TV Roulette: Scorpion

In All, Television by David

The holiday season is almost over. Christmas has come and gone, and now all that is left is the awkward period between Christmas and New Year’s, when the world is stuck in limbo before moving on to the new year. Television, of course, relishes this limbo by continuing its hibernation, so we’re still on re-runs this week. Just as with The Goldbergs, this week’s show, Scorpion chose to air an episode from last season. But wanting to actually cover an episode from this season, I picked one at random from this season’s episodes so I could better see how far this show has come since I watched the pilot two San Diego Comic-Cons ago. We’ll get going right after the rundown.

Spoilers Likely Ahead

TV Roulette Week 11

Scorpion; ‘The Old College Try,’ Season 2, Episode 11

Air Date  

December 7th, 2015 

Have I Seen This Show Before?


If So, How Much?

I watched the pilot at SDCC, and for some reason checked in again on the season 2 premiere as well.

Yep, this happened.

Scorpion has always been a strange show. It combines CBS’ patented procedural formula with a concept designed to appeal to the nerd culture that has started to permeate throughout all of TV and movie culture (you know, with the most popular TV shows being about dragons and zombies while the most popular movies are about super heroes and space)–and more importantly, get a younger audience to watch a network whose key viewers are skewing older and older. This has been successful before, as for all its faults The Big Bang Theory has been able to draw a significant amount of younger viewers, and that is one of the major reasons the show continues to be quite the hit even as the show has gotten on in years. So it makes sense that CBS would want to continue to replicate this formula, especially to combat the idea that its network is only for old people. (When you make a cop show starring Tom Selleck, you get the reputation you deserve, CBS.) This TV season, CBS has upped their game even more with both Supergirl and Limitless, attaining various degrees of success with both, but Scorpion is really where the network really got used to swimming in these hybridized high concept/procedural waters.

Based roughly on Scorpion Computer Services a problem solving group run by genius hacker Walter O’Brien, Scorpion takes the tried and true formula of having a band of misfits solve problems on a weekly basis, but with the added twist that this band is a bunch of geniuses. This is how CBS justified bringing Scorpion to SDCC in 2014, hoping that a show about geniuses would resonate with the crowd (okay, more like hoping it would just barely squeak by and allow the network not to lose one of its coveted panel spots for future years, but let’s just ignore that right now). It’s hard to say exactly what reaction this show was met with at the convention. It wasn’t really derision or praise; instead more of just amused befuddlement, especially as it became more and more clear that this show was created to advertise O’Brien’s real life services and the Founder Institute, which is the world’s largest think tank incubator. I am not saying there is anything wrong with that, especially considering O’Briens main agenda is all about helping people of extremely high intellect find a place to be useful and valued in a culture that often has no idea what to do with them. But it was still amusing (and refreshingly honest) that O’Brien basically admitted during the Q&A that he picked CBS as the network for this show purely because it is the one watched by the most people. Combine this with the fact that the show literally has a climatic scene involving an airplane, a convertible, and a LAN cable, and if nothing else, you couldn’t say this show wasn’t willing to have some fun, even if it was shackled to the story-killing CBS procedural formula (though the aforementioned Limitless has actually done a good job of using the formula to its creative advantage).

The other thing about this show is that it is very cluttered. Part of that is because the show was not quite sure whether it wanted to be more based around a fictionalized version of O’Brien (Elyes Gabel) or be more of an ensemble show, like fellow CBS procedural Hawaii 5-0 (a show which coincidentally had a similar crisis of identity when it first began). The other part, however, is that the show had to figure out the delicate balance necessary to tell emotional stories with a cast of characters whose primary traits are high IQ and low EQ. (The Big Bang Theory also had to do this, but it is a comedy, so the task was somewhat easier.) Basically, Scorpion was a Frankenstein’s monster of a show that tried to pack too much into one show. All of this hindered the pilot, but seems to have been smoothed out in the Season 2 premiere, where the show seemed much more confident in how it used its non-Walter O’Brien characters. But clearly all of this is still a work in progress, as ‘The Old College Try’ suffers mightily under all that it is trying to accomplish in one episode.

There is a real lack of focus in this episode, but it starts out adequately enough with a child’s time capsule being used to talk about how we should interact with the past. This is important, as in what I have now found out was the previous episode, Walter’s sister Megan (Camille Guaty), who is was also fellow genius Sylvester’s (Ari Stidham) wife, has died. My details about all this are obviously somewhat limited without having seen the death or the the events leading up to it, but this episode did the show no favors as it struggled not to lose itself in what should have been an emotionally resonant episode. This episode was primed to focus on Walter and Sylvester’s grief, with the case-of-the-week filling giving the other characters something to do, but instead the show felt the need to spread the narrative weight among the entire cast, which just made things feel fractured.

There’s too much going on in this picture, let alone the episode.

