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Bionic Woman: "Pilot"

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(Premieres tonight on NBC, 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT) Those who would automatically sneer at the idea of updating a kitschy Six Million Dollar Man spin-off on principle alone are probably the same folks who refuse to believe that a rehash of Battlestar Galactica could possibly be any good. As we've seen with BSG, even the campiest of 1970s series can be turned into something worthwhile as long as you flip it over, scoop out the innards, and start all over again. At this point I wouldn't be surprised if they turned Welcome Back Kotter into a galvanizing exposé on the effects of "No Child Left Behind" on the public school system. To borrow a phrase from Bionic Woman's Lee Majors-starring grandfather, "We can rebuild it. We have the technology." This slick update of the Lindsay Wagner vehicle has lots of things going for it: For one, it's executive produced by David Eick, one of the minds behind Battlestar Galactica. It's also got that series' Katee Sackhoff–so compelling as the tough female pilot Starbuck–in a major guest-starring role, playing "original" bionic woman Sarah Corvis, and even Chief Tyrol (Aaron Douglas) pops up for an unfortunately brief cameo. Being on the same network as Heroes helps too; that show's critical and commercial success gives Bionic Woman the benefit of the doubt that it can take a silly, high-concept premise–ordinary people reluctantly given extraordinary powers–and make compassionate characters worth caring about. It's also got Michelle Ryan, a British actress not well known on these shores but who gives Jaime Sommers just the right mix of steely resolve and vulnerability–that's critic-speak for she kicks ass but also secretly just wants to be held, a personality combination that's key to making the fanboy population fall in love with you. Unfortunately, what it doesn't have going for it is a clear plan of action. While Bionic Woman's desire to be taken as seriously as BSG is evident from the first frame–what with the washed-out green-and-black colors, shaky handheld camera work (which, like BSG, lends the show a gritty kineticism), and grim undercurrents–the pilot, at least, does little to differentiate it from any of the many other, lesser shows clogging up the SCI FI Channel. Most of this can be attributed to the atrocious writing, which is a bafflingly rushed collection of stagy, telling-not-showing expository dialogue. If you plan to watch the show, all I can say is don't miss the first five minutes: Every character's backstory is dutifully plowed through like so much bothersome homework. That results in a lot of exchanges like the following between Jaime and her professor boyfriend, Will (Chris Bowers):

Jaime: I'm a bartender and a dropout. You're a teacher. Will: And a surgeon!

Seconds later we learn that Will has severe daddy issues, and likes Jaime precisely because she's "the one thing my father didn't choose for me"–and all this after being told that Jaime has father problems of her own, and is now forced to take care of her sister Becca (Lucy Hale) after he dropped her off on his doorstep, apparently to pursue his twin interests in activism and alcoholism ("You want to find Dad?" Jaime asks Becca in a moment of pique. "Here's a hint: Look for a big protest rally and then find the nearest bar!"). We also learn that: Becca is some kind of hacker whiz; Will wants to marry Jaime, despite only knowing her for five months; and Jaime is pregnant. Also, Will wants to name it "Coltrane" if it's a boy. (Nice stab at conveying depth there.) Once all of the boring old characterization is laid out in record time, Bionic Woman is free to get to the juicy bits, beginning with the admittedly impressive car wreck that nearly kills Jaime. Fortunately for her, Will is not just a teacher (and a surgeon!), he's also a member of a covert military operation experimenting with "anthrocites," a nifty bit of nanotechnology that sets to work repairing Jaime's arm, legs, ear, and eye by bonding with her blood cells. Unfortunately for Jaime, getting a $50 million dollar mechanical makeover also officially makes her the property of the operation's gruff leader Miguel Ferrer (always nice to see him) and his council of secret agents populated by background characters left over from The Matrix. Naturally, Jaime freaks out, and–after trading quips with a psychologist–she escapes. There's also a promising subplot involving Will's father–a sinister sort who's been stuffed away in an underground maximum-security prison–and a mysterious Eastern European guy, as well as Sackhoff's spurned sociopath who seems intent on destroying Jaime (or maybe making out with her, depending on the scene). All of this has the potential to be compelling, and visually there's little to complain about. So what's the problem? Well for starters, way too much is resolved in the first episode. Yes, Jaime freaks out initially, but her shock is only momentary. She goes from crying, "Why did you do this to me?!" to accepting her fate to relishing her new superpowers in a matter of minutes, and by show's end, she's already having a climactic rooftop showdown in the rain with Sackhoff and giving Ferrer hardboiled cliché lines like, "If we do this–whatever this is–we do it on my terms." Part of what made Heroes so engaging is that it showed normal people grappling with powers they never asked for, and feeling both isolated and afraid of the radical change that has–as Sackhoff blithely points out–made them a "freak." Here Jaime suffers for what appears to be less than 24 hours, then she's right back at work, pouring drinks and making chipper small talk. Even the revelation that her boyfriend has a secret double life that involves turning her into a pre-programmed soldier isn't enough to spoil the mood of the gratuitous sex scene that follows. Another issue here is believability–which may sound odd considering the outlandish premise, but it's something that countless post-Buffy fantasy shows have managed to pull off. Battlestar Galactica works precisely because–despite its science-fiction trappings–it always seems as though those are real people up there piloting spaceships and grappling with Cylons. Here characters are asked to toss off illogical, improbable lines like this one from steely, pony-tailed agent Jae Kim (Will Yun Lee): "I once had a wolf. A wolf only makes a good pet when he thinks he's a dog." This sort of head-slapping, hollow, message-in-a-bottle dialogue is everywhere, ruining everything it touches. Take the scene where Jaime is testing out her new running powers and speeds by a little girl who tries to point her out to her mother–a stock businesswoman caricature babbling into a Bluetooth headset about faxes and meetings–prompting her to admonish her daughter about telling lies. "I just thought it was cool that a girl could do that, that's all," the girl says with a smug grin. Um…Get it? It's possible that it's too soon to pass judgment on Bionic Woman, but the pilot doesn't bode especially well. I get the feeling that if the writers (or maybe it's the network?) had a little bit more faith in their viewers' attention spans, we would have seen the events of the first episode split up over, say, four or five at least, making Jaime's journey from victim to badass just a smidge more believable. The fact that Jaime is already resigned to–make that gamely volunteering for–her fate and so swaggeringly cocky about her powers leaves her little room to grow, and isn't that what our fancy modern-day dramas are supposed to be all about? In fact, it seems to promise week after week of pure action without a whole lot of dramatic consequences, and that's just the kind of thing they did in the '70s. Someone over there needs to recognize that giving the show a post-millennial tune-up means more than just updating the haircuts–and fast. Grade: C- Stray observations: — Katee Sackhoff looks pretty as a girl. — Jaime's little sister loves the New York Dolls? Really? — If you found out your boyfriend–whom you've only known for five months–was some kind of secret military scientist churning out super-soldiers, and that he's implanted microchips in your cerebral cortex that turned you into both a fighting machine and the property of the government, would your very next reaction be to hop in bed with him? — The "bionic eye" effects are way too reminiscent of Robocop. Couldn't we get something a little more modern? — Miguel Ferrer deserves better. — The fact that this show's universe is populated by generic street toughs in skull T-shirts who walk back alleys and threaten people with switchblades within seconds of meeting them pretty much tells you everything you need to know.

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