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America's Attic

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV Reviews | July 15, 2009 | Comments ()


warehouse13.jpg

And that is exactly what we do here. We take the unexplained ... and we just safely tuck it away in this super-sized Pandora's Box." -Artie
"Metaphorically speaking." -Pete
"Well, actually, Pandora's box is over in Aisle 989-B. Empty, of course." -Artie


"Warehouse 13" debuted last Tuesday night on the SyFy channel (really they're actually making us call them that? I feel stupider having just typed that spelling), with a two-hour pilot that drew 3.5 million viewers. That makes it SyFy's third largest opener ever, and the biggest draw on cable that night.

Originally conceived in 2008 as a sort of dramedy spin on the "X-Files," an initial pilot was written by Rockne O'Bannon, best know perhaps for creating "Farscape." That pilot was scrapped and then rewritten by D. Brent Mote and Jane Espenson of "Buffy" fame. That pilot did the trick for the SyFy channel and they ordered a ten episode season that is now airing Tuesdays at nine.

Remember the giant warehouse at the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark"? Not the one from "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," the existence of that film is an absurd and hateful myth. Basically "Warehouse 13" is a tongue-in-cheek interpretation of the people who would run such a warehouse, "America's attic" as one character aptly describes it. Anything supernatural, alien, weird, or just plain inexplicable is dumped into this gargantuan government warehouse on the outskirts of Bumblefuck, South Dakota. It's a good premise, the sort that can be pitched in a sentence or two without sounding retarded, while providing plenty of room for episodic exploration.

We're introduced to two Secret Service agents: Mulder and Scully. Er, Pete and Myka. Pete (Eddie McClintock) is intuitive, impulsive and breaks rules when they get in the way. Myka (Joanne Kelly) is a by-the-book, anally retentive detail freak. Their yin and yang combine into a sort of supernatural crime fighting Voltron. The pilot succeeds in fleshing them out just enough so that we get a feeling of three dimensionality out of them instead of just their one-line character descriptions. Myka is furious at the assignment, insistent that it is a waste of her talents. It's well acted, she doesn't come across as quite the shrill egotist suggested by a straight reading of the lines. Rather, Myka genuinely appeals as that person who gets stuck in a crap job. Pete on the other hand loves the warehouse. He's played with an absolute childish glee reminiscent of Jack Carter over on that other SyFy channel quirk "Eureka." Whether it's instantly being won over by Artie mentioning that he made cookies, or grinning madly at the tour of the warehouse, Pete is the overgrown ten year old who can really appreciate the wonders offered by the warehouse.

A trio of enigmatic characters steal every scene they're in. Artie, played with gusto by Saul Rubinek, is the veteran agent who has run the warehouse for so long that he has gone native, for lack of a better description. He has a curious combination of mysterious silliness, veiled sadness, and sudden anger. CCH Pounder drops in as the formidable Mrs. Frederick, who communicates with one glare the violence of a platoon of ninjas. Genelle Williams plays Leena, the psychic new-agey old friend of Artie's who runs the local bed and breakfast and clearly knows more than a simple innkeeper should. She also melts a hole right through the television screen in a sensual flirtation with Pete that is all in the intonation, without a single word or gesture that moves beyond a G-rating.

The pilot is a bit uneven, in that choppy sort of way you see in pilots that have bounced around through too many editing sessions and too many test audiences. There are little details here and there that jerk at the plot without making sense, like the editors had cut up and re-spliced some scenes so many times that they lost track of which snippets of conversation or action depended on each other for context. Why does Pete tell the waitress he's sleeping with at the beginning that he's a fireman, when it's also made clear that he knows she's going to be working the event he'll be at in his Secret Service capacity? Why does Pete unload his gun off camera right before the climactic scene in which a bad guy manages to get a hold of his gun? Little inconsistencies like this throw unnecessary wrenches in a number of scenes. Hopefully, they're the sort of glitches that will iron themselves out as the show lurches into steady production instead of being endlessly re-cut after test showing feedback.

When the show works, it works really well, managing a good balance of mystery, darkness and light hearted quirk, sort of a cross between "Eureka" and "The X-Files." When it doesn't work though, it's really bad. Like "Cleopatra 2525" or "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" bad. The last 20 minutes of the pilot just aren't good television, which is really disappointing after the first hour or so really held its own with a mix of light horror and science fiction.

The difference is that the first hour is dominated by the introduction of the warehouse's mysteries and Artie, Mrs. Frederick, and Leena. The second hour takes Pete and Myka out of the warehouse and devolves into a simple procedural with hokey special effects and a lame evil hair pin. Was the props department all out of Nazi scrunchies and Communist barrettes? This is especially worrying since that second hour seems to be more in line with the description of the show, so is probably more indicative of the direction envisioned by the show runners.

The second episode dramatically improved over the latter half of the pilot, finding a good balance between the characters, in addition to focusing on a plot-of-the-week that had that "X-Files" short sci-fi story quality to it instead of the magic mumbo jumbo B-movie angle of the pilot. It takes on a feel evocative of Charlie Stross's Atrocity Archives.

So is it worth watching? It definitely has potential. The actors are capable, the characters are well drawn, the show runners have a decent track record, and hints of interesting larger stories are dropped throughout the first two episodes. I think it's worth watching this first ten episode season to see if it can grow into its potential, but if you've got a serious shortage of TiVo space it's not quite as good at the moment as "Eureka," as far as quirky summer sci-fi shows go.

"You, uh, wished for a transfer, didn't you? Oh, see, impossible wishes, wishes that can never be granted, they produce a ferret. Don't ask me why. My first year here, the whole place was crawling with ferrets." -Artie

Steven Lloyd Wilson is the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. He is a hopeless romantic who can be found wandering San Diego's strip malls and suburbs looking for his mislaid soul and waiting for the revolution to come. Burning Violin is still published weekly on Wednesdays at www.burningviolin.com, along with assorted fiction and other ramblings.


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