A Tale of Two TV Pilots: Understanding the Failure of “Wonder Woman” Through the Success of “Arrow”
Several weeks ago I attended Austin Comic Con, one of two relatively large fan conventions in Texas (the other in Dallas, neither anything close to San Diego or Dragon*Con in Atlanta). This is the same con in which a marriage proposal happened in front of the reunited cast of "Star Trek: The Next Generation." You know the one, where Data's emotion chip is clearly malfunctioning and Captain Picard is in the midst of his patented headpalm reaction shot? Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to meet the cast - anyone who says "love don't cost a thing" is full of it, that proposal cost hundreds of dollars even before the ring was purchased - but I did get to peruse the less-than-legal wares of a DVD bootlegger.
I don't normally buy bootlegs. It's the principle of the thing: people work hard for their art and deserve to be compensated, which won't happen by trading with some dude at a booth on a convention floor. However, this trip I found something I've wanted to see in its entirety since it was cancelled before it actually aired, something the network that produced it will never, ever release for consumption by anyone on the planet because of its obvious awfulness. Of course, I'm talking about David E. Kelley's "Wonder Woman" pilot for NBC starring Adrianne Palicki (of "Friday Night Lights" and maybe the G.I. Joe sequel fame). Of course, I bought it. I had to.
After finally watching the sloppily put together DVD (the disc wasn't even labeled), I was not disappointed. "Wonder Woman" as imagined by the creator famous for "Ally McBeal" and "Picket Fences" is exactly as awesomely terrible, or terribly awesome, as one could hope for. The Rifftrax guys would have a field day. Yet, it wasn't entirely unsalvageable -- well, the cast, at least -- as a possible profitable enterprise, so why did the NBC brass choose not to buy the series or even bother finishing the pilot episode beyond this rough cut?
During filming, the most notorious aspect of this new Wonder Woman was the outfit that Palicki wore in promotional materials. Truly, hers was a costume that looked more like one of the slim pickings at Party City on November 1st than something designed by Edna Mode. Strangely enough, Palicki never actually wears that version of the suit in any of the pilot's 40+ minutes. Well, not the pants, anyway. Don't get me wrong, she wears pants (mostly), they just happen to be some sort of nylon/cotton blend and not painted-on latex. The first time we see Wonder Woman in her full regalia is in an early chase scene that figured into the cold open, and it makes very little sense even in the context of the rest of the episode. Still, the actress, her bustier, and her practical nylon/cotton blended pants acquit themselves well and are equally as believable as Chris Evans in The Avengers. (That's good.) Later, however, Wonder Woman traipses around a not-abandoned warehouse belonging to 'roided-up criminals in her comics-based star-spangled blue underpants. (That's less good.) This ought to be the height of ridiculous, but, as in the earlier action set piece, Palicki sells the shit out of her duds with the confidence of a supernatural demigod. Still, it's impossible not to think she ought to cover herself up a bit more. She's fighting crime, after all, not posing for Terry Richardson. Though, she does pose. Frequently.
The point being, we're far enough long now with Hollywood's adaptations of superhero comic books that seeing more traditional (re: silly) four-color tropes translated accurately isn't automatically a joke or a unmitigated disaster. As well, despite what you may have heard or read about Carey Elwes, the cast is rather solid throughout. Oh, sure, yes, the David E. Kelley dialogue they have to deliver is equal parts terrible and unintentionally (and unambiguously) hilarious, but from Palicki to Elwes to Tracie Thoms to Elizabeth Hurley the cast commits to their roles and delivers the best possible performances they could considering the atrocious script. Besides, after ten years of "Smallville," it isn't like groany puns, arch speechifying, and soapy melodrama absolutely can't make it on TV these days. Look at CW's "Arrow," for Cripe's sake.* Special effects, the most unfinished aspect of the whole affair, don't even enter into the conversation. "Wonder Woman" probably couldn't have looked any worse than "The Cape" in this regard, and that gem got ten needless episodes on the same network.
So if the most likely culprits aren't at fault, why did NBC scuttle this project into oblivion before giving viewers a chance to make up their own minds? It sure as hell isn't like the superhero bandwagon is going anywhere anytime soon. Somebody - people like me, and you, probably, if you're reading this - would have watched it. Because for all that it gets right, Kelley's "Wonder Woman" gets so, so much more wrong.
Let's start with the titular** character. Wonder Woman is an out superhero. The world of the show knows exactly who she is and has a much better grasp on what her deal is than the audience will by the end of the episode. She is Diana Themiscyra - a combination of her given name and the Amazonian island where she's from - the CEO of a corporation that seems entirely devoid of purpose besides funding Wonder Woman's crime fighting ventures by way of marketing and selling the character, mostly, it seems, as extremely busty dolls and action figures. She is also, unbeknownst to everyone but the entire supporting cast, Diana Prince, a woman just trying to survive in this work-a-day, super-by-night world with, in her own words, "perfect tits, perfect ass." So, our main character has three vaguely separate identities that are mainly differentiated by what they wear: Halloween costumes, power suits, and glasses, respectively.
The idea of tiered secret identities, one of which hides in the open, is intriguing and could be novel, but Kelley does very little to help us understand why Diana does this, much less why nobody seems to care what the CEO/superhero does on her off hours. Unlike the epically nerdy Clark Kent, Diana Prince is exactly the same as Diana Themiscyra but with the cover of basically having less money, who is exactly the same as Wonder Woman but with generally showing less skin. The biggest difference seems to be that Wonder Woman solves her problems by punching them in the throat, while Diana solvers hers by pigging out on a bag of chips while watching The Notebook with her cat, Sylvester. Yes, Sylvester the cat.
