Jim Sturgess, Michael Gladis/AMC
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It’s not uncommon for a pilot episode to try to do too much, to the point where it never manages to establish exactly what kind of show it’s trying to launch. If there’s a ton of backstory to be delivered, as there is in “Pilot Light,” the result can be an inelegant mishmash of expository dialogue and under-motivated action designed to hold our attention while we’re spoon-fed the necessary information. That’s definitely the case with this first episode of Feed The Beast, which is (to use a metaphor that would resonate with its lead characters) an undercooked meal prepared with some very familiar ingredients.

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David Schwimmer, fresh off the acting triumph that was his Robert Kardashian in The People Vs. O.J. Simpson, stars as Tommy Moran, a grieving widower and former sommelier now working as a wine rep while raising his 10-year-old son TJ alone. Jim Sturgess is Dion Patras, Tommy’s best friend and a brilliant chef, although as the pilot opens, he’s doing all his cooking for the guards at Whitestone County Jail. Right from the jump it’s clear this is another show about Difficult Men from the network that brought you Walter White and Don Draper. On the surface, it appears Tommy is the more together of the two, as he actually has responsibilities of work and childcare he’s able to meet, but as the episode progresses it becomes clear that his emotional damage cuts deeper.

Our introduction to Dion suffers from the sort of front-loading of “edgy” content typical of a pilot too eager to establish its prestige-drama bona fides. Within a few minutes, we’ve seen Dion snort cocaine hidden in a lighter from his personal effects, have sex with his attorney in a jailhouse holding room, and evade mobsters waiting for him upon release by using magical escape artist powers. (I assume that’s how he got from the front steps to the garbage truck and into the storm drain that appeared too small for his head to squeeze through.) The sex scene is a particularly gratuitous bit of shock value, especially when it’s followed up by Dion dropping by the lawyer’s apartment only to be informed that she’s too professional to do that sort of thing again. So Dion is really so irresistible, she nearly throws her career away for a quickie? Puh-leeze.

Because this is a pilot that has everything but the kitchen sink (I’m trying to go easy on the restaurant metaphors, really I am), there is also a crime subplot. Mad Men vet Michael Gladis is gangster Patrick Woichik, known as the Tooth Fairy for his habit of yanking molars from the mouths of those who displease him. (First of all, the “Tooth Fairy” is taken. It belongs to the Hannibal-verse. Second, no self-respecting gangster is going to call himself that or let other people do so. How about the Dentist? Now there’s a fearsome moniker.) Dion ran afoul of Woichik by burning down the restaurant he owned, and now the only way he can pay off his debt is to talk Tommy into helping him open the restaurant of their dreams together.

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Tommy’s not so into the idea, but it takes a while to get the full story behind his grief. He, his wife Rie, and Dion all worked together at the same restaurant (the one Dion burned down) while planning to open their own high-end Greek eatery. Rie was killed in a hit-and-run and died right in front of TJ’s eyes, and the boy hasn’t spoken since. Tommy and TJ are still living in the sprawling but dilapidated Bronx warehouse space intended to house the dream restaurant, Thirio, and when Tommy isn’t selling wine, he’s swilling it. While Dion has been in jail, Tommy’s been in a prison of his own making.

For all its faults, “Pilot Light” is watchable enough and offers up some reason to believe Feed The Beast will find its footing. Schwimmer proves his People Vs. O.J. Simpson turn was no fluke, delivering a deeply felt performance with occasional comic notes. Sturgess is broader, but so is the world he inhabits; it will be a challenge for the show to blend the initially cartoonish mob plot more smoothly with the relatively down-to-earth, melancholy-tinged restaurant story. Writer Clyde Phillips (who developed the show, based on the Danish series Bankerot) and director Steve Shill seem more at home in the kitchen, whether Tommy is delivering an expertly detailed server spiel or Dion is providing the cooking-show beauty shots: vegetables being chopped, meat being cleaved, pans sizzling with oil and spices. Peel away the flashy gimmicks of the pilot, and there just might be some substance underneath.

Stray observations

  • Welcome to the somewhat belated launch of our weekly Feed The Beast coverage! Starting with episode two, reviews will post following the show’s Tuesday airing on AMC.
  • The female characters on this show (to the extent they exist at all) need some work. Lorenza Izzo’s Pilar, introduced here meeting Tommy at a grief group meeting, is a series regular, so with any luck she’ll be fleshed out in the coming weeks.
  • John Doman (as Tommy’s father) is on hand just long enough to deliver an attention-getting racist rant about the changing neighborhood. Edgy!

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