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Valentine, “Valentine” (1.01)

Another One Season Wonder, this time from the 2008-2009 season! A review of the pilot, written by Kevin Murphy and directed by Kevin Dowling, after the jump…

Brief Synopsis: The Greek Gods, led by Grace “Aphrodite” Valentine, have been banished to Earth to help mortals find love. If they can’t, they will become mortal and die. Grace, her son Danny, and a handful of others attempt to connect lovable Roland with soulmate and best friend Joanna – despite her pending nuptials to another man. Ultimately, Grace decides they need a fresh perspective, and brings in a romance novelist to help. They succeed.

Review

That was pretty hard to get through, to be honest.

The script was messy, but it committed the worst sin: it was obvious, at every step of the way. Every character acted, not like a person, but like a character in a television show. The central ‘meant to be together’ couple, Joanna and Roland, symbolise this perfectly: they are composed entirely of the ‘best friend secretly in love’ trope that has been the backbone of a thousand bad RomComs, without adding anything new to the mix. If you watched the first ten minutes of this love story, you could pretty much write the rest of it yourself.

Combine that with an awkwardly-established premise about the Greek Gods matching soulmates (for what reason, exactly?), with a bit about irrelevant gods fading away cribbed from Neil Gaiman‘s much superior American Gods, and you have a show with a pretty bad foundation. It was hard to like any character, because they mostly just spew exposition instead of talking like people. If you want to see what a good anthological soulmates show looks like, compare Valentine to the last year’s much better Love Bites – despite both failing after a year, Love Bites told cute love stories about likeable characters, while Valentine merely puts stereotypes through the motions of a love story. The bland dialogue is occasionally punctuated by long, meaningless monologues about ‘modern love’, decrying Facebook as the ultimate distraction from the soulmate right in front of you. Worse than a bad story about nothing is a bad story about nothing that tries, and fails, to be profound.

And it’s a shame, too, because this cast holds such promise.

Jaime Murray, at the show’s centre, is a weak link. The script is such a fumble that one could blame her character’s failures as failures of the script, but I also think Murray had trouble balancing all the sides of a character like Grace Valentine – the cheeky romantic, the high-minded leader, the sharp-tongued mother. On its own, one might not see the weaknesses; but I’ve seen a very similar (if much better-written) character in Dollhouse‘s Adele DeWitt, and Olivia Williams there put Murray to shame, flitting between different modes while easily keeping the character together. Murray, by comparison, turns the many sides of her character into campy hash.

Danny Valentine is an odious asshole, masquerading as the ‘lovable bad boy’.  Wielding his mighty Rape Gun* and an acerbic wit, bouncing from bed to bed, he lives under the dark cloud of what seems to be an eternal hangover. Kristoffer Polaha is good in the role, making what would normally be a head-smashingly terrible character pretty watchable. It’s too bad Polaha can’t seem to tell between a good and a bad script, if his signing on for this and 2011’s Ringer are anything to go by.

* Danny Valentine literally has a gun that takes away a person’s consent to having sex by making them artificially, furiously attracted to a person. Notably, both times it was fired in this pilot, it was used on women. Just as it was on Torchwood, this device is really, really gross.

This pilot also abuses the delightful Autumn Reeser, using her natural charm and breezy likability for a character who constantly acts like an overexcited child. Thus, one of my favourite actresses becomes head-splittingly annoying. In fact, if anything defines this script, it is solid to excellent castmates desperately trying to rescue a terrible script. Robert Baker, who I know from being a recurring nonentity on Grey’s Anatomy, is actually quietly charming here. That’s likely because, rather than giving him a handful of overly-broad character attributes, he merely plays a normal guy, giving Baker room to play things with a greater subtlety than allowed the rest of the cast – that is, playing it at a normal level of emotions. He becomes the standout because of it. Patrick Fabian, who I love, and Christine Lakin, who I don’t know, are pretty much nonenties here.

The two doing the most work to save this episode are the ‘lovers of the week’, Mike Faiola and Lauren Cohan. Divorced from the craziness of the regular cast, when not forced to play ‘big RomCom moments’, the two develop a fairly impressive chemistry that makes their scenes work. You can believe these two have been best friends forever and that they’re perfect for one another, even if the script they’re reading from is entirely composed of clichés. Both are also, crucially, likeable on their own merits, though that makes Cohan‘s character’s asshole boyfriend even less convincing.

Ultimately… this pilot was one of the worst I’ve watched, and this is with a great cast trying their best to do better than mediocre work. I’m very interested to watch further, despite my winces and groans throughout this pilot. Why? To see if, at any point in its truncated eight-episode run, it improves and becomes the good show it very much wants to be.

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