So we have Toby (Eddie Kaye Thomas) dealing with how his past is causing him to not accept culpability in his mistakes; Happy (Jaydn Wong) dealing with how her past prevents her from opening up to those around her; and Paige (Katharine McPhee) floating around trying to be an emotional booster shot for everyone–especially Walter, because how else is she to be a proper love interest for him if she doesn’t go through the TV ritual of getting a potential love interest to open up emotionally? (The rest of this review might be a little screwy, because my eyes just rolled out of my head and I have yet to find them.) Then there is veteran sci-fi government agent Robert Patrick (better known as T-1000, or the dude who replaced Mulder for a time on X-Files), who is too awesome to deal with such small things as a troubled past, but does interact with a college security guard who regrets not being able to be a cop. That all may sound like a lot to put into one episode, because it is. Once you add in the case-of-the-week, involving a plot to shut down the Federal Reserve with by using quantum computer to run ransomware, let’s just say this episode had quite a few focus issues.

Did I mention this episode also had most of the team going undercover in various capacities at a university? This further diluted the episode, to the point that I began to wonder if the screenwriters were playing some weird game of plot bingo that somehow became an episode of television. ‘The Old College Try’ really needed to give the characters moments to breathe, but there was just too much happening. Any time any type of emotional breakthrough might have happened, the show had to move onto the next plot point, which kind of makes me just want to end things here–if the show isn’t going to bother reflecting on what any given thing in the episode means, why the hell should I?

But I won’t do that, for two reasons. One is that the episode’s weird structure and pacing led to an inadvertent consequence—the main plot of the episode was resolved with about eight or so minutes left, which meant the episode had to gasp actually give the final scenes a chance to breathe because there was no other way to fill time. (To some degree this was obviously purposeful, but it really doesn’t make up for the fact that this just gave enough time for the bare minimum of this character development to happen). This is especially true with Walter and Paige, after Walter was finally forced to at least somewhat deal with what it means that his sister died (while also revealing that he has a bit of acting talent in the process–what better way to express grief than Shakespeare?).

The second reason is that the way the team handles crisis is just so damn entertaining. In this episode, the team needed to slow down a quantum computer so they could counteract a computer virus that would shut down the Federal Reserve. The way they did so involved mirrors, space suits, robber skills, a drill, and Katharine McPhee providing rousing emotional support. That is awesome. Like, seriously, what the hell? This show does what it wants, and proves that while Scorpion is an oddity that seems like it shouldn’t have a place on TV, the opposite is actually true. Maybe it is because of great casting, or just the general The Martian-style aura that science can be used to solve almost any problem on the show, but Scorpion works in ways it just has no business doing so. Sure, this episode was poorly executed, but it still proved why Scorpion does have a place in this TV landscape. Even buried under the CBS procedural blanket of mediocrity, it somehow still has a unique voice. If nothing else, that is cause for praise. But man, why couldn’t the show have actually made this episode good, too?

Notes and Observations:

Swoon or suck it, high EQ drama students: Walter’s a genius and he can do Shakespeare.

  • The way the show addressed each of the genius’ issue with college felt way too much like issues that would exist in high school, but then I began to wonder if, for people that smart, college is just as bad of an experience, because they would still have trouble finding a group to fit in with due to their high intellect. This would have been interesting for the episode to explore better, or for another episode entirely to look at, because all this episode did was offer an idea of a college experience that just doesn’t seem to jive with really any other I have heard about or experienced.
  • At the same time these people would have been so so young when they went to college that they wouldn’t have had the EQ to deal with a lot of what college is trying to teach them so that also could have been the issue.
  • Case in point: the wrestling team dropping jock straps on Sylvester really felt like something that wouldn’t happen in college, but instead was just a way for the show to confirm that Sylvester was right to hate his time in college by using something that sounds more like something out of a movie about college.
  • Walter dealing with high EQ drama students also never really worked, because the show couldn’t entirely decide how right Walter is supposed to be when talking with them. Part of this is because it is also unclear if the show was saying that Walter’s response to these students proved or displayed the value of their EQ.
  • The show did, however, nail the judgmental nature of kids in college (I was certainly guilty), who think their progressiveness gives them absolute superiority over older generations–a cycle that will likely continue in perpetuity.
  • Curtis and Happy’s dance at the end of the episode is really sweet, and almost justified both of them having way too much narrative weight in this episode… almost.
  • The show does get points for not completely vilifying sorority life. Making the girls seem genuinely nice, and Happy’s bad attitude the problem instead was a nice reversal, and helped make the college portrayal not be completely cartoonish.
  • I understand why the show needs to explain the tech being used in detail, but man, it gets tedious after a while. I would almost rather the show just go all in with this show being about geniuses (okay, mostly geniuses), and have them just talk without explanations and hope the audience can keep up with the gist of things (okay, okay its a CBS show stop laughing).

Episode Grade: C+

Would I Watch More?  

The answer should be no, but this feels like the kind of show I find myself randomly watching from time to time to see what has been going on. It doesn’t really make any sense to me either, but that is the kind of thing I do.

That’s it for this edition of TV Roulette. The New Year is coming, and while not right away, eventually it will bring new television. The roulette wheel continues to spin regardless, but the TV show list is being updated to reflect the onslaught of soon-to-be-premiering shows, so the days of re-runs are numbered indeed. We’ll see if that starts next week or not when TV Roulette returns, but until then, I need to figure out what to put in my time capsule.