Believe is cliché-filled schmaltz—but it isn't hopeless

After the thrill ride that was Gravity, the pilot episode for Believe, directed and co-created by Alfonso Cuarón, was a disappointment. It's a sentimental piece of television, one that is more interested in building visual sequences than connect us to its characters.

From the very first minutes of Believe, we get a sense of black-and-white morality of this show's world. In that nicely shot opening sequence, which moves us inside and outside a car accident, Bo's kindly foster parents are run off the road and then have their necks snapped by a stone-cold assassin. The only thing that keeps our lady assassin from running off with Bo is that a large group of witnesses appear on the scene, eager to cart Bo off to the hospital. On the other hand, we have Winter and his lieutenant Channing busting death row inmate Tate out of prison, using not violence, but careful planning and trickery. After Winter fills Tate in on the details of our telekinetic, empathic, and clairvoyant Bo and asks Tate to scurry her away from the hospital, Tate asks for a gun. "We don't use guns," Winter tells him. "We're the good guys."

That's the universe of Believe in a nutshell. Winter and Channing aren't pragmatists; they're true believers in some sort of faith centered on the idea of "goodness," and they believe that Bo, if raised properly, will be the ultimate realization of that faith. If we're to take them at face value, they're trying to build a messiah on organic food and kind words.

On the other side of this moral divide is Roman Skouras, a humanitarian who jet sets around the world and hires shady people to do his dirty work. Winter paints Skouras' people as nefarious figures, but it's not clear that his goals are necessarily at fault; he may simply have dark means of achieving those goals.

Now this idea of light and dark institutions fighting for Bo's soul isn't itself a problem, especially if Tate can function as a midpoint between Winter's saint and Skouras' Mephistopheles, one who teaches Bo that the real world is far more complicated. But Believe seems to be shooting for a more simplistic idea of virtue. When Tate first lays eyes upon Bo, he starts to cry, and she tells him it's because he remembers a time that he was good. It's in these places, when Believe tries to convince us of the world's holiness, that it is at its weakest, perhaps because it asks us to take for granted what constitutes good and evil.

Bo is supposed to be innately good, her empathic abilities giving her an empathy for all human beings, even the ones who are trying to kidnap her. The whole premise is that, while she doesn't have full control over her abilities, her overwhelming desire to help good people triggers in her just what other people need. When she encounters a kind and talented doctor who is thinking of giving up medicine, she tries to talk him out of it by telling him about "Senga," a woman whose life he will someday save.

This story of the doctor is real entry point into Believe, which is primed to become a nomadic helper series in the vein of The Pretender and The Incredible Hulk, and presents some of the problems and opportunities for Believe. The key problem with the doctor story is that it's generic and saccharine. We learn that the doctor has an ailing father at home, one who became incommunicative before he was able to tell his son how proud he was. There is something wonderful about the way Cuarón unfolds the reveal of the doctor's father, having him rush home, apologize to his father's caretaker, and then swinging the camera to reveal the father in his bed. But the story lacks texture and oomph; we get a monologue from the doctor without fully understanding why he's ready to pitch years of training and education to bow to his father's doubts in his ability. And when Bo starts telling the doctor that his father is proud of him, she reveals no details of their shared life, nothing to indicate that she's really reading his father's mind. The doctor has to take it on faith (this show is called Believe, after all) that she's telling the truth.

But the idea that Bo focuses on the singer, Agnes, as the reason the doctor shouldn't quit medicine makes sense. She is a child and she still has a child's understanding of the world, and it's natural that a child who has endured a lot of tragedy sees Agnes as important because her music makes people happy. It works on the doctor because the doctor was looking for a sign that he should stay in medicine, and Agnes' balloons, spelling "Senga" in the mirror was a pretty clear sign. That child's perspective can't be enough for everyone, however. Believe can work if it accepts that some people need more than feel-good platitudes from an uncannily insightful ten-year-old, and if it recognizes that the show can't simply be about healing Tate (who is revealed to be her biological father) and the other people Bo encounters; it also needs to show Bo growing up to understand the complexities of the world. It needs to see its people as people, and not merely archetypes.

Oddly, Believe treats its characters best not when they're giving pretty speeches, but in the smaller details of their actions. The first encounter between Tate and Skouras' agent was a happy surprise, as each one at first thinks the other is a hospital employee and is reluctant to guess which way radiology is, and it makes their subsequent combat sequence richer. Even Tate expressing small annoyances at Channing, pulling down the door to the elevator when she was tugging too slowly, helps place this show in something that feels like the real world. If Believe could insert those sorts of humanizing details into its larger stories, it could become something special—maybe even as special as it seems to think it is.