I thought I’d try to put together my thoughts on the premiere episode.
I’ve avoided the downloading, the previews, and the advanced spoilers – not that there have been many. I wanted to go into the new series “cold,” so to speak. Especially given that from past experience with pilots I know that what gets put out initially isn’t necessarily what ends up going to air.
So basically, what do I think? Night Stalker is the best of the new batch of network fantasy/s.f. genre.
But wait. Don’t get too excited. Primarily, I’m not too impressed with all the network genre stuff right now. I’m not going to count cable stuff like 4400 and Stargate and Battlestar here, however – different type of beast.
But right now, Threshold and Surface hold no interest for me. More alien invasion/secret-conspiracy stuff. Secret creepy invaders-among-us type stuff. Invasion, I’m kinda plodding along with but ironically it’s probably the most x-File-ish like of the current batch of shows, Night Stalker included. And Ghost Whisperer – eh. Medium with obnoxious ghosts and heart-warming messages and JLH’s breasts.
The only real competition is Supernatural, which is sometimes entertaining. Even reminiscent of 70’s Kolchak. Monster of the Week, find its weakness and kill it. But it seems a bit…dated. It’s hard to care about the brothers, or the quest for their father, and they don’t seem to be very good at what they do. Like passing themselves off (badly) as park rangers…
Of the older stuff, Lost continues to descend into an increasing series of time-bending flash-forwards and flash-backs and other narrative tricks to tell us the back story on an increasingly unlikable group of characters. Smallville…who knows what’s going on there. The characters change every other week. Only Medium, which is taking some honest chances and seems to have a sense of humor about itself, seems a viable property.
So the new Night Stalker is the best of a mostly bad lot. Faint praise, as it were.
So now we have three questions: Is NS good “Kolchak”? Is it good X-Files? And is it _good_?
First, is it 70’s “Kolchak”? Not really. I won’t bore you with all the tedious legal reasons why it can’t be “our” Kolchak, but ABC is bound and determined to call it Kolchak and use what they’ve got legal-rights-wise. And you can find all the interviews out there with Spotnitz where he states why it shouldn’t be 70’s Kolchak. What didn’t work as an ongoing series in the 70s wasn’t going to work in 2005 either.
The character here feels like a possible young Kolchak. He doesn’t look like a young Darren McGavin, clearly. But I could see this as a “Kolchak in his early days,” once you bend your mind around the idea of his having younger days in 2005 and his older days occurring in 1974. :)
Now, is it the way _I_ would do a “younger Kolchak”? No, not entirely. And pretty obviously it’s not how most of the original fans would exactly do it if they could do it their way. But I can see it as _a_ way to do it, and one that comes across as a valid approach to the character.
I get the impression most folks would have rather seen either an exact duplicate of ’74 Kolchak, or a youthful clone of the same. But Kolchak in his 30s _should_ be different than Kolchak in his 50s. This is Kolchak at the top of his game, just as the weirdness gets hold. The original series, for all its high quality, basically gives us a Kolchak that goes from skeptic to true believer in about ten minutes in the original movie, and then he’s the frantic wide-eyed ranter for the next movie and series. The new Kolchak is a guy in transition, as it were. In fact, to some degree he’s the sober one and Perri is the wide-eyed “original” Kolchak (more on this below).
The new Kolchak is a guy who isn’t going to just put out a bunch of stories about weird supernatural stuff even though the evidence is gone, knowing his editor is going to crush the story. He’s going to wait until he does have the evidence and then release one helluva story. Which makes more sense as a reporter?
The new Kolchak is the one that ironically, we do kinda of see in one old episode - “Horror in the Heights.” For whatever reason, in that episode they did Kolchak as a more down-to-earth guy. He shows up, he’s not looking for a supernatural story, it’s not the first thing he latches on to, he’s practically bored, and he investigates until he eliminates everything else. He’s a lot more blasé and a lot less wide-eyed “You’ve got to believe me!” than usual in “Horror.”
Does this mean the new Kolchak is better than the old because it’s more “realistic”? No. Part of the fun of the original Kolchak is its sheer unbelievability. In the 70s, that worked – the audience didn’t really want “believability” the way today’s audience does. Viewing tastes are different. The “new” Kolchak is aimed at a different audience, and it does present a different Kolchak. Which seems like a better choice then simply trying to rehash “old” Kolchak, something no producer could do and please the old-school fans anyway.
