Midseason Recap: Scorpion

Hey, let’s talk about TV shows! I haven’t followed any TV shows in a long time but this season I’m watching four, yes four of them. Since it’s the time of year where most shows are on break for the winter (at least while I’m writing this, I think most of these posts will go up after the actual shows start airing again) I thought I’d take a little time to look at the shows I’m watching from a writing perspective. Let’s start with the show that I feel is currently doing the best, writingwise, of those I’m following. That show is Scorpion, which I’ve already talked about some here.

If you want a quick rehash of what the show is about and haven’t watched it, my linked recommendation serves as a good primer and I’m going to skip rehashing the premise of the show but I will talk a bit about format. Scorpion is an episodic show that deals a lot with the mechanics of hi-tech crime, at least in theory, and tries to wrap up each storyline within the course of a show. There are some exceptions, Walter trying to find a cure for his sister and Ralph’s dad coming back into his life for example, but for the most part each episode is a stand alone adventure. This is both a strength and weakness of the show but, as it’s been written so far, I feel like it’s more of a strength.

The fact that there’s no overarching plot in this first season means I’m going to skip an analysis of that so far and just talk about the characters, relationships and episodes I feel were best and worst in this series.

Favorite Character: Cabe Gallo

While Paige is our audience surrogate, the normal person in the herd of geniuses, Cabe is the heroic normal and he’s perfect in the roll. He’s competent, knowledgeable in his field and surprisingly tough for a grumpy old man. Although if Up and Gravity Falls have taught me anything it’s not to underestimate grumpy old men.

What makes Cabe so well written is how well he handles his team. He’s a stern leader when he has to be, and you never get the impression that he’s overly familiar or affectionate. But there are enough glimpses of the compassionate and caring person who values his job as a way to help people to ensure that we never see Cabe as just a suit or a handler. He’s a wise man and mentor of the group and he fills the roll to a T.

Least Favorite Character: Sylvester Dodd 

Now don’t get me wrong, I like Sylvester a lot. He’s funny and sweet and his neurosis remind me a lot of famous fictional detective Adrian Monk. And that’s my biggest problem. Other than age and mathematical acumen, Sylvester doesn’t feel a whole lot different from Monk in the way he’s presented most of the time. Sure, Sylvester smiles more but that’s about it.

Mostly, I feel that Sylvester lacks development. Hopefully as we learn more about his background and see him in new situations he’ll grow and become more interesting but right now he feels a little flat against all the other, louder characters in the group.

Favorite Character Dynamic: Happy/Toby

These two. Happy could just come off as a stereotypical abrasive, angry woman. Toby could just come off as another snarky man with a huge ego. The two together could just feel like clashing personalities in a boring, predictable relationship.

And okay, on occasion they do.

But for the most part the two complement each other well and they’re written with a light touch, not overused, and we see their good sides very often as well. It makes them fun to watch and gives an alternative to the much more vanilla relationship between Paige and Walter.

Least Favorite Character Dynamic: Walter/Drew 

I’m not sure where the relationship between Walter and Ralph’s dad is going, what Walter thinks of it or if we’re supposed to find it touching or disappointing or what. Walter seems just as conflicted about it so that may be intentional but I think it’s cluttering up the show when I’d much rather see the Scorpion team being fleshed out more in their own right. Just not sure this is adding anything to the show right now.

Favorite Episode:  Rogue Element (S01E09) 

This episode introduces us to Cabe’s ex-wife, fills in much of his backstory and lets us see how Cabe’s leadership of the team now is just an extension of who he’s always been. I really like the dynamic we see between Cabe and Rebecca, his ex, and I love the sense of longstanding partnership between the two. Rebecca is obviously a toughminded woman but still charming and thoughtful. It’s easy to see how she and Cabe would have wound up a couple and how Cabe’s regrets over their falling apart would mark him.

I also enjoy the clear signs that Cabe and Rebecca actually thought about what their relationship would mean for each of them as a result of Cabe’s career, avoiding what I like to call the Gwen Stacey Fallacy, but more on that another time.

Least Favorite Episode: Plutonium is Forever (S01E04) 

Did not care for the scenario, antagonist or general direction of this episode. While Scorpion has a theme of great intelligence not necessarily being a blessing, the way this episode tries to portray Walter as a personality waiting to collapse under it’s own genius just doesn’t ring true. Many of the plot points are predictable and the resolution lacks tension. Cabe walking out of the ocean is a really funny scene, though.

