I get that everything old is new again on TV these days, but I’m still a little shocked to come across a big-ticket series called Intelligence, no less, that feels like a throwback to the 1970s or ‘80s. And not in a good way.
This new CBS drama, which premieres tonight in the coveted time period following NCIS, stars Josh Holloway (Sawyer from Lost) as Gabriel Vaughn, a decorated hero with a genetic quirk that allowed the U.S. military to implant a super-computer microchip that links his brain to what the show calls “the information grid.” That means Gabriel is able to access even highly classified information at any high-tech facility in the world, making him one of the most important weapons on the planet.
As the series premieres, however, Gabriel is largely preoccupied with his missing wife, another operative who almost everyone believes went rogue and changed sides during a violent episode in India. Gabriel refuses to accept this, however, and he is prone to reckless, loose-cannon behavior on most of his missions, so his boss, Lillian Strand (Marg Helgenberger, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation), hires Secret Service Special Agent Riley Neal (Megan Ory, Once Upon a Time) to protect this vital human asset from outside threats.
Gabriel’s embedded chip allows him to investigate incidents by accessing hard data from the information grid and then interpolating that with informed speculation on his part to form a dreamlike snapshot through which he can physically walk and examine an event literally from every perspective. The snapshot we see in the Intelligence premiere – the moment when his wife supposedly went rogue in Mumbai – is stunningly realized in visual terms, but nothing around it is anywhere near as impressive.
Fans of Chuck, Josh Schwartz’s clever 2007-12 NBC spy dramedy starring Zachary Levi as a young man with the Internet downloaded into his brain, will recognize the basic premise of Intelligence, and that became a problem for me as this “new” CBS series unfolded. Apart from some of the technical visuals, most of Intelligence feels so flat and unoriginal and lazily retro up against Chuck that I started having the weirdest, time-warping feeling that I was watching a much older, inferior sci-fi series that somehow inspired Schwartz to make his own, far more entertaining, show.
Even the villains in Intelligence feel tired and recycled. In the pilot, it’s the Chinese. In episode two, it’s Islamist terrorists looking for new ways to blow themselves up. Who should we expect in episode 3? Lex Luthor?
For the record, Holloway is much better than the writing would seem to allow, adding interesting layers to Gabriel that aren’t really in the script, but I hope Helgenberger is getting a really nice paycheck for Intelligence. This exceptional actress, who has an Emmy Award and four other nominations for past performances, is playing a character who might as well be called Sister Mary Exposition, because all she does is walk through scenes and keep viewers up to date on what’s happening. As for Ory, I thought she looked far too supermodel-y to be a credible Secret Service agent in the pilot, but by episode two, I have to admit, she was earning my respect.
In addition to these three hard-working actors, Intelligence also largely squanders the wonderful character actor John Billinsgsley as – I am not making up this name – Dr. Shenandoah Cassidy, the neuroscientist who designed and implanted Gabriel’s microchip.
I like all these actors, and I like to believe Intelligence can somehow turn itself around creatively and become a much better show. At this point, however, that show would have to be called Blind Faith.