'Valor': TV Review
Salute The CW for thinking outside the box with this military drama, but the weak mystery, thin cast and cheap production values are less praise-worthy.
There's an argument I could make, one that I may even believe, that in a broadcast TV fall of on-brand mediocrities, unconvincing retreads and meek pandering, The CW's Valor is perhaps the most adventurous programming big swing made by any of the five major networks.
The CW's Valor is also awful, but it's not a critic's job to tell a network to stay in its lane and not to sometimes do weird and dumb things — just to wish it had done them better. In this case, much better.
Premiering on Monday, Valor is a female-driven military conspiracy thriller on a network that's had audience success with DC superhero shows and critical success with smart romantic dramedies of the sort that used to thrive on the old WB.
We open on a clandestine mission in Somalia, with a U.S. Army helicopter unit called the Shadow Raiders transporting a special forces team to pick up an unknown target. Everything goes wrong and only Warrant Officer Nora Madani (Christina Ochoa) and Captain Leland Gallo (Matt Barr) return home alive, with several Americans dead and their colleague Jimmy Kam's (W. Tre Davis) whereabouts unknown. Back in the States, it becomes clear that Madani and Gallo are keeping secrets regarding the true nature of the mission, the true identity of the target and what happened on the ground. Since the CIA, in the form of an investigator named Thea (Melissa Roxburgh), has begun to poke around, those secrets are about to rise to the surface and Jimmy's fate may be in jeopardy.
Unlike NBC's The Brave and CBS' SEAL Team, Valor — why this show wasn't called Shadow Raiders is a mystery more haunting than any in the show — is designed exclusively as a serialized story. We're supposed to care about getting Jimmy back and we're supposed to care about what went so pear-shaped with the mission in Somalia with the assumption that a related conspiracy will go at least somewhere in the middle, if not all the way to the top. There's military heroism woven throughout, but this is not a "Here's what life is like for these heroes" show. You have to care about the mystery that's introduced in the first five minutes.
Man, did I ever not care.
Because The CW didn't send out a second episode, I watched the Kyle Jarrow-scripted pilot for Valor a couple of times, and for the life of me I can't figure out where the hook is even supposed to be. The characters are barely introduced in the opening and the clunkiness of introducing Jimmy exclusively as a man with a wife and nerdy son waiting at home — hostage or casualty bait, basically — made him feel like less of a person himself, the opposite of the intended effect. The opening action scene is so wretchedly and cheaply staged that the only thing you can process is that things didn't go as planned, but none of the characters say what the plan was, so who cares? And when it's revealed that the man they were retrieving wasn't who they thought it was, it's definitely presented as something we don't know, but there's no suggestion for why we'd want to know. And somebody inconveniently forgot to introduce stakes for any character other than Jimmy. What happens if the truth doesn't come out? Does it hurt Gallo and Madani? Does it hurt the Army? Does it hurt America? There's a reason why Homeland and 24 generally begin seasons with a terrorist getting a nuclear bomb or threatening a large city or a world leader. The answer to the question, "What happens if these characters don't get what they want?" can't be in doubt, and here it's barely broached.
Instead, after the mission goes wrong, Madani and Gallo are reintroduced as tawdry soap opera characters. He's hand-cuffed to a bed being ridden by an anonymous blonde. She's rolling out of bed, falling out of her top and showcasing a new sexy thigh scar from the mission. Then there are long and occasionally confusing explorations into who's sleeping with who, who's superior officer to whom, and rarely does that actually give us insight into the life of Madani's character, presented as one of the first women in an elite unit. This has to be her story. It's not. The dialogue over-relies on buzzkill platitudes like "Duty is the cure for weakness," and neither Barr nor Ochoa is interesting enough to overcome that, no matter how spiffy they look in their uniforms. It's especially frustrating seeing the compelling energy and edginess Ochoa brought to Blood Drive sanded away entirely just weeks after Syfy cancelled the delirious show that at least had the decency to embrace its exploitative nature. Here, when the camera leers at Ochoa and Barr, it's not because Valor is aware of its gaze. It's just a show prioritizing checking out hot actors to telling a story in a meaningful way.
It's always been a thing to make fun of The CW as a network of gratuitously pretty people, but I've rarely felt it drain a show as much as Valor. There's a crushing need for a respectable gray-haired character actor or actress playing an authority figure, so when 24-year-old Roxburgh runway-struts in as a no-nonsense CIA investigator and everybody is quaking in their boots, the only two legitimate responses are a resigned eye-roll and a giggle of incredulity. This is a show that wants to reference real POW cases, authentic military jargon and pay lip-service to serious concepts like "honor" and "dignity," but it has a half-dozen of the most unintentionally hilarious moments of any pilot this fall.
To some degree, unintentional laughs are what Valor brings to the military genre in place of the CBS procedural proficiency of SEAL Team or the ineffective cinematic grittiness of NBC's The Brave. Like nothing else on The CW, including and especially its Monday partner Supergirl, Valor is a big swing for the network and also a big miss.
Cast: Matt Barr, Christina Ochoa, Charlie Barnett, W. Tre Davis, Corbin Reid, Melissa Roxburgh
Creator: Kyle Jarrow
Premieres: Monday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (The CW)