Saturday, October 11, 2008

First Impressions: Sanctuary

We're two episodes in (three, if you count the 90-minute pilot as separate episodes), and I'm still not sure where I stand with regards to "Sanctuary".

On paper, it's thematically similar to shows I've seen (and enjoyed) in the past, such as "The Middleman", "Ultraviolet" and "Torchwood" - an ordinary person is recruited into a mysterious organization that studies (and hunts) paranormal activities. So even if it doesn't blow me away, there's enough of a precedent that I'd at least find it entertaining.

Except... well, it's a bit muddled, especially when you look at the differences between the pilot episode and last week's "Fata Morgana". The pilot assigned our "normal" protagonist, Will Zimmerman, with perceptive skills that bordered on the inhuman - he could reconstruct a crime by giving the crime scene a once-over. Obviously, this makes him unique enough to join said mysterious organization (in this case, the titular Sanctuary run by Dr. Helen Magnus, more on her in a bit). But there's no mention of this in the next episode; he's depicted as just a run-of-the-mill forensic psychologist, and not a particularly good one given the end results of "Fata Morgana".

Which is more or less the episode that really messed up my first impression. The pilot, for all its obvious green-screen moments and the cheesy bits, was still interesting enough to warrant checking out the next episode, but "Fata Morgana" really doesn't work: having established a quasi-scientific uniform rationale for the various creatures and situations that arise, the second (third?) episode of "Sanctuary" deals with... witches. And aside from a line of dialogue that posits how there might be a scientific explanation for 1200-year-old personifications of Death flying around and (not) killing people, no such rationale emerges. And the ending... very odd. It might just be a miniature version of "sophomore slump", so I'm willing to give it another episode or two.

On to more positive aspects, I'm digging Amanda Tapping as Helen Magnus, a sort of Miranda Zero figure (albeit much more charming and quirky). The mother-daughter team-up bit, where Helen's daughter Ashley is Sanctuary's primary field agent (and the requisite team ass-kicker), is new to me - sort of like what "Buffy" would look like if Joyce had been Buffy's Watcher rather than Giles. It adds a whole layer to the boss-underling relationship (or the mother-daughter relationship, depending on how the story plays out - which aspect is more important to this show?).

It does seem to me, though, that the show could've stood to have at least one or two more cast members. Not so much because big casts are necessarily The Way To Go these days - as any second-season star of "Heroes" will tell you (so... Nichelle Nichols' job was to slice up a tomato and take a nap on the couch? We lost West and Monica but got stuck with fucking Maya? Boo! Hiss!) - but for three reasons:

1. Suspension of disbelief is taxed pretty heavily without implying that the entire Sanctuary organization can be successfully run with a three-person staff (four if you include the tech guy, five if you include the monkey-butler, but the point's the same).

2. Character dynamics are going to be extremely limited, because there isn't much you can do in the long-term with three main characters who don't have individual arcs outside the show's central premise. I mean, Will, Ashley and Helen may very well develop their own subplots, but you can be sure they'll all be subordinate to Sanctuary and its operations.

3. No matter how interesting or profound any of these characters will turn out to be, I have a hard time believing they'll be as compelling in six months. The more characters you have in play, the more you can alternate, put a fresher face in the limelight and let the better-explored figures take a breather.

It's hard to say where this show is heading: the potential's there, but I've seen enough shows flop with less. And whatever expectations I had of the pilot were a bit quashed by "Fata Morgana". So another episode or two, maybe, and we'll see where it goes from there...