don’t have much of them on television right now. And since we’re talking about what’s good in this pilot script, let’s talk about the legal part! This one is perfectly executed and exciting. The big case is emotional and realistic. It doesn’t seem to be very original –can any divorce case be?– but it’s not what we’re asking for. We just want to feel something for those people and see every aspect of their failed marriage. Who’s to blame? What about their kid? It seems promising. The scenes where Gemma does her magic are incredibly enjoyable, especially for legal drama suckers like me. And again, the dialogues are really delicious.

Broken actually is a bit broken. It wants to be both network-y and cable-y, both broad and edgy, but the writer had to choose which way to go. So we’re in the middle of something that is half-baked, half-bold, half-good. If you add the fact that Anna Paquin is not the kind of actress that is widely appreciated –but at least this role is very different from True Blood‘s Sookie– what are the odds of this project getting picked-up to series? I’m not optimistic but I wouldn’t mind watching it if it was on… 

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