ABC is doing something really right and very smart with talented writer, director and producer John Ridley through the deal they signed with him at ABC Studios. First, they gave him the greatest freedom to do exactly the series he wanted to. It became American Crime, one of the best, if not the best, network show on the air right now, low rated but impressive at every level. Against all odds, they even gave it a second season, which is even better than the first one by the way, a tour de force. And that is called keeping someone happy. Then, they challenged him with creating a detective drama, a genre ABC is not renowned for (at the notable exception of Castle, which is close to the end). But one he can be proud of. One that makes a difference. It is Presence. His next task? Developing a Marvel show. We still don’t have a clue about the character he’s writing for -some chatter say it’s Miss Marvel, ABC won’t confirm- and readers, that is called squeezing someone dry. They paid a shitload of money to get him and they won’t let it go to waste, obviously. And we’re all winners in this. Because like American Crime, Presence looks like something that requires all of our attention – and praise.
I know what you’re thinking, especially since I had the exact same thought when the project was announced: “yet another cop show *yawn*”. Well, no. There is just one cop in this show and it’s not our heroin. It’s Mike McKay, an officer from the LAPD, described as “a guy who knows where the gym is located‘. And that’s it! The other characters are not cops. This isn’t about catching bad guys. In fact, the people who hire Presence for an investigation are the bad guys. Because even bad guys need help, right? And she has no problem helping them, as long as money is involved. Presence is not your typical detective. First, she’s not licensed. Which makes a real difference. Second, she’s a bad ass. She fights like no other. She drives like crazy. She’s not afraid of anything anymore, or so it seems. She knows what is war, what is death, what is suffering. She lost family and friends. She’s fierce, she’s smart, she’s funny, she’s sexy, she knows how to stay classy in any circumstances. And she has a complicated past that will be interesting to explore in due time. She was a bit of a thug. She was this close to go prison. To be honest, Presence Foster makes me think of Olivia Pope from Scandal, if Olivia Pope had been raised on the streets and then had military training. She certainly fits with ABC’s wide range of heroins, from Meredith Grey (Grey’s Anatomy) to Alex Parrish (Quantico). She also drinks wine alone at night. There is no other way but to love her at first sight.
So yes, there’s an investigation and there will be one in every episode. Deal with it! But the whole fun -‘cos this pilot is really fun- lays on the way she investigates, the way she moves, the way she kicks ass and irritates and charms everyone, both at the same time. But she’s not the only reason why Presence is a cool show. The characters who surround her are all pretty convincing too. There’s Tre, her gay brother from another mother she only met 4 months ago and with whom she tries to have a real relationship based on trust. Which is not easy for him, trusting her. Their dynamic is engaging. Then there’s Manny, an ex-con who tries to be good and keeps Presence on the right path. Here again, that’s not an easy thing to do. You also have Jas, a near-Eastern woman that has history with Presence, and not a good one. Last but not least: Duchess Avedon. Yes, this is her name. She’s a very rich woman who lives in a big mansion and she happens to be Presence’s ex-mother in law. She does make an impression. Oh and let’s not forget Presence’s car. A black Marauder. She’s part of her story. A character in itself. As his her apartment. And music. Music is so important in the pilot. The plan is to hear some Sade, some Nina Simone… Good vibes. Classy stuff.
What I love about this script is how much John Ridley knows what he’s doing and what he wants. He has a real vision. He’s an author. He may be on a mission -finding a successor for Castle– but he’s not just here for the paycheck. It feels like he contemplated what’s been done before in the detective genre on TV to find what new he could bring to the table. And the answer is diversity (most of the characters are not white), some sort of feminism (think about it: most of cop shows are led by a male character or a duet of a man and a woman but not by a woman alone), a mix of a glamourous Los Angeles we’re used to see and another one, more dangerous and dirty, that networks tend to forget it even exists. And that’s exactly what Presence is: a stylish mix between elements from classical detective dramas and more serious cable shows like The Shield. Now that I think about it, it’s a bit like Jennifer Lopez’ Shades of Blue on NBC, but more sophisticated, sharper and definitely funnier
Presence is a cable show ingeniously disguised as a network show. And that’s how you try to fill the gap between those two types of television. It’s riskier than doing yet another reimagining of MacGyver or Nancy Drew, and we can only hope it pays off. It’s exactly the show FOX would have dreamed of to pair with Empire. They share some DNA. Instead, they got Rosewood. Which is the exact opposite of Presence. I’m not sure it can be billed as “the new Castle” for ABC but it has definitely what it takes to make an impression.