When we first heard that director Alfonso Cuarón was working on a television series about a superpowered girl, we were excited, although that excitement faded with the rapid turnover of series showrunners and rumblings of major changes to the original concept. Now, six episodes into the show, we're ready to quit Believe.
When I say "quit," that doesn't mean that we're going to stop watching Believe entirely. Some shows get off to a rocky start, only to turn around and take flight. But we've been recapping the show for a few weeks now and we don't like the show, and from what you folks have told us, you aren't enjoying it either. So we're going to keep an eye on the show, but we're going to devote our energy to more entertaining television.
So what is wrong with Believe, exactly? Well, a lot of things:
There's nothing wrong with an uplifting show. If anything, there isn't enough optimistic media about people transcending normal human abilities. But when you have an uplifting show, it still needs to be a human show. We need to be interested in the characters we're spending time with. We need to root for them. We need to feel that they deserve their happy endings. If Believe wants to pull at our heartstrings, it can't merely wave its hand at us and say, "See, can't you feel us tugging?" It needs to do the pulling, and it needs to feel real.
So far on Believe, we've had a story about a physician who is thinking about quitting medicine because of the former doubts of his dying father, a woman whose young son has cancer and can't pay for the cutting edge treatment, a wealthy refugee who lost her son, a pair of lovers who separated after one of them was blinded in Afghanistan, and a pair of investigative bloggers who are just learning that they're having a baby. Even after watching each of these episodes at least twice, I couldn't tell you much about these characters beyond what I've laid out here, and that's a shame. There's no texture to these stories (with the slight exception of Shohreh Aghdashloo's refugee, who still didn't get nearly enough character development); we don't really know who these characters are or why we should care about them, save for the fact that they're in trouble.
The one thing that all of these characters have in common is that they have easy happy endings in store. Bo can kiss their problems with her psychic powers and make them all better. They don't have to struggle. They don't have to make hard decisions. All they have to do is let Bo work her magic and their lives will be on the proper path to happiness. And they get the sorts of endings that a 10-year-old girl, namely Bo, would find satisfying: untroubled reunions, money to solve all their problems, the sort of true love usually found in Disney movies.
Believe is aspartame for the soul. It doesn't challenge its viewers, doesn't ask them to rethink their notions of happily ever after or ask us who is deserving of that happiness. I find myself rewriting every episode in my head: the separated lovers part wistfully as friends; the refugee's son feels abandoned by her, but the mother decides to be patient, reaching out to him slowly and lovingly; the physician never learns that his father was proud of him, but instead learns other ways to believe in his own abilities. There is the potential for deeper, richer stories at every turn, but again and again, Believe opts to tell shallow, easy stories.
I've been perplexed by Bo from the start: is she supposed to be a child who has to grow into a fuller human being or is she a preternaturally wise messiah who needs to be protected until she's old enough to change the world? If it's the former, then the episodes need to explore Bo's flaws and what she's learning about the wider world. If it's the latter, then it needs to treat Bo more as a Macguffin, keeping the focus on the more interesting adults. In fact, last night's episode was actually decent in large part because it focused on Tate, not Bo. Believe instead opts to focus on Bo while making her a morally perfect being (at least according to the rules of the show's universe). She's here to teach us, not to learn.
Now there are ways to get away with a lack of character arc if the character is charming enough to begin with. Believe frequently reminds me of a similar, but far superior, fugitive show: The Pretender. The Pretender centered around Jarod, a former child prodigy who has been raised in a mysterious organization who escapes as an adult and travels the continent, righting wrongs and staying one step ahead of his captors. When we meet Jarod, he's already a great guy and he seems to know everything about everything, but he's also incredibly fun to watch. He's clever and mischievous and adorably in love with the icy Miss Parker. The joy of watching The Pretender was in watching Jarod amiably outwit everyone around him.
Bo isn't clever, however. She's a child and, for the most part, she behaves like one. She's impulsive and selfish (albeit in her selflessness) and naive. She inserts herself artlessly into situations, simply telling people that they need to do this or be that or love this person for the rest of their lives. Really, we shouldn't expect more from a child, but that doesn't make her more interesting, and the show's refusal to punish her for her childish actions is frustrating, as if the moral is that we should all behave like children for the rest of our lives and everything will turn out alright.
