Teenager awakes with newfound superpowers. These powers are exciting, but also frightening and alienating; said teen is forced to weigh carefully whom he or she can trust with the full truth. Sometimes these special abilities make the teen feel confident, special, needed. Sometimes, though, these abilities make the teen self-conscious — or even worse, the object of unwanted attention.
That setup works pretty well for Spider-Man. It worked well for Buffy. But passed on to the CW’s new drama The Tomorrow People (which premieres tonight at 9 p.m.), it just feels worn out. Stephen Jameson (Robbie Amell) is a high school student who has a sleepwalking problem. At least he thinks he does, until one day he finds out it’s actually a teleportation problem. He’s one of the Tomorrow People, a subset of humanity who can teleport, talk to one another telepathically, and move things with telekinesis. Also, Stephen’s father, who has been gone for years, was one of the most powerful Tomorrow People ever. Stephen does not take all this news well.
Let me guess: There’s a deadly cabal that’s constantly pursuing people with exactly these powers?
Of course there is! Here, they’re called Ultra, and it’s headed up by Mark Pellegrino, who has played dangerous bad guys on Dexter, Revolution, Being Human, and, most memorably, Lost, as Jacob. He’s probably the best actor on the show (faint praise), but his presence further contributes to the warmed-over feeling of the whole endeavor. It’s as if the CW swept up deleted parts of its other series and turned them into a TV golem. There are tank tops, supporting characters of ambiguous ethnic identities, a few juicy punching sound effects, maybe some kind of long-standing familial beef that makes a global problem personal, a hunky lead, and some oblivious grown-ups who just don’t get it.
Teen shows are inherently about awakenings — that’s what adolescence does to us. Sometimes that’s a sexual awakening of sorts, like it is for Peter Parker; sometimes it’s a realization that your parents aren’t who you think, like it is for Veronica Mars. Maybe you discover that you’re stronger than you thought, like on Awkward. Or maybe you learn that even grown-ups ask for help sometimes, which is the lesson on most ABC Family shows. The Tomorrow People races through the discovery process and immediately focuses on the violence Stephen and his Tomorrow Pals are thrust into. But any show can have punching at any time. You only get to discover you have telepathic powers once. Competent action sequences are not a substitute for unique characters or engaging dialogue. (Not a good substitute, anyway.)
A lot of engaging sci-fi can be seen from one of two perspectives: It’s something that teaches us about ourselves, like Battlestar Galactica, or it’s something that can explore human emotion in a heightened or ecstatic way by shedding the confines of realism, like Doctor Who. There are plenty of shows in between, and plenty of shows that do both, but Tomorrow does neither. It’s not a critique of society and it’s not a heroic quest that’s internal truth transcends circumstance. It’s just grouchy people running around.
Teen shows and sci-fi shows often get a bad rap for being ridiculous or campy or stupid, and Tomorrow People isn’t any of those things. Unfortunately, it’s just boring.