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TV Review: ABC's 'The Gates'
Viewers going into ABC's drama hoping for another 'True Blood' will be disappointed
On Sunday (June 20) night, ABC premieres two new hour-long scripted shows. Up first is "Scoundrels," a remake of the successful "Outrageous Fortune" format from New Zealand. Then, at 10 p.m. we get the premiere of "The Gates," ostensibly an original drama from Richard Hatem and Grant Scharbo.
While "The Gates" has no literal antecedent, calling it "original" might be a bit of an overstatement. Although it's based on no one specific piece of source material, "The Gates" is consistently familiar, though isolating any single inspiration or similar narrative would also be impossible.
Glancing back over my notes from my viewing of the pilot, here are just a few of the shows I was comparing "The Gates" to as I went along: "Twin Peaks." "Wolf Lake." "The O.C." "Happy Town." "Eastwick." "Meadowlands" ("Cape Wrath," if you're hailing from the U.K.). "Hidden Palms."
There are a couple winners there. But it's also not often anybody aspires to have their show compared to "Hidden Palms."
It's not that every show about a tiny insular community where everybody's got a secret and where those secrets come to be exposed when a newcomer arrives has to be exactly the same, but they all sure have some similar tropes. Hatem and Scharbo respect those tropes to an overwhelming degree in "The Gates," which isn't as campy or soapy as ABC promos are trying to make you believe. It's actually a rather serious-minded project -- too serious a lot of the time -- that happens to have a lot of wackiness ensuing around the periphery.
Given said wackiness, "The Gates" isn't nearly as much fun as it could be, but that won't matter if some of its ideas pay off. We won't know that for a while and some viewers are likely to expect a little more sizzle.
Full review of "The Gates" after the break...
The show's title refers to the 12-foot gates, constructed from over 11 tons of steel, that surround the isolated community of the same name. Calling The Gates a city might be overselling it, but it's more than just a neighborhood. It has its own schools and shops in addition to the tree-lined residential streets and stately homes. The Gates has its own police force and it's monitored by 200+ high-tech cameras that don't miss anything, except for when the cameras go missing or look the other way..
Entering this world are the Monohans. Nick (Frank Grillo) is a former Chicago cop trying to find a fresh start after a professional scandal in the Windy City. He's the new chief of police for The Gates, which shouldn't be a hard job, since the community has no crime, unless you count the occasional mysterious disappearance. Nick's wife Sarah (Marisol Nichols) is still dealing with the circumstances that led to their departure from Chicago, while the Monohan kids have to face the general challenges of fitting in at a new school, especially one with the peculiar and unique issues of The Gates High (or whatever it's called).
Rounding out the cast are Rhona Mitra, Luke Mably, Skler Samuels, Colton Haynes, Chandra West and, at least in the pilot, Brett Cullen.
It's difficult to know how much of "The Gates" it's acceptable to give away upfront and how much ABC wants viewers to experience for themselves. The network hasn't been at all shy in showing that the character played by Rhona Mitra is a vampire or that, at the very least, she enjoys biting people's necks and she's capable of floating to the floor from a second story balcony. The trailer features several other oblique hints about supernatural-type things happening behind The Gates, but since ABC doesn't go out and ruin it, neither will I. Let's just say that "The Gates" is not a series that *only* features vampires. There are a lot of things to be worried about, or at least curious about, behind The Gates and those are only the things exposed in the first hour.
"The Gates" is the latest international pre-sold title from the folks at Fox TV Studios, who haven't really produced a single successful show to date -- "Mental," "Persons Unknown," "Defying Gravity," etc -- but they keep trying.
This may be the first FTVS production where I found myself actively wishing it'd be done through the regular TV model and with a regular TV budget. The production values, while still far higher than "Mental" [or the non-FTVS "Scoundrels"] are only good in a "Making the best of what we can, shooting on an accelerated schedule in Shreveport." The show my mind kept going back to was "Meadowlands" and that was at least partially because I would describe the production values on "The Gates" as "British," which is a step up from "Canadian." Yes, I'm kidding a little there, but not completely. There really is a specific look to British dramas and that's a look that has at least something to do with not working with the same exorbitant budgets as America TV offers. And it isn't a coincidence, probably, that the "Gates" pilot was helmed by Terry McDonough, whose strong list of British credits includes "Wire in the Blood," the original "Eleventh Hour" and "The Street" (as well as several episodes of "Breaking Bad"). He had the skillset necessary to make "The Gates" look inexpensive, but not quite cheap (Michael Rymer, a veteran of Canadian-shot cable productions, did similar service on the "Persons Unknown" pilot).
The cast, while featuring enough familiar faces, also isn't of the level that would force network attention were it produced through the normal development process. Some of the characters in the pilot blend into the background because some of the actors blend into the background. You're left remembering folks like Nichols and Chandra West just because they may have been the ones you saw most recently on a bigger network show.
Grillo, getting his first real shot as a leading man, has got more of a "Dynasty"-villain look and demeanor to him, rather than coming across as a white hat hero. I can't tell if he's been cast against type for a reason that will be eventually revealed or if somebody just liked him in past roles -- "Prison Break" and a short run on "The Shield," for example -- and thought it might be cool to move him to the top of the call sheet, reaping the financial cost-cutting benefits at the same time.
Getting to go vampy gives Mitra one of her more interesting roles to date and Luke Mably hints at something intriguing as her equally vicious husband. Of all of the characters we meet in the pilot, these are the two I'm most curious about, since they have a compelling reason to be in The Gates.
ABC is playing up the "Desperate Housewives"-style campiness and cattiness in the trainers for "The Gates" and viewers expecting that sort of comic-soapy tone out of the new series will either be disappointed, or just confused.
Hatem and Scharbo have an approach to this world that's almost sociological in nature. What would cause a motley group of outsiders like this to crave the stability and structure of a place like The Gates? And the gates themselves, are the keeping people on the outside out, or are they keeping people on the inside in? Who's being protected from whom? And once you put this collection of people, all of whom deviate from the social norm, together what level of assimilation would that community aspire to? In a community of outcasts, is everybody an equal? Or are there outcasts who still can't fit in even with others who can't fit in? It's more than just the "rich people have secrets" theme that shows of this sort generally perpetuate.
I hate to say it, since people will most likely focus on the neckbiting and whatnot, but there are some provocative concepts being floated in "The Gates." There's also a really banal romantic rivalry plot featuring the high school kids that's more likely to bore and alienate grown-up viewers than it is to attract a younger audience airing on Sunday nights in the summer. The show may need the kids, just in general, but it doesn't need them as much as the pilot seems to think it does. The teen love triangle reeks of studio notes and rewriting and runs afoul of what Hatem and Scharbo really want to do.
It all comes down to expectations, you see. I complained that the early episodes of "True Blood" possibly spend too much time delving into vampire politics and bureaucracy when what people want and expect is the guilty pleasure tawdriness of it all. With "The Gates," I could be genuinely interested in learning more about the community and it's rules and regulations, but I expect some audience members to be bored to tears by the lack of tawdriness.
And I can't say that those viewers are wrong. The things "The Gates" succeeds at are the things most likely to send viewers flipping around the dial, while it doesn't really commit to the blood, sex and violence that could hook a viewer up-front (and that ABC has promised). There's a better version of this show that might have been developed and produced for a Showtime or an FX, somewhere on cable where there's more latitude for both content and concept.
I'll be sticking with "The Gates" for a couple more weeks. I won't blame you if you opt not to follow me.
"The Gates" premieres on Sunday, June 20 at 10 p.m. on ABC.