It also makes the stakes feel oddly low. We're told that Bo will someday either save the world or function as a weapon (although the third option is that she could die), but we don't know much what that means. Sure, she can lift a car and probably kill people with her mind, but it's hard to picture her doing anything other than what we've seen her do, which is move people around on the chessboard of life until they have reached optimal happiness. That makes Believe feel more like yet another show centered on a brilliant child, Touch, which was similarly frustrating in its thesis that the nudges of a small child could have world-shattering consequences. The main difference is that Touch was pseudoscientific while Believe is pseudo-spiritual.
Believe would be more interesting as a religious show. There, I said it. Shows about religion don't necessarily have to directly reference real-world religions—just look at Battlestar Galactica—but they do have to explore the relationship between human beings and the divine.
Here the show gives us Milton Winter, who is effectively a cult leader. He leads a small group of former Project Orchestra employees who have put their lives on the line because they believe that Bo's life is more important than their own. He has a very black-and-white view of the world, and he tends to speak in vague assurances that everything will turn out for the best. If Believe was intended as a more ambiguous show, this could be interesting: Winter as a kind a well-meaning but ineffectual cultist. On the other hand, Winter could be a prophet of new religion, heralding Bo as a genuine messiah sent by God (or some analogue) to heal humanity. Instead, Believe steers us into an obnoxious middle ground, making him a priest of no one, a man whose faith is based on nothing but whose convictions are unbending. It makes it very difficult to buy Winter as the good guy that Believe tries to assure us that he is.
The network seemed to think that Believe would be better off not weighed down by a concrete religion, but instead of dancing on air, the show looks like it refuses to find its footing.
Instead of some divine entity, Believe gives us boring blue butterflies (likely a reference to the butterfly effect) who act as guideposts for Bo's journey. Again, Bo doesn't have to struggle; she knows what the universe wants of her. And the show takes for granted that its audience knows what is good and what is bad. True love is good. Bo is good. Winter is good. It doesn't matter whether our experiences with the real world are more nuanced and complex.
This weird in-between point—Bo is a messianic figure but not a divine messiah—also makes Bo's actions weirdly sinister. Here is a little girl who barges in and controls people's lives. She knows the outcome of every intrusion and won't stop until she's gotten her way. If Bo is somehow divine, that's plenty unsettling, but also intriguing. If she's not, then we have a human girl who is being raised to believe that she should alter the world to her satisfaction. Sure, when she grows up she might create a paradise, but what would it look like?
We had such high hopes for Kyle MacLaughlin's Roman Skouras after the second episode. It seemed that Skouras genuinely cared about Bo, not just because she is a valuable asset but also because he watched her grow up. For a brief moment, it looked like Skouras and Winter were both fellows who meant well but who disagreed about how best to attend to Bo's welfare. (Perhaps Winter even ran off with Skouras because he became mistakenly convinced that Bo was a messianic figure and Skouras was trying to protect her from such views.) Plus, he's got a whole facility filled with superpowered folks at his disposal. Who doesn't love a good mad (or perhaps just misunderstood) scientist?
As the episodes have gone on, however, Skouras has become more of a mustache twirler and yet we've learned nothing new about his personality, background, or motivations. Just like the troubled people Bo helps each week, Skouras hasn't been fleshed out—and neither have his superpowered agents—and that's a real shame. It's a waste of MacLaughlin, and a satisfying antagonist might have kept us interested in the show a bit longer.
Every now and then, Believe has a moment that it's hard to believe comes from the same show that has given us such saccharine dreck. The pilot episode had an amazing interaction between Tate and one of Skouras' agents that is one of my favorite TV of this year, one that revealed an amazing amount about both characters as each tried to convince the other that they belonged in the hospital. FBI Special Agent Elizabeth Ferrell has been a standout character; she's smart, competent, and calls Skouras out on his shit. Every time she comes on the screen, my interest in the show shoots up, but NBC deems her so unimportant that she doesn't even appear on the Believe website. And every now and then, the show seems to recognize that Bo is a bit frightening, especially in the power she has over Tate's life. These are a few of the reasons we'll be keeping an eye on the show, even if we don't have high hopes that it will improve.