Is it X-Files?
Clearly Spotnitz and Sackheim and other folks down the road were involved with X-Files, and X-Files has had some influence on them.
But X-Files has had an effect on the viewing audience too, and it’s kind of embedded in the subconscious now, particularly among genre fans. It’s what everything gets compared to. It’s what most producers model to appeal to that audience, but it’s also how TV in general does it.
Male and female partner as the primarily characters? Check. Different personalities so one is A and the other is A-opposite? Check. Dark horrific stuff that happens in the dark. Check again. The other basic model is “team ensemble” which seems to be where Invasion and Threshold and Surface and Lost and 4400 and Stargate are all going. So it seems like the “style” of Night Stalker is really an attempt do differentiate itself from the competition.
The other model is “lone protagonist” which is what essentially old Kolchak was. But that model seems to have died a slow death since the 70s.
So either “new” Kolchak goes with the team-ensemble and blends in with the current crowd, or the partner-opposites approach seen in x-Files. They went with the latter.
Also like X-Files, there’s a secret conspiracy story-arc where the protagonists are battling someone or another, but then again…aren’t almost all plot-driven story-arcs conspiracies of some sort, or involve battles, or both?
So new Stalker basically does what X-file did years back, but not what other such shows are doing now. The question is then how is Night Stalker _different_ then X-Files?
First of all, there’s the dynamic between the male and female leads. It’s a lot more…varied than X-Files, and rather simplistic to say that Kolchak is Mulder and Perri is Scully. By the end of the first episode, Perri _believes_. She’s seen it, she’s got photos, she’s been chased down and hunted. There’s none of this “two seasons and I’ve seen frickin’ spaceships and levitating Romanian mystics and I still don’t believe” nonsense.
Also by the end of the pilot, she’s in the “old” Kolchak role. She wants to get the story out there whether they have evidence or not. It’s Kolchak that is holding her back and advising caution. How often did Mulder tell Scully that in X-Files?
Does that mean Perri isn’t going to play the voice of the skeptic? Yes she is, but for different reasons then Scully, if the pilot is anything to go by. Perri’s a skeptic because she isn’t as steeped in the whole supernatural aspect as Kolchak is, so it’s not the first thing she looks for. But she clearly has no problem accepting it once she does see it. In X-Files, the argument between the partners even at the end was “Was it or wasn’t it?” Here, it seems it’ll be the initial debate, but by the end of any given episode it’ll be more “Yeah, it is – now what do we do about it?”
Interestingly, the personality-dynamic is a bit different. Scully is a doctor and a scientific type, while Mulder is a believer and FBI investigator who operates primarily on hunches and profiling – not what you’d necessarily call an exact science. But here, Perri and Kolchak are both crime reporters. This gives them a similarity of viewpoint that Mulder and Scully could never have.
Another difference is that Perri distrusts Kolchak to some degree, keeping him at arms’ length. That might fade after time (as it did on X-Files after…oh, 2, 3 episodes). But this isn’t a totally trustworthy Kolchak – it’s a guy you’re kinda stuck with because your boss says so, who is angling for your job, and who just might have killed his wife in a fit of insanity. I’m pretty sure they didn’t have that on X-Files.
Then there’s the conspiracy angle. Like I said above, Night Stalker’s story arc is actually a pleasant change from X-Files. If there’s any show that’s ripping off the “hidden aliens that lurk among us as humans and have some vague indecipherable goal other then getting more power, while some turncoat humans help them,” it’s Invasion.
Clearly there’s some secret group at work. But they’re supernatural, not alien, and they have a varied approach, and not everything ties in. in this regard, yes, it’s like X-Files – there’s room for other types of stories that have nothing to do with the arc. It’s also like Justice League Unlimited, a show I’d recommend if you’re not watching it already.
But again, while this type of approach is very X-Files-ish, it’s very different from the _current_ crop of shows. On Invasion it’s _always_ going to be the aliens. On Lost it’s always going to be the Others and the mysterious island going-ons of whoever controls it. On Surface you’re not going to have a one-off story where they deal with some menace other than the aquatic life forms.
So again, the choice was looking like X-Files…or looking like most other shows on TV here and now. Spotnitz & Co. opted for standing out from other shows it’s up against rather then one that was on a few years back.