Other Stuff

Okay, so that’s the highlights and lowlights of the season’s writing for me, so far. Some other things I like about the show include it’s casting – only Elyes Gabel (Walter) and Katharine McPhee (Paige) fall into the typical Hollywood “beautiful people” range. The rest of the cast, while not unattractive by any means, feel much more like real people and not the over-stylized figures that you typically find in a TV show. Props for that.

Also, the heist-esque elements in many of the episodes are very entertaining, giving what could be a slow-feeling premise (dealing with cybercrime and security) a more lively feel.

On the other hand, the acting is not always all it could be. Robert Patrick (Cabe) and Eddie Kaye Thomas (Toby) do the best most consistently, in my opinion, and this is probably a big part of why I like their characters as much as I do. The other actors aren’t bad, but they don’t feel particularly inspired either. Hopefully as the cast gels more we’ll start to see more engrossing performances from them as well.

Scorpion has had a good first season so far and it promises to be interesting and fun come the new year as well so if you’re not watching it yet give it a shot. It’s good stuff.

Cool Things: Scorpion

It’s not often that I talk about TV shows on this blog, much less ones that are still in the airing. Scorpion only has a couple episodes under it’s belt so far and that makes talking about it meaningfully even more difficult. I still think it’s still worth your consideration.

The premise is that the Federal Government is building a special unit to deal with unique, highly sophisticated technological crimes. So far, so good. There’s been a lot of programs with that premise in the past, we live in an age of evolving information technology with an ever-greater impact on our lives and people are still grappling with the implications that has on their safety and security.

The thing about Scorpion is that it’s as much a comedy as it is a thriller. You see, four of the five main characters are certifiable geniuses with attendant impediments to proper social functioning. From the moment we see Walter O’Brien breaking up with his girlfriend and, in the process presenting her with a flowchart that will help her work through the emotions that she’ll be dealing with, we know that the people we’re about to meet are not normal.

Scorpion is a goofy mashup of 24 and The Big Bang Theory, chalk full of looming disasters, technobabble and humorous social awkwardness. But where 24 is all about the suspense and The Big Bang Theory celebrates geekiness with the nudge-nudge-wink-wink glee of an insider, Scorpion is more about how the brilliance of some minds leaves them isolated.

The heart and soul of Scorpion is less Walter and his quartet of geniuses. It’s not even Paige, their girl Friday, who is the social buffer they need to interact well with “normal” society. At least as far as I’ve seen, as of this writing, the heart of the show is Ralph, Paige’s son.

Walter first meets Ralph at the diner just after he breaks up with his girlfriend. Ralph has been suspended from school – and not for the first time from the sound of things – and has gone with his single mother to work. Walter sees him pushing objects around on the diner’s counter in a seemingly random fashion and he watches for a moment. Then he steps over and starts pushing salt shakers and creamer packets himself. After a few seconds Paige interrupts and Walter leaves, but not before telling her she needs to help her son. Walter could see what she missed.

Ralph was playing chess.

Paige thinks her son is slower than normal kids, handicapped in some way. On their next meeting, Walter is forced to tell her, “I’m sorry, but you’re son’s a genius.”

In our society we tend to think of people who are better than us at something as privileged and special. Scorpion is a TV show about how they’re also awkward and difficult. That doesn’t mean we can’t connect with them, but it’s going to take a lot of effort. Walter and his team are a larger than life portrait of why that’s worthwhile – thanks to a Homeland Security agent that realizes their potential they’re out to save the US one problem at a time.

But Ralph embodies Scorpion’s real message. Paige tells Walter her nail polish is streaky because Ralph likes to paint and he puts it on every morning. “He doesn’t like to paint,” Walter tells her. “He wants to hold your hand, but doesn’t know how to process physical contact.”

Even “mentally enabled” people like Ralph and Walter face a host of challenges just making it through the day. They need love, support and understanding just as much as the next person. Unfortunately, in today’s society there’s a tendency to say, “Oh, they’re smart, they can handle it” and leaving it at that. Scorpion makes a convincing case for the smart people we know very much needing the understanding and help of people who’s strengths lie in other areas.

Scorpion is still a new show, the cast isn’t entirely comfortable in their roles yet and there’s no telling if the writing will continue to be as strong and effectively character driven as the first couple of episodes, which are all I’ve seen as of this writing. But it promises to deal with a rarely addressed topic in an insightful, meaningful and entertaining way. And that makes it more than worthy of your attention.