CBS is trying to brand Scorpion as a “fun-cedural,” which makes a sort of sense: Scorpion is about as fun and relaxed as the word “fun-cedural.” It’s based on a real-life genius, Walter O’Brien, a hacker with the code name Scorpion who wound up putting his skills to use by allegedly preventing nuclear meltdowns and developing algorithms to track motion on all security cameras within a few miles of the Boston Marathon bombing. O’Brien has one of the five highest IQs ever recorded; accordingly, his fictional counterpart is always bringing up IQ. With the hum of intellects at the center of the show, it’s understandable that everything is easily sorted into one of two boxes: smart or dumb, IQ or EQ, good or bad. To Scorpion, intellect is for smaller minds.
In that light, there are exactly two good scenes in the pilot—but first, some setup. After a desaturated prologue showing how armed forces descend upon the little boy who hacked into NASA, a grown-up Walter (Elyes Gabel) runs a rinky-dink problem-solving outfit with three other geniuses: a human calculator, a mechanical whiz, and a super shrink. Then Agent Gallo (Robert Patrick), the Fed who drafted Walter into some troubled backstory after the NASA incident, shows up at their door with an emergency: The programming at Los Angeles-area airports is corrupted and traffic controllers can’t communicate with the planes in the air. The solution involves getting on a cell phone with a passenger, but don’t think too hard about the implications.
There’s nothing original for miles around Scorpion’s pilot. There’s an antisocial genius, a team of misfits, a fatal mistake in the past. Katharine McPhee shows up as a waitress named Paige—the social genius member of their national makeover outfit, it turns out—with a secretly brilliant moppet in tow who’s lost in his own world. Solving the problem of the planes miraculously involves hacking, complex math, mechanics, and psychology, lest any of the geniuses prove to be dead weight. There’s a moment where all seems lost—and then a pep talk. The problems are solved without guns for a change, although time will tell whether that’s a happy accident or a mission statement. The visuals are bright and clean, which counts for a lot in the age of choppy cyber-crime action and gritty seriousness. But the plot is nothing but tropes. And the closest an actor gets to looking like he has an inner life is when the kid stares into space.
In short, Scorpion is a CBS procedural. Procedurals aren’t made to be original. They’re made to fill a formula. Certainly there should be television for those looking for a fun-cedural, like White Collar or Bat Masterson. The supposed ideal viewer for this type of TV is a worker who gets home, kicks back, and just wants to relax with some entertainment—a cliché that reduces its hero as surely as Scorpion does. In fact, it sounds like nothing more than an anecdote in a politician’s speech put to work promoting someone’s simplistic vision of America, similar to when Gallo comes right out and tells our heroes that the only meaningful work they’ll do is serve their country. Scorpion feels like a world cut down to types. Look no further than the premise: It’s partly a dramatization of the generation gap, all of culture distilled to these free-spirited tech-savvy millennials and their straitlaced boomer handler.
While the plane drama unfolds, Walter and Paige butt heads over what to do with her son. The kid’s lonely, but he connects with Walter; Walter knows what to do for the kid because he’s been there. The mom grasps her neck and smiles watching the two, seeing how Walter might someday make a good father to complete the family unit. Everyone and everything is whittled down to convention. It’s not just shallow—it’s condescending. At one point Walter and Gallo consider letting two planes go to save the others, and then he takes the moment to explain that this is called “the greater good theory,” and then he explains what that means. It would blow his mind to know that poorly educated types watch The Wire.
The condescension comes to a screeching halt with the first good scene: Walter glances at Paige and suddenly has her life figured out, in that irritating way all procedural heroes do. He’s noticed her nail polish, her shoes, things like that, and has surmised everything short of her bra size. And then she tells him he’s wrong, and she explains in detail exactly how. It’s a welcome satire of the observational genius and a surprising show of humility, as Scorpion deigns to challenge its hero and reinforces why Penny is so essential to The Big Bang Theory. The second great scene is the action climax. It’s a ridiculous, fast-paced, high-stakes-but-not-really thrill. Both scenes ever so slightly deepen this paper-thin surface.
But that’s not necessarily cause for hope. The first scene’s inspiring because it should be easy to replicate, but the second stands out because it isn’t.