Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. “A girl lives among us,” reads the opening text of Alfonso Cuarón and Mark Friedman’s new NBC drama, Believe. “She will change the world. If she survives.” Then comes the title: “Believe.” It’s an ad for itself, an imperative to give oneself over to the glowing TV. And what a deal! This little girl just has to survive, and then she’ll change the world. Someday, eventually, this show will pay off. As long as you just, you know…
Believe isn’t exactly like every other supernatural/coincidence/conspiracy clone. For starters, the girl isn’t a cheerleader. She’s a young foster child named Bo (Johnny Sequoyah) with certain unspecified superpowers that have attracted the attention of two mysterious groups of people. On one side, there’s Kyle McLachlan’s fat cat, Roman, and his hit-woman, Moore (Sienna Guillory). On the other, there’s Delroy Lindo, who presents himself as a priest named Winter, and Jamie Chung as his enforcer, Channing. During the premiere, Winter and Channing break a man named Tate (Jake McLaughlin) out of death row as he marches to the execution chamber. In exchange, Tate will have to protect Bo from the other side. Winter gives him a duffel bag of cash as enticement. When Tate asks for a gun, too, Winter just smiles. “We don’t do guns, Mr. Tate. We’re the good guys.”
Indeed, they don’t do guns, at least not in the first episode, and there are two reasons for that. The first is structural. Believe is built on archetypes, like how McLachlan stands in for evil greed and Lindo for a higher power. One striking sequence introduces two men by what they’re carrying, the guard’s keys and the priest’s rosary beads. That aforementioned bag of cash becomes a test, and the good guys pass by renouncing it. Guns, then, aren’t just killing machines but statement pieces. They accessorize bad guys. There isn’t a single real character on this jungle gym. There are, instead, roles—the magical child, the big bad, Morpheus.
If this were a story about real people, Tate might have asked somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 different questions about what’s going on, what’s with this girl, who his benefactors are, and the like. Instead, he just wants to know why he was chosen, his convict status branding him self-involved. Compounding this oversight is the fact that the only chance he gets to ask questions is interrupted by an attack from the bad guys that semi-permanently separates Tate and Bo from Winter and Channing. Even if Tate had thought to be human and ask more relevant questions, the writers had a way to prevent him from finding out the answers too soon. But he didn’t. It’s just another shell game: Shh. All in due time. Believe.
The other reason for the “good guys” carrying no guns is thematic, which is probably a highfalutin term for this particular program. Believe is thoroughly devoted to its feel-good ideals, like cascading compassion and non-violence. The former is dramatized with the story of Bo’s doctor (Rami Malek), who’s having a crisis of faith in himself. Bo senses his conflict and tries to inspire him by reminding him of the woman he will save. Only he hasn’t saved that woman. Yet. See, the good guys are healers and defenders. At the very least, they refuse to kill, which is awfully powerful, considering these kinds of shows all too often pile on guns to the point of meaninglessness. Like Cuarón’s Gravity, Believe suggests a higher power without naming it. The miracle is man’s perseverance. Well, that and Bo’s superpowers. Still, that’s more than many Lost clones can say. Believe at least has values.
In lesser hands, Believe could come off like a knockoff-Terrence Malick life insurance ad. But for all his spirituality, Cuarón’s an earthy director. In the opening scene, Cuarón’s dazzling, long-take panache keeps the audience in the moment for a car crash. His universe isn’t a museum piece or a valentine. It’s dim, filthy, crowded, smelly, and human. When Tate has a sudden outburst in his cell, the camera jerks with alarm, rough rather than stately, surprised rather than omniscient. When Tate arrives at the secret hideout, he’s in an orange jumpsuit with a black hood over his head, and Channing sprays him down with a fire hose. Everything else fades into the rumbling brown background so that moments of sentiment, spirituality, or schmaltz pop out.
There are other elevating touches, like the way Believe’s sense of humor arises from its ideals. Instead of wisecracks or insults, the funniest thing in Believe is a moment of confusion between Tate and Moore at the hospital, both pretending to be doctors and neither knowing how to convince the other. The elemental premise is a great leap forward for this kind of show, too. What’s going on in the broader sense remains a mystery, but the premiere is built on the clear and simple drama of one side chasing the other. And these aren’t all-powerful organizations, either. Neither side has more than three adult characters.
At the end of a closing montage, the title card pops up again. In large type, in all caps, the TV once again asks viewers to believe. Have faith and you will be rewarded. Join the movement. Hit “record.” Change the world. Just believe. That’s a lot to ask, even for Alfonso Cuarón.