Last week’s episode of “The Philanthropist” was pretty dull drama — enough already with the framing devices, Tom Fontana — but it was still politically upstanding, drawing attention to the situation in Burma. Yes, Burma. The episode clearly articulated the idea that the country is “Burma” and “Myanmar” is just the name imposed by the democracy-stifling military junta running the country. While American news networks reliably refer to the country as “Myanmar,” you can usually count on the BBC to call it “Burma.” And good on the BBC. It’s not necessarily the most aggressive or dynamic of political statements, but it still says something quite clearly: Call yourself what you like, but we still listen to the will of the people.
That, kids, is what we call a smooth segue because…
Tuesday, July 7 is the day Sci Fi makes the transition to become The Cable Network Formerly Known As Sci Fi, with a piece of rebranding that has generally left online denizens confused and bemused. I certainly don’t want to compare the Sci Fi executives to the military dictatorship in Burma, but it’s a safe assumption that more than a few fans will continue to refer to The Cable Network Formerly Know As Sci Fi as “Sci Fi,” long after SyFy has taken hold.
Ushering in the official SciFi-to-SyFy power transfer tomorrow is the series premiere of “Warehouse 13,” a new drama that’s meant to throw down the gauntlet for all of the things that The Cable Network Formerly Known As Sci Fi will now be able to represent. The reality is that “Warehouse 13” could have aired on Sci Fi. It could also probably have found a home on USA or on TNT or on FOX. And I guess that’s the point.
[Review after the break…]
Eddie McClintock and Joanne Kelly star as Pete Lattimer and Myka Bering, a pair of seemingly mismatched Secret Service agents. She’s detail-oriented and obsessive. He’s intuitive and impulsive. After a simple protection detail goes astray, Myka’s star seems to be on the rise and Pete may be looking for work, but instead they find themselves tasked to Warehouse 13 by the mysterious Mrs. Fredric (CCH Pounder).
Set in a remote corner of the South Dakota wilderness, Warehouse 13 is a vast repository for every mystical, supernatural or magical artifact, object or gewgaw ever collected by our government. Working with caretaker Artie (Saul Rubinek), Agents Lattimer and Bering are being asked to acquire, secure and protect these artifacts and others like them.
Put simply, “Warehouse 13” is “Bones” meets “The Librarian” meets “Eureka,” which isn’t necessarily a bad combination at all, though the formula is more amusing than the two-hour pilot for the series.
“Warehouse 13” was created by Jack Kenny, who previously brought a caustic wit to FOX’s “Titus” and some pretty big ideas to NBC’s “The Book of Daniel.” Wit and big ideas are lacking in a pilot whose clutter mirrors the sometimes faulty organization of Warehouse 13 itself.
The pilot rushes through its introductions to Bering and Lattimer, confusingly zips through the case that brings them to Artie’s attention, transports them to South Dakota, lays the groundwork for Warehouse 13 and sends them off on their first case in very short order. As a result, there isn’t nearly enough time to just have fun with the quirky backdrop that gives the show its name. I wanted to spend more time with Houdini’s magical diary, Tesla’s stun gun, a wish-granting kettle and Thomas Edison’s electrical car, rather than taking a jaunt to Iowa for a rather routine procedural possession that left me with rather large questions regarding the national and international jurisdiction of Warehouse 13, which may be like the British Museum of occult brick-a-brack.
In keeping with The Cable Network Formerly Known As Sci Fi’s new mandate to be more than just science fiction, “Warehouse 13” isn’t science fiction, per se. Or at least it isn’t any more science fiction than Indiana Jones is when he goes after the Ark of the Covenant or some crystal skulls. It’s an adventure yarn with speculative or fantastical elements, but not that much different from a “Supernatural,” which proves that if you drive around Middle America for long enough, a demon, hobogoblin or zombie will eventually jump out of the cornfields and try to eat you. So you’re watching in the hopes that most of the artifacts will be cool (even if the artifact in the pilot is not) and that the chemistry between the leads will be appealing.
For years, McClintock has been one of those “If he ever gets the right vehicle, he’s gonna be a TV star” guys. Of course, the reason The Cable Network Formerly Known As Sci Fi got him now is because of the sheer number of McClintock vehicles that weren’t exactly right, short-lived shows and failed pilots. McClintock works in “Warehouse 13” precisely because of how closely his role resembles one of his better TV gigs, his multi-episode arc on “Bones.” In fact, watch McClintock’s “Warehouse 13” mannerisms, his mixture of smirk-and-swagger, and tell me that he isn’t playing David Boreanaz playing Special Agent Seeley Booth. Whether this is the way he’s been directed, whether he consciously decided to pay homage to Boreanaz or whether McClintock’s ideal niche is as basic cable’s David Boreanaz remains to be seen. It’s still a good role for him.
It also remains to be seen how long it takes for Kelly to tap her inner Emily Deschanel to become the brittle Bones to McClintock’s Booth. To be fair, Deschanel didn’t find her stride until half-way through the first season of “Bones,” so I won’t be too concerned about how chilly Kelly comes across. This is a difficult character type for male writers, because the tendency is to feel all clever that you’re writing a female character with bottled up emotions (rather than the hyper-emotional archetypes), so you over-compensate, taking feelings out of the equation all together. Bering has a lot of backstory details already in play, including a dead husband and a questionable incident in Denver, so the chances for rapid character growth are ample. My only concern that that I’ve never warmed to Kelly in any of her earlier shows.
So far, the relationship between the two agents is mostly head-butting and the pilot doesn’t even hint at seeds for romance. But come on. We’ve all seen TV shows before. The sparks are bound to fly eventually. McClintock currently has more chemistry with Genelle Williams as the local innkeeper who, naturally, has a unique understanding of what’s happening at Warehouse 13.
The old pros in the “Warehouse 13” get to have a lot of the amusement, particularly Rubinek, who probably didn’t figure his career would have him firing guns and riding a zip line as an action star at 61.
With its not-quite-there focus and not-quite-there storytelling, but its ample potential, “Warehouse 13” is actually a perfect cornerstone for a cable network ditching a long-cultivated, tightly concentrated cubbyhole in the marketplace in favor of a blurrier, less meaningful buffet approach. I think I could imagine the approach “Warehouse 13” would take going forward on Sci Fi, but on SyFy? Well, anything could happen.
[UPDATE: Sepinwall reminds/informs me that Jack Kenny’s involvement in “Warehouse 13” post-dates the pilot, which means that some of the big ideas and wit I was missing in the premiere are even more plausibly coming in subsequent episodes.]
“Warehouse 13” premieres on The Cable Network Formerly Known As Sci Fi on Tuesday, July 7 at 9 p.m.