How does that quote from “The Dark Knight” go? “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
With USA’s pilot-turned-telefilm “To Love & Die,” it could be rephrased as “You either vanish with originality, or you sit on the shelf long enough to see yourself become derivative.”
Since “To Love & Die” was originally ordered in 2006, there was once a point at which it probably could have been watched as something other than a half-baked amalgamation of “Wanted” and “Chuck.” That moment has long-since passed, as the pilot and its potential series withered on USA’s development vine for nearly 18 months (a lifetime in Hollywood’s creative climate). Aired as an original movie with almost no promotion on Tuesday (Dec. 30) night, “To Love & Die” just felt appropriately stale.
After watching the whole two-hour pilot on Tuesday, I found myself wondering why Shiri Appleby doesn’t get more (and better) work, but I also might have been happier if I’d been left with my fond memories of the clips USA showed to critics at a press tour over a year ago.
Part of USA’s original series branding is the acknowledgement that “Characters Wanted” can just as often mean “Psychiatric Help Needed,” but even fans of the network’s stable of quirky-troubled heroes might have quickly shied away from Appleby’s Hildy.
There’s dysfunctional and then there’s darned near sociopathic and Hildy, focus of “To Love & Die,” is too close to the latter. It’s one thing to have deeply ingrained Daddy Issues that leave you bailing on relationships after three dates and leaving jobs just as quickly. It’s another when you discover that your long-lost dad (Tim Matheson) is a top-notch contract killer and suddenly everything in your life makes sense. Suddenly every detail writer Sara Goodman has provided for your character — including background aptitudes in fencing, archery, gymnastics, darts and paintball, plus gifts for stalking and evasive driving (albeit in a green VW bug, the least stealthy care imaginable) — falls into place.
Like the anti-hero in “Wanted” (either the intriguing comic or the dreadfully fascistic movie), Hildy has a genetic predisposition toward killing, which is probably why her reaction to learning her dad’s avocation is to giggle and stammer and bat her eyelids. That’s Hildy’s reaction to most everything and Appleby pulls it off with more endearing cuteness than any actress I can imagine. What she can’t make believable is Hildy’s instant embrace of her pop’s gig, wherein her absence of even a second of moral hesitation just adds an extra psychotic level that the character can’t sustain. I know that her dad works for one of those uber-altruistic contract killing organizations that only whacks people who really deserve it, but this isn’t quite the same as the gang from “Leverage” only ripping off sleazy corporate types. Even “Chuck,” with its sunshine-y view of international intrigue and and its similarly slapsticky spy-games, knows that there’s a difference between taking a bad guy into captivity and killing them.
If there are going to be actual regular deaths in a movie or a series, there has to be some darkness in the comedy, but pilot helmer Mark Piznarski — who also handled pilot duty for The CW’s “Gossip Girl” and “90210” — settles for “rainy” instead, making almost no use of the tonal variation or the show’s San Francisco setting. Mostly, Piznarski can’t get past how adorable Appleby’s Hildy is. This is a young woman whose idea of appropriate attire for meeting her father for the first time is high-heeled boots, an ultra-short skirt and fishnets (she wears tight pants and a tank-top for paintball), so much of the humor of the pilot comes from making Appleby (and her double) do stunts in that kind of costuming, whether she’s falling from air vents or scaling the wall of her apartment to escape an earnest beau (Tyron Leitso, whose post-“Wonderfalls” career hasn’t quite panned out), the fun is less in whether or not she’ll succeed, but whether or not she’ll expose herself.
Appleby’s presence is part of what’s supposed to diffuse any tension that comes from making a comedy about murderers, but dad’s group of contractors is also intentionally unthreatening, from Seymour Cassel’s Grandfather to Christine Adams’ poly-amorous munitions expert to Ivan Sergei, doing double-duty as a stereotypical tough and Hildy’s potential love interest. These killers make their missions so complicated that when Hildy suggests creating a remote-controled bee with a poison stinger to off an allergic target, nobody finds it absurd. She is, indeed, a natural.
So “To Love & Die” has no dramatic stakes and no bothersome code of morality. What it has instead is Hildy pouring out her heart to a conveniently unseen shrink, plenty of puns about how finding a good man is murder and pat wisdom like Dad’s warning, “Killing and caring simply don’t mix.” USA most have sensed that as winning as Appleby certainly is, there was little risk of anybody at home caring about her dilemma, which would probably have prevented the series from making a killing.