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Not just for your eyes only: CBS’ ‘Intelligence’ deserves a strong second look

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“Houston, we don’t have a problem anymore.” Patience is a virtue. CBS executives must have a lot of it, but as it turns out, they were right. And, after one stilted set-up introduction season debut, followed by Episode 2, where you introduce a haunted hunt for a long-lost wife and her potential demise, plus Episode 3, where you meet, and perhaps delete, the evil twin cyborg-brain, at last we have a winner! On the Jan. 27, 2014 broadcast of “Intelligence,” titled “Secrets of the Secret Service,” the program inspired by the book “Phoenix Island,” by John Dixon, has found a groove and hit its stride as a real team show. If you had already tuned out, jump back in.

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Tonight’s plot was to introduce several new adversaries all at once, both individual and political, and watch as the U.S. President found plenty of time to want to quiz Gabriel and wind up being quite taken with America’s greatest new secret weapon, a charming way to set up awe and admiration of the highest caliber, for what really was going on inside Gabe Vaughn’s brain. Intelligent writing, careful show direction and the best acting of the team so far produced the perfect episode, perhaps one that should have been the first one out of the box.

Episode 4’s structure was predicated on a familiar, but friendly, theme:

Gabriel and Riley pose as Secret Service agents in Syria in order to rescue two American journalists being held hostage. While there, Riley must work with her former boyfriend, and the truth behind their past is revealed.

If you missed the program, you can always catch it on CBS.com. Keep in mind that if you didn’t think the first three episodes were “all that,” content-wise, Episode 4 makes up for three tentative ones. For every do-gooding protagonist there has to be an evil czar born to oppose, blockade and prevent good from triumphing. That’s fine television drama at its best. Good guys you love to love; bad guys you love to hate. Passionate reactions guarantee you’ll tune in each week, right? This is the one to watch.

What’s interesting is that “Secrets of the Secret Service” provides a refreshing take on introducing more to the depth of character of Gabe’s protector, Riley Neal. An old boyfriend is introduced, and the former dynamic duo are forced to partner up, uncomfortably, with Gabe in the middle as referee, playing catch-up, reading boyfriend’s files but maintaining his promise not to peek into Riley’s. Sweet.

Then, there are the purported protagonists, who are (supposedly) two captured American journalists stuck in Syria. Almost sounds like a theme a little too close to home. Rather than being banal and boring, show creator Michael Seitzman and co-writer Matthew Lau threw in several unexpected plot twists. Riley’s superior skills are finally showcased and she’s shed the petulant look of frustration as having pulled “guard duty to a cyborg” and instead Meghan Ory has embraced her character’s strengths and they just burst onto the screen, through looks, line delivery and comfort in her zone.

Spoiler alert: First, turns out that the journalists aren’t really. Second, it turns out that the Head of the CIA decides that he didn’t need to fill Lillian Stringer, the Head of Gabe’s home base, U.S. Cyber Command, in on, for a mission that the U.S. President just happened to be on. Do what? That’s right. Secret agents keeping secrets, not trusting each other; well that’s business as usual in the war on war. Sir Winston Churchill started the game off with “The enemy of my enemy is my ally.” But, the fun of the show comes in when you see the jockeying for position and power throughout each scene between the two agency heads.

Marg Helgenberg knocks the cover off the ball when it came to showing why her character, Lillian Stringer, is the head of the agency she leads. She’s tough, relentless, and a perfectly formidable adversary to the uber cranky Jeffrey Tetazoo, Head of the CIA, a character introduced tonight, well played by Lance Reddick. You could feel the tension in the room when the pair exchanged information as though it were the contents of the last canteen of water in the desert. Terse comments that communicated protective and territorial turf thrust and parry flew tonight: “Need to know.” “Clearance.” “Who do you think you are?” All that guarantees some more interagency conflict in the future. Plus, those who love all things spycraft will enjoy learning new words, like “wet op” and “hot extraction.” Good stuff.

Also, tonight we met the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) a real-life position, who is the President’s chief play-caller for all things intelligence. For every time you’ve heard the oft-used phrase “It’s complicated,” that’s a perfect descriptor for DNI Adam Weatherly, played by Tomas Arana, who is the referee, and boss, between the U.S. Cyber Command and CIA agency heads.

The show flowed fast and effectively, with tremendous visual effects and graphic touches that showed more nuances of the strength of Gabe’s human-plus-machine capabilities. A fun note, on the one hand, is the disarming way in which the President is fascinated, like a little kid even, with Gabriel’s chip-implanted brain. The exchange between the two is well worth watching. Riley comes in and adds a level of rescue and protection that Gabe actually needs.

However, doing their best to be as real world as possible, you can chunk the warm, fuzzy feeling you have about the President as he unilaterally decides (we are to understand) that there should be “checks and balances” where Agent Vaughn is concerned. “Oh really?”, you ask. Suddenly, someone is worried about what might happen if Gabe makes an independent decision, or deviates from the plan? Funny. They create a machine from a volunteer and patriot, they irreversibly engineer his present, enhance his past and now they want to dictate his future? He’s not “Secret Squirrel”; he’s human, mostly.

That is the perfect way to top the arc of the storyline and the theme of Gabe vs. the “checks and balances” boys will undoubtedly flow throughout every future show. Lillian Stringer (Helgenberger) will now have to be the buffer between her property, her team and her way of leading her agency vs. others who rule by political vote or budget or a quiver full of dirty tricks. You think leading the U.S. Cyber Command isn’t enough to do? Now she has to babysit and placate bureaucrats. She can do it.

One character who is still annoying, but not the actor himself, is P.J. Byrne’s Nelson Cassidy, son of the wise inventor of the chip, and the joystick jockey on some of the electronic gizmos. The bottom line is that a subplot between daddy the genius and the overachieving and resentful son will likely arise eventually. Question is: will we care? So many people care about Josh Holloway that whatever Nelson does or doesn't do, the viewers will be there. Holloway has finally found his comfort zone and struck a balance between trying to get used to his new brain capacity and really adding his humanity to make it work better. Credit Michael Seitzman for bouncing back.

After the fourth episode, the investment of time for those of you who watched the first three episodes, paid off in major fashion. If next week’s episode can skip introducing any more old boyfriends, lost wives, and never-seen spouses, and focus more on the 3-D gadgetry inside Agent Vaughn’s brain, viewers will reward with a return to great ratings. After all, it could be that ratings dropped in prior weeks because people were just plain "sick of stupid" in watching “Mike and Molly” and “Mom,” and gave up before “Intelligence” arrived. As long as they keep giving viewers reruns of “NCIS” while they tease us with a cliffhanger just one week more, “Intelligence” is new and worth a second, and third, look. This time, Houston, “The Eye’s Got it (Right).”

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