'Wisdom of the Crowd': TV Review

Disagreeable.
10/1/2017

Jeremy Piven stars in CBS' noxious new drama about how turning crime-solving over to the internet would be a great idea.

It's not impossible to make a good TV show about characters treating an idiotic idea as brilliant. The bedrock of the cable antihero drama is, in fact, often a decision that the people onscreen commit to wholly even if viewers at home know to be cautious. The best way to pay for cancer treatments is rarely cooking meth. Turning a renegade cop loose on the Rampart Division might pay some dividends, but there's a definite downside.

What makes those cable dramas work is creative pragmatism. The characters embrace the bad idea. Viewers at home cringe. And the show's writers find a way to make both sides feel reasonable, if only for 44 minutes at a stretch.

One's ability to tolerate even the smallest amount of CBS' new Sunday drama Wisdom of the Crowd is likely to hinge on how you feel about the series' big hook. If you think that the idea of taking crime-fighting out of the hands of organized law enforcement and turning it over to strangers on social media with no accountability and no responsibilities to protect privacy and due process is a good one, probably you'll be all jazzed by the show. Certainly nearly everybody on Wisdom of the Crowd is giddy about the concept and that blithe lack of onscreen introspection made the pilot nearly unwatchable for me and definitely exceeded my acceptable, "But wait — huh?" standards.

Jeremy Piven stars as Jeffrey Tanner, a tech billionaire who decides to concentrate all of his time and resources on a new crowd-sourcing app designed to help solve the murder of his daughter. It's been a year since the crime and Tanner is frustrated with the local police department's lack of progress, so his new program, named SOPHE, is designed to accumulate shared information online, effectively deputizing the internet to develop and explore leads and generally to play detective. Tanner offers a massive reward to whoever helps find his daughter's killer and if SOPHE helps solve some other crimes, too, well, that's just a pleasant accident and the narrative engine a show needs to last more than five episodes. Note that as Tanner finishes explaining his tech and the show's entire premise, which requires an excruciating four-minute-plus monologue, we immediately cut to a nerdy hacker in his mother's basement, because this is a bad television show.

You haven't seen a brilliant billionaire this eager to pour his resources into privatizing crime-fighting for myopic personal reasons only to accidentally innovate the entire field since Fox's APB last spring, and if ratings for APB are any indication, you haven't seen that, either. Ditto with CBS' Pure Genius from last fall, in which a brilliant billionaire poured his resources into a private hospital for myopic personal reasons only to accidentally innovate the entire field for 13 barely viewed episodes. I guess since America was willing to turn its entire government over to an underqualified billionaire, this is in the real-life ether, too.

The principle and the title of this drama from Ted Humphrey (The Good Wife), who has worked on enough good shows to know better, are based on the idea that a sufficient enough volume of feedback can cut through individual garbage and yield truth. Like the way a restaurant with 10 reviews, eight of them positive, on Yelp may not be trustworthy, but you can probably trust a restaurant with 2,000 reviews, 1,600 of them positive. This, of course, is why in some small towns, Olive Garden also solves murders.

Tanner's team includes Sara (Natalie Tena), SOPHE's engineer, unmemorable head programmer Josh (Blake Lee) and rule-breaking hacker Tariq (Jake Matthews), the basement dweller from earlier. Tanner is getting emotional support from his ex-wife Alex (Monica Potter), who is a Congresswoman and therefore thousands of miles away from the show's Bay Area setting and therefore a hideous initial waste of the fantastic actress.

On some level, Wisdom of the Crowd is a lot like CBS' longish-running and reasonably admired Person of Interest, with one not-insignificant difference: Person of Interest was textually utterly terrified about the power that The Machine had unleashed and the potential to have that power run rampant over personal freedoms. This was also a concern that has driven Minority Report as a short story, a movie and, to a much lesser extent, a TV show. 

Instead of legitimate qualms, Wisdom of the Crowd has Richard T. Jones' Detective Cavanaugh, who was one of the original investigators into Tanner's daughter's murder. Cavanaugh is trained police, which means he thinks everything happening with SOPHE is disturbing. As a character in the pilot, Cavanaugh exists for only one reason, and that's to half-heartedly propose reasons that Tanner's plan is icky or unworkable or fundamentally wrong. Then Tanner shoots him down with dismissive lines like, "Privacy? We gave that up a long time ago so we could watch cat videos on our phone" and "Get ahead of the curve, detective. You're playing by rules that are obsolete." These obsolete rules include things like "chain of evidence" and "Constitutional protections." I don't remember the last time I watched a show with so much distaste for people who disagree with it, though I suspect there are people who feel this way about more clearly liberal shows. To them, I apologize. I'd argue that Wisdom of the Crowd isn't ideologically left or right, but rather just building a bad premise badly or, rather, treating a nightmare like a dream.

Casting Jones was perhaps the one good thing the show did. As much as Wisdom of the Crowd angered me, I can still imagine a version in which this often-dismissed Jiminy Cricket character might have been played by a woman or an effete nerd and the whole show would have been nothing but bullying the liberal cuck with the hippy-dippy take on justice. Nobody bullies Richard T. Jones, but apparently it's perfectly fine to be condescending to him and generally ignore him. The members of the SOPHE team are variably obnoxious, with Bakari's "I'm too young and edgy to care about laws" hacker and Piven's smug approach to Tanner coming across worst.

Piven initially built his career on high-enthusiasm comedy, but the relative success of Mr. Selfridge apparently enabled this transition into excessive earnestness drama. He's done no favors by the script or particularly the editing, like the decision to lay out basically consecutive scenes as "Intense murder investigation" into "Awkwardly flirty, weirdly jokey sex scene with subordinate" into "Maudlin dead daughter flashback," a series of transitions that made it impossible for me to look at the character as anything other than a cad, which I know wasn't intentional, because Wisdom of the Crowd believes completely in what Tanner believes even though nothing he's worked up is all that boundary-pushing. Actually, not only is SOPHE ethically problematic, several of the circumstances that the program puts people into in the pilot are either illegal or would, in any reasonable world, lead to a lawsuit against Tanner of a scale that the next five episodes would be non-stop depositions and no crowd-sourced crime-solving at all.

And maybe they will be! Maybe after a pilot in which quibbles are only scoffed at, Wisdom of the Crowd will grow a conscience by the second episode and will become more complicated and nuanced in subsequent episodes.

I will never know.

Cast: Jeremy Piven, Monica Potter, Richard T. Jones, Natalia Tena, Blake Lee, Jake Matthews
Creator: Ted Humphrey
Premieres: Sunday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (CBS)

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