A Few Recent Pilots

I haven’t been blogging much these past few weeks, but there has been plenty to watch. Here’s just a quick look at a few pilots I’ve caught recently.

Alcatraz

In case you haven’t heard, this is the latest J.J. Abrams tale of alternate realities. It tells the story of what really happened to all of the prisoners who were in Alcatraz when it was closed down.  The pilot came with a bonus second episode on the same night. Two episodes were enough to worry me that show is just another procedural. If it’s just going to be about searching out the murderer of the week, we don’t care. Even if said murderers haven’t aged since 1960-whatever. Basically, it’s a cop-with-an-unlikely-partner show. The partner in this case is a comic book store owner (Jorge Garcia), so there’s tons of potential for geek jokes. Continue reading

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Birds of Prey

With excitement building for the Wonder Woman reboot this fall, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at some other DC Comics heroines, the ladies of 2002’s Birds of Prey.

In a nutshell, a blonde, a brunette and a redhead live together looking hot and fighting crime. The pilot is the story of how they got together. The show, or at least the pilot can be appreciated at face value, if the viewer has no previous knowledge of the characters. It could even be accused of ripping off Charmed, with its story of three powerful women joining forces and a suspicious cop on their trail. But there is ton of back story—at least 40 years worth of comic book lore.

Alfred, of Batman fame, narrates the opening. The story is set in New Gotham, and Batman has disappeared from its crime-ridden streets. The voiceover lends a storybook feeling, a bit like the tone of Pushing Daisies.

Barbara Gordon (Dina Meyer), formerly Batgirl, is confined to a wheelchair since The Joker shot her. She now lives in a clock tower—a set that looks like the same one Smallville used—surrounded by computers. By day she works as a school teacher. Living with her is Helena (Ashley Scott), the daughter of Batman and Catwoman. She was raised by her mother, killed by a henchman of The Joker while her daughter stood by, helpless. She has grown up to be The Huntress, a hero who runs across building tops by night, fighting crime while The Oracle oversees from her tower. In the comic world, The Huntress had completely different
origins, but did turn to heroism following the murder of her parents. (This according to The DC Comics Encyclopedia.)

As these two women experienced their personal tragedies, a third girl dreamt their pain. She is now teenage Dinah (Rachel Skarsten), and she has travelled to New Gotham to seek out the women from her dreams. On her way to find them, she witnesses a man being hit by a bus. She runs to his side and, when she touches him, she sees a vision of him being attacked by rats. Her power, it seems, is the ability to share people’s thoughts or fears. The comic book Dinah became The Black Canary, though that name isn’t mentioned in the pilot.

The man’s death sparks the women’s investigation into a series of related murders disguised as suicides, which leads them to some dockyards and the lair of the killer. Among the three of them they get to combine supernatural, or metahuman powers of an X-man with the high tech gadgetry of Batman.

As the women investigate these deaths, the police are also on the case. Detective Jesse Reese (Shemar Moore) is one officer who believes that something bigger is happening beneat the surface. He’s the “the truth is out there” character of the show. Sums up what may be the message-of-show with the awkwardly worded adage, “Myths are just the truth a few generations later.”

Another significant introduction in this pilot is that of Helena’s psychiatrist, one Harleen Quinzel (Mia Sara – remember her, Sloane Peterson from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?), whose name reveals that she’s an enemy-in-waiting.

With its roots in death and destruction, this pilot promises a fairly dark show. There are small doses of humor, with lines like, “This place is supposed to be a secret. That’s the whole point of a secret lair.” Barbara and Helena argue about lighter things, too, like being out of groceries. There’s also a quick Superman/Smallville reference: “There’s been some really weird stuff with meteor showers.”

This pilot does a nice job of tying together the episode plot with a longer-term plot, when Harleen interacts with the episode villain at the end. There’s both resolution and reason to keep watching.

UPDATE 2/17/2012: In case you’re a big fan of the Black Canary character, you may like to know that Katie Cassidy has been cast to play her in the forthcoming Green Arrow series on The CW. And, in case you haven’t been paying attention, that Wonder Woman reboot never happened, but I’ve since blogged about the pilot of the 1970s series.

Charmed (Unaired)

Blogging about the Charmed pilot, “Something Wicca This Way Comes,” has been on my to-do list for some time, but how much more fun is it to cover the unaired pilot? It’s available on YouTube (legally or not I couldn’t say).

In a nutshell, Charmed is the story of the Haliwell sisters, Phoebe, Piper (Holly Marie Combs) and Prue (Shannen Doherty), who learn that they are witches, each with a unique power.

The setup in this version of the pilot is identical. Some of the footage looks to be the same as what aired. Two sisters living in their dead grandmother’s San Francisco house are joined by their third, black sheep sister returned from New York. In the meantime, a detective is trying to solve a series of murders of young women. These events are set against the backdrop of a raging thunderstorm, lending an air of foreboding.

The most unmistakable difference is that Phoebe, the youngest sister, is played not by Alyssa Milano but by Lori Rom, who went on to play a recurring role on Party of Five. This Phoebe is more down-to-earth, lacking the perkiness Milano brought to the role. The trick to Phoebe is that we, the audience, have to like her even though she annoys the heck out of Prue. She needs an impishness that Rom doesn’t pull off. Rom dresses dumpier too; the costumers later made the most of Milano’s hot bod.

Phoebe drives the action throughout the story, so it was important to get the casting right. Her curious nature catalyzes the discoveries that bring the sisters their powers. She is the only one brave enough to venture into the attic when directed there by a spirit board. She recites the incantation that instills the powers, and she continues to read the Book of Shadows and educate her sisters about witchcraft. As the Phoebe character is described, “She has no vision, no sense of the future.” This observation is one of many examples of ironic foreshadowing in the pilot, since Phoebe gains the power to see visions of the future.

In both versions, character introductions and exposition evolve pretty naturally, with one glaring exception. Phoebe asks Piper, “I’m glad you’re still with Jeremy. Where did you meet him anyway?” The answer hints at the “twist” to come, wherein Jeremy is a warlock specifically preying on the sisters. It’s not particularly surprising when he pulls a knife (an athame) on Piper in an abandoned building.

What I’ve never understood about this pilot—this version or the final one—is why they try so hard to be truthful to what Wicca is all about while at the same time making it so far-fetched. Both versions open with an anonymous woman setting up an alter and calling the gods/goddesses to oversee a ritual. The writers explain to us what at athame is and make a point of explaining the Wiccan rede and that witches are not evil—obviously important if we’re to sympathize with the protagonists. This point is subtly different between the two versions, actually. In the unaired pilot, Phoebe says, “A true witch is a good witch,” and in the aired pilot she says, instead, “A witch can be either good or evil.” Either way, the powers of the witch in the opening, and the Haliwell witches, are the stuff of science fiction.

  There are some details missing from the unaired version—tattoos on the murder victims,—and some things that are done better. In the unaired version, Phoebe’s bike accident makes her look foolish, reminiscent of Stacy in Wayne’s World. Prue’s conversation with Detective Andy Trudeau is much shorter, giving less basis for their future relationship. The aired version contains some back story about the Haliwells’ father; Prue doesn’t like him, and only Phoebe is still in touch with him. Basically, the aired version gives more information to build on for the future.

In the end, the women have to overcome their various levels of skepticism about witchcraft and stand together—literally—chanting about “the power of three.” This climactic scene embodies the theme of the whole show, that the three (never mind that one of them gets replaced) have to learn to count on each other.

Happy Halloween!