Now, is that the “right” decision? Only time will tell on that one. But looking like all the other network genre shows doesn’t seem like a good idea any way you cut it.
I also get the impression they _know_ what they have planned for the story-arc, rather then X-Files-style making it up as you go along. Nor does it look to be as complicated as that series.
Finally…is it _good_?
Well, you already know I like it better than the other network genre stuff. But that’s by comparison – how does it stand up on its own?
Average, a B-, with the conditional that it’s a pilot. I thought Stuart Townsend was pretty well cast. Yes, the looks are initially distracting, but I soon found that I wasn’t seeing him as much as getting the vibes he was projecting. I wasn’t distracted from the story or his character thinking, “Wow, he looks and acts nothing like a reporter.” He does “I’m a smug jerk” pretty well, which I think works well for a young top-of-the-world Kolchak. On the other hand, I wasn’t sitting there watching a guy try to be Darren McGavin, which would have taken me right out of the story. I don’t think he’s the best choice possible (but I’m not sure who would be for the character we see here), but Townsend gets the job done and makes Kolchak an interesting yet imperfect character.
Gabrielle Union – wasn’t buying her so much. While I could accept her as a young corporate type that is partly what the role called for, as a reporter she didn’t do very well, lacking either the gravitas or the bulldog quality of latching onto a story and not letting go. Part of that is because it’s a pilot, since she has to be the “rival that Kolchak outsmarts.” She seems kind of…passive. She also turns Kolchak in and she doesn’t really come across as conflicted over that initially or regretful later, as she probably should have. And she’s saddled with a third of the expositional duties, and gets to be rescued and screams a lot. Some of this is supposed to change down the road, so we’ll see what happens. I noted above that a difference from the X-File dynamic is that both partners are in the same profession, but with that comes the fact need to make sure she stands out as an equal, rather than “The one who Kolchak is always better than.”
Eric McManus probably does best here – he’s not really tied into the plot or exposition so he’s free to play the role of Jimmy Olsen. He gets the funniest lines, what few there are, and a few odd quirks like his “Hell is filled…” bit to Perri. At least the actor seems to be having fun, even if his character is a tad extraneous. He reminds me of the male companions on Doctor Who – if the Doctor isn’t elderly or fairly passive, there’s not much for the male companion to do. McManus’ character doesn’t seem to add much to the proceedings plot-wise, but he’s fun enough now as an assistant.
Cotter Smith, a terminally underrated actor typically if unfortunately cast as authority figures or bad guys, has had better and his role here in the pilot is pretty inconsequential. The actor doesn’t have much to do here and he’s definitely odd-man out in the pilot. Hopefully he’ll get more to do. Again, this is a _different_ Vincenzo, but in this case I’m not sure I’m big on the difference. His relationship with Kolchak doesn’t seem as complex as the one in the old series. But it was complex due to how the actors played it rather then plot, so there seemed little chance it was going anywhere in the old series. Here it looks to have some room for development and expansion. Also, the fact that Carl has the reporter’s sense not to publish stories if he doesn’t have the evidence also eliminates one reason for the Vincenzo character. Hopefully they’ll do something with the character without necessarily giving him a “very special episode.”
John Pyper-Ferguson is pretty much wasted as Fan. Give him some motivation and personality other then Evil Lt. Gerard, quick.
The story of the week? Serviceable but basic. People get killed, girl gets kidnapped, girl gets rescued. More time is spent establishing the basics so the story is kinda peripheral.
Yes, the fact the two protagonists live in expensive houses is irritating.
Yes, Darren McGavin and old Kolchak’s bird-feeder making brief cameos are kind of fun.
It does have an open-ended X-files kinda ending…which they sorta gotta from 70’s Kolchak open-ended stuff like “Mr. R.i.N.G.” and “They Have Been…”
The whole thing is very much a pilot-type “we have to sell the show” episode rather than a premiere where the producers know they have at least a one-season contract.
So overall, what’s it add up to?
A show that I plan on watching at least for a little while. It beats trying to slog through the other new shows, at any rate, and there’s enough of a supernatural angle to keep me interested. It has some potential. But it’s definitely not 70’s Kolchak. Then again, I can’t say I went in expecting it to be, or that I’ve expected “old” Kolchak make some kind of triumphant return to network TV as a regular series, either.