TV EYE: Pilot Season – ‘Reaper’, ‘The Bionic Woman’ and ‘The Sarah Connor Chronicles’

Summer is here, the clock is ticking towards the start of the new season of US TV in America– so, in the spirt of forward-thinking, I’m leaping into action early, and taking a look at some of the upcoming genre-related shows that are heading our way. Once again, it’s going to probably be a combination of fun and frustrating seeing what gets recomissioned and what dies a swift death– but with both Galactica and Lost waiting until January 08 before unleashing their fourth seasons, we’re going to have to take our genre thrills where we can. Fear the spoilers- especially in relation to The Sarah Connor Chronicles- and buckle up…

REAPER

It’s no surprise to find Kevin Smith onboard this comic fantasy as writer-director of the pilot, as it essentially plays as a mixture of Clerks and Dogma, taking a twentysomething slacker who’s stuck in a boring job at a hardware store, and giving him some direction in his life. Unfortunately, it comes in the form of him finding out that his parents sold his soul to the Devil, and now Satan (a fantastically oily and entertaining turn from Twin Peaks star Ray Wise) wants him to become Hell’s bounty hunter on Earth, hunting down escaped souls and returning them to the fire of the Inferno. If this all sounds rather silly, then you’d be right, but for the most part Reaper doesn’t try to conceal its daftness and has the major advantage of being extremely funny. Wise is an absolute boon in his handful of appearences, while Bret Harrison manages to make a decent everyman hero without sinking into blandness, and Tyler Labine (previously seen in Invasion) is great value as the loud-mouthed best friend. In terms of execution, it’s not quite there– certain pilots see their series arriving fully formed, but Reaper still needs some honing to work, with the action being a little weak, and the cracks in the concept showing when the script tries to get serious. It does look in serious danger of being a monster-of-the-week show, and it’ll be interesting to see whether it builds on this start or simply repeats until boredom sets in, but Reaper has definitely moved higher up on my list of ‘shows worth checking out’, and there’s certainly nowhere else you can see a flaming, fire-belching muscleman being defeated with the aid of a satanic Dustbuster vacuum cleaner…

THE BIONIC WOMAN

At first glance, it sounds like a monumentally bad idea– but then, so did a remake of Battlestar Galactica, and it’s obvious from the corpse-strewn opening sequence, with a bionically enhanced Katee Sackhoff (one of many Galactica alumuni making an appearence) having gone postal, that Executive Producer David Eick is hoping that lightning will strike twice. It’s a brave move with such a potentially campy storyline, but while a pitch-black adult remix of Galactica makes sense (it is, despite the original’s chirpiness, a story that starts with the genocide of most of humanity), it’s not quite so easy to make a straight-faced version of a story as essentially daft as The Bionic Woman. Here, they’ve gone for the edgy action/sci-fi angle, with the violence and gore kept to a strictly network-tv level, as Jamie Summers (Michelle Ryan, ex-Zoe Slater from Eastenders, and recently Jekyll) finding out her boyfriend’s actually working on a top secret bionics program, which turns out lucky when a horrific accident sees her losing all but one of her limbs. One nanotech operation later, and she’s got super-powered hearing, superb combat abilities and can apparently run as fast as Eric Idle in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, but the downside is that her life now belongs to ‘the Agency’, plus there’s a group of sinister bad guys out to hi-jack the experiment.

It’s all played deadly serious, but the results only every become fitfully exciting, while clunky writing hammers in the feminist subtext whenever it can, and the tone and shooting style feel suspiciously dated, as well as being decidedly reminiscent of Dark Angel. While Ryan does a good job with her American accent and Sackhoff is clearly having a ball as a recurring vilainess, the boyfriend is terribly bland (and will hopefully be meeting a horrible end before long), and the whole thing ends up feeling a little po-faced. Acknowledging the ridiculousness of the situation wouldn’t have done the show that much harm, and while there are some decent elements– particularly a grumpy goth sister who’s deaf, and actually feels like a genuine character rather than a plot device, as well as the welcome sight of a support role for the ever-wonderful Miguel Ferrer (hooray for Twin Peaks’ Albert Rosenthal)– it ends up feeling too serious for its own good, and seems a likely candidate for a short episode run unless they straighten out some of the problems. Not dreadful, but it’s not exactly the original Galactica miniseries either…

THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES

Or, ‘Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles’ if you trust the opening titles. The news that portions of the pilot are going to be reshot thanks to their similarities to recent school shootings also does a good job of pointing out how weird it is to try and turn the Terminator mythos into a family-friendly US Network TV show. Truth be told, the scenes involving the gunplay in school are on the edgy side– and yet that’s what makes them fit in with the ethos of the original films (Well- the original two. Let’s forget about T3 shall we, as everyone else seems to be), and one of the best things about the pilot is the way it does try to fit with the tone and execution of the films. Best of all, there’s the presence of Lena Headey, who manages to actually make the recasting work– without doing an impersonation, it’s possible to join the dots between Linda Hamilton’s performance and what we’re seeing here, and the mother/son dialogue between her and John (Thomas Dekker) also fits in with the arc of the characters, making it seem like the idea of wrapping a series around them isn’t a completely insane one. Unfortunately, then we start running into problems– some of which are to do with budget, some to do with poor execution (there’s some exceptionally poor make-up effects in places, and a blood-free Terminator is a very odd thing to see), and most to do with the fact that it’s not directed by James Cameron. Considering how sharp the action is in the original films, it’s sad to see that the action scenes- while not appalling- don’t match the intensity of other shows like 24 or Galactica, or even the original low-budget Terminator, while the main T-800 adversary is a pretty poor substitute for Arnie– even the craggy version we got in T3.

Outside of the central pairing, the acting is strictly low-grade TV material, especially the FBI agent hunting Sarah Connor down, and while Firefly’s Summer Glau does a pretty good job and is rather an obvious choice for a female ‘guardian’ Terminator, she isn’t always consistent and her take on the classic ‘come with me if you want to live’ line is dangerously flat. To be honest, even in spite of these problems, I was having fun with the Sarah Connor Chronicles– until the big setpiece at the end, and the desperate re-engineering of the Terminator mythology. With the original Terminator movie (and John Connor’s conception) firmly locked in as 1984, and the fact that T2 clearly states that ‘Judgement Day’ was supposed to happen on August 29th 1997, there were going to be severe problems for any new instalments of the series– but instead of either ignoring continuity or rewriting it, they try to do both. For some reason, they’ve relocated the events of T2 as having happenned in 1997, most of the pilot is set in 1999, and then– in possibly the loopiest macguffin I’ve seen in a while– Glau’s female Terminator leads them to an anti-Terminator gun, and an entire Bank Vault that (thanks to some Bill and Ted-style time mechanics) has been transformed into a time machine. For no real reason other than them not wanting to make a period show, the characters then transport forward to 2007, while Judgement Day has now been relocated to 2011. Confused yet? Well, just give it time. Headey almost sells the whole thing on her performance alone, but while The Sarah Connor Chronicles might make great novelty viewing, it’s going to need some serious retooling if it’s going to stand a chance of surviving as a series.

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