So during the upfronts, where the networks trotted out their new shows to entice buyers and advertisers, I got a peek at the pilot for the new Fox series HUMAN TARGET, the one pilot I was told was the “hottest” pilot the network had.
Seriously? This was the best they have to offer for the upcoming season?
In case you were wondering, THE HUMAN TARGET was originally a detective series published by DC Comics in the 1960s. Christopher Chance was a PI who impersonated his clients in order to flush out their would-be killers. So far so simple.
In the Sixties, heroes were defined by their jobs and their actions. No great need for backstories or complicated psychology or motives. The stories were driven by their “plots of the week” and episodic TV has always followed that format. Except in the last 40-odd years, things have changed. Nowadays, every hero in a TV show can’t just be a professional, he has to have a “troubled past” and “emotional vulnerability”. And if he’s on BATTLESTAR GALACTICA or a British show, he’ll be required to cry every week as well. The hero of HUMAN TARGET doesn’t cry. Yet.
The recent Vertigo revamp of the character, as written by Peter Milligan, introduced existential angst to Chance by making him increasingly schizophrenic and in danger of losing himself in the roles he impersonates and worries that his own Self might be nonexistent, that he might be an empty shell underneath all his skill and prowess. Not so in the Fox TV pilot. His existential angst is brought up, then completely ignored in favour of a deathwish and guilt over a dead woman. He’s really hurtin’ underneath, you see.
TV shows tend to be patchwork Frankenstein-monster versions of their original pitches after the development notes, audience testing, revisions and reshoots are through with them. You can see the seams in the patchwork of this pilot and probably vaguely recall where it cribs its component parts from. The networks have been going around saying they want their own BURN NOTICE, by which I presume they mean a smart genre show with a clever, competent hero, and the arrogant hero with his glib repartée is supposed to fulfill that brief. His assertion that “all clients lie” is right out of HOUSE’s assertion that “everybody lies”. The list goes on. Familiarity breeds comfort in the hearts of executives, alas.
It’s obvious Fox didn’t want a situation worse than DOLLHOUSE. The problem with DOLLHOUSE was that there was no central character for viewers to identify and root for because the main character literally had no personality and the main actress would play a completely different person every week. If HUMAN TARGET followed the comics, the hero, in impersonating his client, would end up being played by a different actor every week. So Christopher Chance merely goes undercover like any bodyguard and joins the staff or household of his client. Here he’s a translator, where we’re treated to some of the worst Japanese ever spoken by a white guy who only learned those lines a few weeks before production. Screenwriters really should not subject actors to that that kind of humiliation. Mark Valley is an able actor capable of wit when given half a chance, but here he’s not.
And Chance has a team behind him the way the comics didn’t. It’s the 21st Century, so every hero has to have a genius computer hacker on his side. Chi McBride is Chance’s fixer, and Jackie Earl Harley, fresh off playing Rorscharch in WATCHMEN, plays his resident computer hacker with a refreshingly matter-of-fact adult creepiness rather than an incorrigible (and punchable) man-child nerd usually found in Joss Whedon shows. These are terrific actors working hard to inject life into ciphers that seem to have been created by the Robo-Writer 101.
Now, pilots tend to have bigger budgets than regular episodes because they want to go all out to wow not just the network, but advertisers, sponsors and overseas buyers as well. What I don’t understand is how the makers thought it was a good idea to set the vast majority of it on a fictional bullet train running between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Yeah, the writer probably thought it was a cool, might-happen-tomorrow setting, but this also meant they blew the budget on crappy CGI shots of a train and one-time-use-only sets of the train interior. The last time a plot about a runaway bullet train was considered cool was in a Japanese movie in the 1970s, and getting BATTLESTAR GALACTICA’s Tricia Helfer to guest star in a thankless geek-bait role doesn’t help.
Considering the central gimmick of the original DC character – assuming the identity and appearance of his client – has been jettisoned, and a supporting cast that never appeared in the comics has been added, you might wonder why Fox bothered paying the extra money to DC/Time-Warner to licence the rights to the character in the first place. The answer is Fox liked the pitch and paid for the privilege of using the brand name.
It’s utterly mediocre, composed entirely of clichés and parts cobbled together from other movies and served up in a slick, glib package that looks like it does the job but is only skin-deep. Which means it might actually be a hit for Fox. Who knows? Clichés can be comfort food for many people, but no one should accuse this show of being anything new.
Comics have become rights containers for intellectual property, and now more actors, producers and screenwriters are trying to get comics of their pitches published as pitch documents to the studios. We’re at the point where the medium of comics, a comic or graphic novel itself, has become a business tool, a proof-of-concept, and when studios see that a publisher has had enough confidence and faith in the story to actually publish it for sale, they feel more secure in paying to develop it into a movie or TV series.
As a producer friend told me, it doesn’t matter whether anyone’s heard of it or not. As long as something has been published, it’s already a brand, and the studios are after brands. Even I’ve experienced this first-hand recently: LA MUSE is a published book, and even if a lot of people haven’t heard of it, I’ve already had enquiries from agents and producers about it. That’s what it is in the end, comics may be fun to create and fun to read, but they’re a business, and no creator should ever forget that.
Rich Johnston reviewed the Human Target pilot script earlier this week.