TV EYE: PILOT SEASON – ‘Chuck’ and ‘Flash Gordon’

More pilot-related fun. I could have told you something specific about Sex and the City writer Candace Bushnell new series ‘Lipstick Jungle’, if I’d actually got past the first twenty minutes without wanting to hurl myself out of the nearest window. So, instead, here’s some spy shennanigans from the creator of ‘The O.C., and a non-advance review for a show that’s already airing, the less-than-inspired re-imagining of pulp hero Flash Gordon. Fear the spoilers…

CHUCK

A couple of weeks ago, I watched the pilot episode of ‘Reaper’, which was about a directionless twentysomething with a slightly scuzzy best friend who works at a hardware store, but then finds his life transformed when he’s gifted with bizarre abilities. Then, this week, I saw the pilot for ‘Chuck’, which was about a directionless twentysomething with a slightly scuzzy best friend who works at a hardware store, but then finds his life transformed when he’s gifted… well, you get the point, but it’s slightly eerie exactly how similar in tone and execution Chuck is to Reaper– you get examples like this in movies all the time, but I’m hard-pressed to think of an example since DS9 and Babylon 5 arrived within about a year of each other. Both of these series are debuting at the same time, and I can’t see both of them surviving– but it’s not an immediate slam-dunk as to which I’d like to see live on to success. ‘Chuck’ is essentially a self-aware and terribly silly spy romp about a twentysomething nerd who finds, through a gloriously unlikely set of consequences, that he’s had a computer possessing all the secrets of the US Government downloaded into his head, meaning he’s soon being romanced by a kick-ass female spy, and menaced by a supremely grumpy agent (the ever-reliable Adam Baldwin, apparently playing exactly the same role that he did on Day Break). The mixture of comedy and thrills isn’t quite as even as it could be, and is occasionally very clunky, and Reaper’s pilot was more consistently funny, and yet there’s a daffy charm and a slick sense of energy to Chuck that Reaper doesn’t quite possess. It’s also got a much more personable lead in Zachary Levi, who comes across as a version of SNL comedian Jimmy Fallon that doesn’t immediately make me want to projectile vomit, and a habit of throwing in gratuitous underwear shots from its female lead that just teters on outright camp. If it exploits the giddy nature of its premise and doesn’t let the silliness get completely out of hand, Chuck could be tremendous fun– but what slightly elbows it ahead of Reaper (at least for me) is that there’s a massive number of possibilities and ways for the show to evolve. Reaper was more consistently funny, and yet could be in serious danger of being a format-led ‘monster of the week’, while Chuck is flawed, but has plenty of potential– it’s just up to the writing team whether or not it gets realised…

FLASH GORDON

I love the 1982 movie adaptation of Flash Gordon. It’s camp, it’s ridiculous, there’s heaps wrong with it, and yet I can’t think of another sci-fi movie that’s so downright colourful and entertaining. The film and Queen’s immortal theme-song have worked their way into pop culture to such an extent, it’s rather difficult to view this new Sci-Fi Channel series as a seperate entity– but taken on its own terms, it’s a fatally damp squib. What we have here is an attempt to generate a Smallville rip-off by inserting a famous pulp character into an American small-town set-up with enough sci-fi to keep the teenage geeks happy, but not so much that the sets or special effects departments are strained too much. Dumping the traditional rocket-ship journey to Mongo and rewiring it into a Stargate-style tale of dimensional rifts is something I can live with– but this kind of sci-fi lives or dies on the idea of the exotic colliding with the everyday, and the first glimpse we get of Mongo looks like– suprise, suprise– a grimy industrial powerstation. Almost all the sci-fi elements are pretty weakly imagined, and while there’s a few nods to the pulp traditions (particularly Ming’s concubines) and one scene that’s a direct lift from the movie, mostly this is a rampantly unexciting runaround that acts as a pale primer for the series’ universe, and if you ignore the shots of Mongo City, this could have been aired at any time in the last ten years. Mostly, it’s a wander through unmitigated cliches- from the cool black best friend, to Flash wrestling with his obsession to find his father, all wrapped up with lots of running around in the traditional Vancouver forests that, after Stargate and Galactica, are looking rather worn as stand-ins for alien planets. The sad thing is that the two leads- Eric Johnson and Gina Holden- don’t do a bad job with what they’re given (even if Holden’s resembelnce to Kristin Kreuk just makes the Smallville comparisons even more obvious), and there are moments where you can see the kind of frothy romp the production team were aiming for– but then, we get an embarrassing fight with a stuntman in a daft robot costume, or a version of Dr. Hans Zarkoff that’s so embarrassingly handled (and acted) that he isn’t even given a name in the entire pilot. Most of all, it simply comes across as the kind of comic adaptation that used to happen in the mid-nineties, when writers would throw away everything except the names and the basic set-up, and the results would simply make you want to go back and re-read the original. Flash Gordon’s bland new TV incarnation may massively improve– but I’ll stick with kinky alien princesses, Sam J. Jones in leather pants and Brian Blessed yelling “DIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIVVVVVEEEEE” if you don’t mind…

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