Early on in FOX’s “Human Target,” you’re going to feel an itching in your brain, a pulsating urge to question logic or motivation or plausibility. Ignore than urge, fight back that quibbling desire.
It isn’t that “Human Target” is a brainless drama. No, it’s actually pretty clever in spots. What “Human Target” is, however, is escapist action. For all of the high-tech gadgetry occasionally paraded on the screen, “Human Target” is a throwback to the streamlined TV thrill-rides of the ’70s or ’80s. The DNA from “Airwolf” or “The A-Team” runs through “Human Target” far more recognizably than the comic book series that gives the show its name.
“The Human Target” isn’t quite on-brand for FOX, but the network is launching the show with its one truly compatible program, pairing the premiere with the two-hour premiere of Day Eight of “24.”
In their current states, I can say without hesitation that “Human Target” is out-“24”-ing “24.”
Review of “Human Target” after the break…
Created for the comics by Len Wein and Carmine Infantino, “Human Target” focuses on Christopher Chance, a bodyguard and private investigator hired by endangered clients. In the comic, he impersonates, or stands in for the clients, flushing out the danger and eliminating it. He is a chameleon.
In the FOX TV series, developed by Jonathan E. Steinberg and directed in pilot form by Simon West, Mark Valley’s Christopher Chance isn’t nearly so good at blending into the background. The list of things that he is much better at include speaking Japanese, flying airplanes, physics and aerodynamics and handling all manner of firearms. Chance isn’t exactly a bodyguard and he isn’t exactly a secret agent and he isn’t an assassin or even an anti-assassin. Whatever a client needs, that’s what this Christopher Chance is and whatever he can’t do, that’s what he has Winston (Chi McBride) and Guerrero (Jackie Earle Haley) for. After watching two episodes, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what Winston and Guerrero specialize in, because the answer seems to be that they specialize in filling in the gaps and being where Christopher Chance can’t be.
The “Human Target” comic book title isn’t one that’s necessarily all that well known to the general public, which will be to the FOX show’s advantage. There’s a premise laid out in the first episode that sounds a lot like the plot of the comic, but it’s almost better to ignore what you’re told. If you just take Christopher Chance as the equivalent of Michael Westen from “Burn Notice” or the entire team from “Leverage,” you have a good idea of the myriad things for which one might hire him. He’s like full Dollhouse of actives wrapped up in one snarky, square-jawed package. What he isn’t is a chameleon or an human target.
But leave that aside!
In an slightly odd stylistic choice, “Human Target” begins its run with a pair of episodes set in self-contained environments. In the premiere, he’s protecting the designer (Tricia Helfer) of the California Bullet Train, who worries that somebody on the train’s maiden voyage is trying to kill her. In the second episode, he takes to the skies, this time attempting to save a hacker on an airplane. Is it just that Chance works better in enclosed spaces? Or did the production want to explore its format with more manageable episodes? In any case, viewers will probably be left expecting episodes on boats, tour buses and dirigibles before the end of the first season, when I don’t think the “Human Target” premise need necessarily be that claustrophobic.
Tonally, “Human Target” probably fits right in-between the extremes of two shows I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago. It’s not quite as funny as “Burn Notice” can be when it does one of its light episodes and it isn’t as serious as “Leverage” can sometimes get when the cause-of-the-week is extra important. The stakes are life and death for the secondary characters, but even if the week’s guest star is somebody as recognizable as Helfer (one of at least three “Battlestar Galactica” regulars and semi-regulars in the first couple episodes), you don’t get too invested. “Human Target” doesn’t seem like the kind of show where the main character fails to protect his clients very often.
For the most part, “Human Target” stays strictly procedural, with some minor structural trickery in the second episode. Mostly, Chance, Winston and Guerrero get their weekly case, make some sarcastic quips, cause some things to blow up and that’s a day. There are minor intimations regarding Chance’s background, which was dark and more-than-possibly on the wrong side of the law. The first episode also contains a line hinting at the inner turmoil from Chance’s constant need to blend in, to assume new identities. That line feels like a vestigial carryover from the original premise, one that has little to do with Chance’s final “Human Target” occupation.
It’s rare to see a network show with a cast this tiny, but when you have performers as good as Valley, McBride and Haley (plus the Vancouver well of familiar guest stars), you don’t necessarily need a bigger ensemble.
This is Valley’s best role since the brief glory days of “Keen Eddie,” another FOX action-dramedy directed by Simon West. It plays up his best attributes — his strong chin, his smirk and his gifted deadpan — and he also comes through convincingly in action scenes. The FOX promos for “Human Target,” particularly the ones airing with “American Idol,” try to sell the character as a butt-kicking lothario, an American James Bond. That’s not the case. Christopher Chance is not the kind of operative who beds his client.
There will be a temptation to view McBride’s Winston as a less flamboyant extension of Emerson Cod from “Pushing Daisies,” as he coordinates Chance’s engagements the same way Emerson set things up for The Piemaker. And since that’s as high a compliment as I can pay, I’ll give into that temptation. McBride just plays stern-and-mocking authority like nobody working in primetime. There was never any chance McBride was going to be able to top “Pushing Daisies” in his first follow-up series and it’s a relief that he landed on such solid ground.
And for Haley, this is just the latest step in one of Hollywood’s great comeback stories. In two episodes, we’ve only begun to get a feeling for how much Guerrero (possibly not his birth name) is capable of, but we know that despite his diminutive stature and soft voice, he’s a dangerous and threatening man. Haley sells the character’s menace, especially in one great monologue in the pilot.
“Human Target” got a little bit hosed by the NFL giving FOX the early football game on Sunday (Jan. 17) afternoon, denying the show the chance for a massive premiere sampling. FOX set things right by scheduling an encore after “American Idol” on Tuesday. With its great cast and its no-pretense attitude, “Human Target” is the sort of show I’d like to see stick around. With a little buzz this spring, I can see it making an fun pairing with “Bones” on Thursdays next fall.
“Human Target” premieres on FOX at 8 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 17 and moves into its regular night on Wednesday, Jan. 20.