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Intelligence: Series Premiere

By Becky Kifer · January 10, 2014

Intelligence opens in the blistery pine forests of the Vancouver Himalayas—the border region began India and Pakistan where television pilots are filmed.(It offers better tax breaks than the Los Angeles Hindu Kush.)

Super agent Gabriel Vaughn (Josh Holloway)—who at this point we only recognize as short-haired Sawyer from Lost—stops his wilderness trek and gazes longingly at a gigantic Endor-ish satellite in the distance. After some sort of hallucination about a bombing in Mumbai a few years prior (by “hallucination” I mean a visual/audio illusion caused by a microchip in his head that hijacked information from the satellite and extrapolated those facts into brain fanfiction) he’s unceremoniously captured by Indian border guards.

He escapes a short while later, ending a pre-credits teaser that’s showcased two things: Gabriel has cerebral hacker powers and a disavowed CIA agent wife who went rogue and “died” in the Mumbai incident. There’s also a chase sequence in the forest that establishes Gabriel as a cybernetic badass in fingerless gloves. So fearless, in fact, he jumps up and over the top of an approaching Hummer instead of running going around it—because life is an adventure and wearing neck braces is fun.

This VR trooper works for U.S. Cyber Command, a clandestine agency that spent boatloads of money developing a microchip that, when implanted into the human brain, allows the user to hack satellites, render virtual crime scenes, and (almost certainly) watch a lot of internet porn. Gabriel is special because he has a unique gene needed for the chip’s implantation. It’s really lucky they were able to find a highly trained Delta Force operative with such a rare physiology and not, say, some nerdy technician down at the local Buy More.

Following the success of Person of Interest, CBS is again delicately dipping a pinky toe into the sci-fi shallow end. Intelligence isn’t weird enough to scare away grandma—but it’s not going to draw in a younger and zealously geeky fan base. A sad marketing conundrum, though I have to imagine the whole “the NSA knows all the things!” provided some free advertising. (Speaking of ads for the show: Google “Vitruvian man Holloway” and experience a new kind of spindly-limbed nightmare.)

Snobbery toward CBS’s senescent demographics might be all le rage, but you have to give them credit. They take fewer risks, sure, but generally speaking tend to avoid outright hot messes. (Let us not speak of Viva Laughlin.) Innocuous and ritualistic, sure, but there’s a reason CSI is still on the air—an astounding fact that I didn’t actually know until about five minutes before I typed the above sentence.

Intelligence’s pilot provides enough pseudoscience and mumbo-jumbo technophile speak to push it over the speed bump of doubt and onto the backroads of sure-why-not believability. How does the technology actually connect to his biology? Why does the microchip glow colorfully like a child’s light up sneaker? How does Gabriel know one of his male captors makes a female co-worker uncomfortable? Did he hack her Xanga?

Back at the Cyber Command, Secret Service agent Riley Neal (Meghan Ory) arrives at the complex to receive an unexpected job offer. Versed on the microchip (aka Project Clockwork) by head of operations Lillian Strand (Marg Helgenberger), Riley is told she’s been vetted as the best candidate to protect Gabriel, their prized billion-dollar man. As head babysitter, she’d namely be responsible for tempering his recklessness and keeping him from searching for his traitorous spouse.

For Riley, there’s very little overt freaking out over the revelation of this program. War games with your brain is a long, long way from artificial limbs and Google Glass, but she’s about as calm as a sedated cucumber when told about the technology. Ory, who never got nearly enough screen time on Once Upon A Time, is cool confidence next to Holloway’s bolder, but still sort of dour, Gabriel. Given that Gabriel seems to be stuck on his wife for the time being, it’ll give the two partners time to bond without any overpowering sexual tension. As their last scene together showcases, they just need to spend their time fighting cyber crime and letting the audience decide who looks prettier in Aviators.  

Helgenberger’s Strand, an impersonal but refreshingly unbitchy lady leader, regrettably spouts all the worst lines of dialogue. (“The clock always ticks on the victim. This time it ticks on us too.”) She does get to have a smoothly awesome—close-to Bechdel Test acing—covert meeting with a female Chinese government operative, so she can have a pass this episode.

The rest of the hour involves espionage and the kidnapping of one of Project Clockwork’s retired scientists, Dr. Cassidy (John Billingsley). At one point the villain, a rogue Chinese spy named Jin Cong (Will Yun Lee), taunts Cassidy by calling Gabriel the doctor’s “precious Pinocchio.” A creepy backhanded compliment on several levels. (Inestimable Icarus? Fetching Frankenstein’s monster?) He’s not much of a serious villain, especially when he’s spouting platitudes about the superiority of Chinese weaponry. The guns might be great, but your dumb sniper across the lake is flashing something metallic and unintentionally drawing everyone’s attention. Good job.

Gee-wiz tech and virtual worlds built on imagination and mechanical gumption are great, but what Intelligence needs the most is a sense of humor. I was so desperate for sarcasm that every time Holloway’s Gabriel called a villain a name I automatically assumed he was making up some adorably racist Sawyer-esque moniker. But no; that Asian gangster’s name really is Huang Fu.

With a January premiere, ratings could shift anywhere once the show moves to its regular Monday night slot. Although there’s not an abundance of intelligent design just yet, if the show can establish a through-line that cohabitates well with the procedural nature of its network, Intelligence might be able to avoid the mid-season blue screen of death.