If the idea is that Wonder Woman is so emotionally fragile that she has to escape her superhuman and financial responsibilities by condescendingly slumming it as a "real person," it wasn't very well expressed. The character just comes off as entirely too unstable to do anyone any real good. This could be good (again, look at "Arrow" -- or any incarnation of Batman) if the writer knew what he was doing but Kelley doesn't seem to understand the Diana any better than we do. The show doesn't even realize it's telling us she how much sucks at life, it thinks she's an all-around badass deserving of actual, literal rounds of applause.
The standing ovation Wonder Woman receives after saving the day -- even though the boy she promised to protect still died -- is problematic regardless of whether it's earned. Other than Carey Elwes' executive and Tracie Thoms' personal assistant, the crowd is amassed from the faceless, nameless employees of Diana Themiscyra's corporation who apparently watch her super heroics with baited breath instead of doing any work. And they wait until she returns so the downtrodden superhero can feel extra good about herself. In the words of a former Vice Presidential candidate, who are these people and why are they here? It feels like Kelley wants to follow in the footsteps of Buffy's Scoobs, but this wasn't a highly funded private detective agency comprised of loveable hooligans who assist Wonder Woman in her ongoing mission to fight monsters and super villains (which would be amazing :cough:DC:cough:). This was a Fortune 500 company staffed with business professionals putting in overtime just to kiss the boss's ass.
Even if the show had those Whedonesque elements, "Wonder Woman" never tells us why Diana is a crime fighter or what sort of crimes she will fight the most, and there is zero mention of her Amazonian or godly origins. The only mythology introduced is an ex-boyfriend as the source of Wonder Woman's angst, who would be more interesting if he were a face drawn on a plank of wood. Kelley wanted us to simply understand that Wonder Woman was a superhero because she's a superhero and she's always been a superhero. But she spends most of her time onscreen pummeling mostly human thugs and cat-fighting with one rival company's CEO. To be fair, her characterization in the comics has been plagued with a similar lack of focus and direction for decades; if not for the recent run by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang, DC might never have found the right hook for the world's most famous female superhero.
By stark contrast, the "Arrow" pilot on CW (the same network that brought us ten gloriously awful years of the aforementioned "Smallville") told us exactly what the series', and thus Oliver Queen's, mission statement would be: wealthy heir becomes costumed vigilante in order to rid his hometown of corruption and greed, by any means necessary. Basically, they turned Green Arrow into Christopher Nolan's Batman. From the sympathetic cop, to the lawyer ex-girlfriend, to the years gone missing, and right down to the drunken playboy charade, Ollie is just a younger Bruce Wayne who didn't suffer tragedy until he was an adult. While derivative, this is not a bad thing. The clear, easily understood focus for the character is the hook, and it doesn't deter from the character development of the supporting players or the action beats that take up the remainder of its pilot episode. "Arrow" gives its audience something to look forward to, including a big ol' mystery to solve and a world to discover. "Wonder Woman" could only manage to give us the foggiest idea of a character, and even when peering through the density that idea wasn't a very good one.
However, it feels wrong for David E. Kelley to shoulder all of the blame for the fiasco that was his unaired, unfinished, unhinged "Wonder Woman" series. He clearly didn't know what to do with this particular character - who was obviously beyond his forte or interests - or what NBC wanted the show to be. His idea of a superhero that wages war against the darkest corners of our capitalist system isn't necessarily a bad one for a TV show; it just isn't Wonder Woman, an super-powerful Amazonian princess with genetic and cultural ties to Greek mythology. That strain clearly shows in the pilot, causing what works to fall into the gaping maw of what doesn't. We don't have to know her origins, but we sure as Hades need to understand her motivations.
If the corporate malfeasance in the pilot was any indication of the adventures Wonder Woman would experience in Kelley's show, she would have been better off utilizing her vast financial resources to sue the pants off Elizabeth Hurley rather than resorting to a (admittedly, well-choreographed) kick-punching match. Something tells me that mercilessly killing warehouse employees and beating up high level executives wouldn't hold up in court. But recast that idea as a She-Hulk series, with, say, Gina Carano playing the lawyer/super heroine who uses her law firm to support her vigilantism and vice-versa - basically marrying Bruce/Ollie and Rachel Dawes/Dinah Lance into a singular persona - to accentuate her utter dedication to truth and justice might have a project with incredibly toned legs. Hasn't Kelley had a few successful legal dramedies in the past? Call me, NBC.
If you ever get the chance to check out this "Wonder Woman", then I highly recommend that you do. Preferably not sober. It's the opposite of Batman, but it isn't entirely unpleasant. Whatever joy is derived, though, just isn't intentional -- along with Sylvester the Cat, there's a victimized young, black man called Willis. If broad camp was the point, David E. Kelley might have made something misunderstood and brilliant. As it stands, he just made one of the best drunken viewing parties you're ever likely to have. For that alone, he has earned his own round of applause from faceless, nameless strangers. So the next time you see him at an awards ceremony or Carl's Jr., be sure to cheer his presence with a chrous of "We love you, Wonder Woman!" He'll know why.
* As in Steve Cripe, maker of the Lightning Bolt, Jerry Garcia's last guitar.
** Yes, this is my favorite joke to make in regards to this show and I'll stop using it when I stop laughing.
Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. He's pretty sure that every character in every fiction could be made better with a little more Batman thrown into their recipe.
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