I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, dear readers, but in narrative writing, few things are more important than character introduction
Want a great character introduction? Try Bryan Cranston in his undies, gas mask and RV in “Breaking Bad.” Try Timothy Olyphant shooting the sleaze in a Miami restaurant in “Justified.” Try Julianna Margulies, standing by her man, but clearly not standing by her man in “The Good Wife.” The way you meet a good character informs everything you learn about them afterwards, or it should. If you’re telling a story with a strong central character, you shouldn’t ever introduce that character in a haphazard way. Good writers don’t.
If, for example, your character is a spunky and determined young FBI agent who works so much she never has time to take a vacation? That character shouldn’t be introduced asleep and then complaining about her workload and lack of social life. Because no matter where the story goes from there, no matter how often you try showing me that you have a character who never leaves the job behind, who never stops asking questions, who refuses to quit until she’s finished her task, what I remember is the character comfortably, placidly, restfully asleep. Rather than starting with action, with detail, with a vivid illustration, you can stumble your way five or 10 or 20 minutes into a pilot (or a movie or into a book or a play) without giving me anything that defines your character other than what she says or has said about her.
Of course, that last paragraph wasn’t a hypothetical. It refers to FBI Agent Audrey Parker (Emily Rose), a bland and reactive character who keeps having people talk about her as if she’s intriguing and proactive. She is, in fact, an utterly perfect character to serve as the centerpiece for the new Syfy drama “Haven,” a generic and unremarkable series in which characters keep saying things are distinctive and mysterious. “Haven” isn’t the first or worst show to affirm that old truism about the value of showing and not telling, but it’s certainly the only one premiering on Friday (July 9) night. [If you want another, you’ll have to go to A&E on Sunday for the somewhat better “The Glades.”]
Full review of “Haven” after the break…
So like I said, our story begins with FBI Agent Parker working around the clock, or else sleeping in her bed. She’s a dogged agent and she doesn’t have time to find a man or to find a partner. Instead, she reads teenage vampire fiction and makes unprompted expositional statements about her childhood as a ward of the state. You know her interest in the watered-down occult and her lack of a stable past will come to be important later on, because there’s no other motivation for them being mentioned.
Her boss, a stern African-American gentleman who certainly doesn’t have a character and may not even have a name, sends her packing to the small town of Haven, Maine. Her reason for going has something to do with an escaped federal prisoner, but the reason why she’s the one being sent, the reason she bothers staying in town after 15 minutes and the reason she [SPOILER!] stays in town afterward are as fuzzy as the fog that rolls into Haven at inopportune moments.
Haven’s a weird city, you see. They have a police officer (Lucas Bryant) who can’t feel pain, another resident who may have telekinetic powers, another who seems to control the weather, a rakish smuggler (Eric Balfour) who doesn’t seem to smuggle anything and, strangest of all, a thriving local newspaper. What do any of these things have to do with the case Agent Parker is supposed to solve? Meh. What do any of them have to do with her reasons for staying? Meh. Why on Earth will viewers watch “Haven”? No idea.
It’s hard to know what “Haven” is even supposed to be. It’s based to such a minor extent on Stephen King’s “The Colorado Kid” that there are no genre hints to be found there. In fact, if you’re changing the name and changing the story from the Stephen King book, why bother mentioning it at all? Why bother paying for the rights? Or does King legitimately hold a copyright that says if you’re setting a story in Maine and it has “weird” characters he has to get a paycheck? Using King’s name in promotion is just a bait-and-switch which won’t be well received by viewers.
“Haven” is couched as a mystery or a thriller of some sort, but offers neither of either. Agent Parker doesn’t seem to be especially good at her job and she lucks or stumbles into everything that happens to her. The characters she meets are odd, but they aren’t notably odd. At least with a show as bad as “Happy Town,” you never doubted its agenda for a second, even if it was so pervasively quirky that the quirk became boring. “Haven” is shot in gray, muted tones and its quirk blends right in.
Strong actors, though, can overcome gray, muted tones. “Haven” lacks for those sorts of actors.
That doesn’t mean the stars of “Haven” are bad actors. It just means that there are certain actors who don’t need rounded characters, dialogue or action to make impressions and “Haven” hasn’t been cast with those actors.
I like Emily Rose. On other shows, I’ve found her appealing and spunky. That’s a function of her ability and screen presence as much as what she was given to do on other shows, since she’s frequently been given characters who, in different hands, could have been grating interlopers. But she isn’t one of those actors you’d watch read the phone book. Or maybe you’d watch her read the phone book, since she’s plenty attractive, but you wouldn’t necessarily care. She isn’t given enough to do and too much of what she’s given to say is clunky and over-determined. She’s supposed to have a bantering thing going on with Bryant’s character, but the dialogue doesn’t crackle, the characters have no natural tension and so no relationship develops.
Balfour is a bit better. He oozes some smarm naturally, so between that and people describing his character in negative terms, you almost come to believe him as a Han Solo-esque outlaw, even though he doesn’t do a single thing that earns any of his second-hand clippings. He’s there because a character of this kind will eventually provide another point on a presumptive love triangle.
There are other people who reside in Haven, but after watching the pilot, I can’t tell you who’s going to be back in the second episode and I don’t know of anybody I’d want to see return. This is not an interesting milieu and for one episode, it hasn’t been populated interestingly.
We’re past a temporary saturation point in the Ordinary Person [Usually in Law Enforcement] Enters a Small Town and Slowly Learns All of Its Secrets genre. Temporary. It’s an archetypal genre. Stephen King’s done it a dozen times himself. It’s yielded TV shows like “Twin Peaks” (and, you know, “The Gates” and “Wolf Lake” and stuff). But there has to be more to it than the genre logline. [“Haven” has been paired with “Eureka,” a show I don’t love, but one which does the identical formula only with an identifiable personality.]
“Haven” is tough to judge. Syfy ordered the series before a pilot had been shot, so any of the normal tinkering, repairs and retrofitting that would ideally have taken place with a long interim between pilot and second episode may not even occur. The cut of the pilot sent to critics just a week or two ago is still fairly rough. I mean it’s fairly rough, technically speaking — unfinished effects work and whatnot. But it’s also rough narratively speaking. It’s almost unfair to review a pilot this imprecise. Who knows? By Episode Two, “Haven” could have found a tone, a style and its pacing. By Episode Two, they may have figured out ways to introduce Agent Parker in a manner that accurately reflects the way the character is perceived by those around her. That may well occur. And I guess I’ll watch to find out.
But why did I have to snooze through this?
“Haven” premieres at 10 p.m. on Friday (July 9) night on Syfy.