Friday, July 10, 2009

Review: Warehouse 13 (Pilot)

It's pilot season again!

For those of you not paying attention to this kind of thing, you may not have heard that the Sci Fi channel, in a desperate bid to attract more viewers, recently rebranded itself as "Syfy" with a cheerful purple, vaguely feminine colour scheme. The idea, I think, is to attract all those women scared off by the "Sci Fi" label.

You can watch their rather hilariously sparkly! promotional commercial here.

Warehouse 13 is the first of the new shows to come out of the Syfy name. The concept is a reasonably simple one: somewhere in South Dakota there is an enormous warehouse containing a large collection of magical or historically advanced artifacts and technologies from all over the world. Two Secret Service agents are recruited to "snag, bag and tag" stray artifacts causing hijinks across the United States.

I enjoyed this show. I want to make that clear from the beginning, because I have a feeling a lot of what I'm going to say is going to be negative. It was fun, watchable, light, and never made me want to turn it off. I liked the characters.

That said, it was more along the lines of a warm cup of tea that a piping hot one.

I have said that the show was light. I think that most of this episodes luke-warmness stems from its failure to capture the right balance of darkness and light. The writers were Rockne O'Bannon (The Twilight Zone), D. Brent Mote (not very much) and Jane Espenson (Buffy, Battlestar Galactica). Jane Espenson brought you some of your favourite funny Buffy episodes and her kind of undermining wit was very obvious throughout the episode. I think, though, that these three writers together lacked the gravity to bring the show down to Earth.

There were plenty of moments where I think seriousness was intended to take over, but I think overall they were too brief for any kind of tension to build up. Scenes that I think were meant to be eerie were cliche and campy and never allowed to progress for very long before someone broke the silence. Moments where a character was genuinely shaken were steamrollered over by humour. Wit and humour can be used to great effect but without establishing a base, too much humour is like too much helium in a hot air balloon. Once the show gets too high off the ground, anything serious (and there were some moments that could have been very serious) is lost.

The characters, although likeable, were part of this helium pulling the show up. The two agents were played by Joanne Kelly (right brain character) and Eddie McClintock (left brain character). Both characters, despite having traditionally dark reasons for being the way they are, lacked a genuine darkness or seriousness in the way they acted or the way they spoke. Nor did they convince me as Secret Service agents.

Saul Rebinek, playing the kooky milk-drinking keeper of Warehouse 13, curiously managed to pack more of a punch than either Kelly or McClintock. He did manage to scratch the surface of gravitas. However, it was not enough to undo the bumbling, strange-gadget using way his character was written. With Rebinek, however, I felt that there were depths we hadn't plumbed and so of the three main characters I found him most convincing.

I don't think the writing and acting was helped by the direction (Jace Alexander, who directed the Burn Notice pilot). From a waitress going around a genteel occaision calling "champagne!" quite loudly (although, who knows, maybe that's how some genteel parties work?) to editing misdirection that was a felt too deliberate once you realised it was misdirection, I think that it was slightly off. The light, fun writing needed someone who would work to find the gravity in the situation, and I'm not sure Alexander really managed to do this.

Aside from the lightnes, there were a few other issues, mostly plot related. There were things that didn't quite hang together, especially with regards to the way characters interacted with each other and their environment. I think more attention needs to be paid to reality and logic as well as to the fantastical side of the show.

But for a show with a simple premise, Warehouse 13 coughed up a few memorable things-- mostly moments of humour. It's got definate potential, and I feel that there is certainly space for darkness, should a writer or a director go looking for it.

What would I like to see? I think I've answered this question already! A little bit more gravitas from writers, director and actors (or, just two out of three), and a little less corn, would be lovely.