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Human Target: "Pilot"

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The new FOX series Human Target got my attention for exactly two reasons:  it features the dependable Jackie Earle Haley as a violent reprobate, and it's based on a comic book.  And Haley's great, but frankly, I'd watch paint dry if someone told me it was based on a superhero comic called Paint-Driers League Of America.  The series also features the enjoyable Chi McBride as the title character's right-hand man.  And who is the title character?  What's a human target?


According to my dim recollection of the early '70s, the Human Target was Christopher Chance, a gun-toting hard-boiled type with a barely-suppressed death wish who hung around the back pages of The Brave And The Bold getting into various scrapes.  His hook was that, in addition to all the typical action hero traits, Chance was a master of disguise, and he specialized in neutralizing threats to his clients by disguising himself as them and drawing enemy fire.  Hence:  a human target.

I have very little memory of the character in those early days — I keep getting him confused with Tom Tresser, a.k.a. Nemesis — but someone liked him enough to rejuvenate him in the 1990s as the star of a pretty decent Vertigo title written by Peter Milligan.  (To my eternal geek-shame, I was totally unaware that the character has been given his own TV show before:  in 1992, there was a short-lived Human Target starring, of all people, Rick "Jesse's Girl" Springfield.)  The powers that be behind this series are a bit of a mixed bag:  of the three executive producers, one is Jonathan Steinberg, responsible for some of the best episodes of the late cult hit Jericho.  But the other two are Simon West, the Brit-hack behind Con Air, The General's Daughter, and Tomb Raider, and McG, the douchebag auteur responsible for the critically overpraised Charlie's Angels series.  McG has some decent television work under his belt, though, and Steinberg's presence promised that there was at least a possibility that Human Target would be more than just Burn Notice with more explosions.

We start with a nice fake-out beginning, as what appears to be bad voice-over narration turns out to be the ravings of a crazy person (played by Mark Moses, a.k.a. Duck Phillips from Mad Men, and it's fun to pretend that his role here, as a disgruntled office gunman, was that character's ultimate fate).  After our introduction to the titular hero Christopher Chance, played by Fringe/Boston Legal stud Mark Valley, we get a snappy fight scene and our first big explosion.  To the show's credit, this is treated as a plot point rather than pandering:  Valley's business manager (McBride) wonders if hsi combination of bad business practices and life-risking behavior is the work of a man who's falling down on the job, or someone who might have a hidden death wish.

Valley's next client is Tricia Helfer (Number Six from Battlestar Galactica), the designer of a high-speed bullet train. Someone tried to blow up her car and the police can't help for the usual the-police-can't-help reasons, so she engages Chance's services and he poses as a translator, leading to an amusing scene where he endlessly speils in Japanese to a foreign investor.  To give the show a locked-room mystery feel, it all takes place on the aforementioned bullet train, with occasional cuts back to McBride and Haley.  The train itself looks like nothing so much as it does the one from the ridiculous '70s series Supertrain.  (The whole show has a sort of '70s feel to it, come to think of it, from the opening credits music — penned by Bear McCreary, also of BSG, to the let's-take-a-tour-through-the-suspects method of introducing the supporting cast, to the Columbo style of  Valley's stumbling inquiries.  Even veteran '70s heavy Al Ruscio shows up as a mobster.)


Jackie Earle Haley has a great opening scene, and his character is by far the most interesting of all the regulars:  he's portrayed as an ex-criminal, an expert investigator, and a violent sort who may have switched sides but retains his brutal methods.  The overall plot, though, is a bit of a dud; the mystery depends on way too many obvious holes, unmotivated closeups, shady characters who stink of herring, and tons of clunky expository dialogue.  That said, the action scenes are pretty engaging; there's a shoot-out on a fast-moving train (a gimmick I've always found appealing) and a tightly choreographed fight scene in a ventlation shaft.  There's also some hints about where Valley's character may be headed:  as shown in the opening pre-credit sequence, he's got a pretty cavalier attitide not only towards his own life, but those of innocent bystanders. He fires a loaded gun into a room full of people just to get their attention, and at one point, he almost lets an entirely innocent person be poisoned to death just to draw out the killer.  Still, the mystery itself is uninteresting (anyone paying the slightest bit of attention figured out whodunit about halfway through the show, and since the party in question is only given about three lines of dialogue, it's hard to care), there's not much in the way of character development, and the main fight scene, well-done though it is, lasts way, way too long and smacks of padding — as any veteran of kung fu movies will tell you, it's easy to spot when a punch-out is there to draw attention away from an underwritten script.

Still and all, Human Target was a step above the ordinary action hour; it was engaging enough on its own terms, it had enough character seeds that there's something for future episodes to harvest (assuming there are future episodes; the show has 'short-lived replacement series' written all over it) and assuming the creators bother to make those explorations; and both the opening and closing sequences were goofy, action-packed fun.  So, readers:  did any of you watch this?  Did you like it?  Will you watch it again (the second episode debuts on Wednesday night)?  And would you like to see continual coverage here on the A.V. Club?  Let us know, as always, in comments.


Rating:  B

Stray Observations: 

- I'm not familiar with Mark Valley's other work, but while he seems to have a tad more depth than the typical big-chinned TV action hero, it's hard to tell how much of that is attributable to the script.  At any rate, I'd like to see him open up a little.  In a show with regulars like Haley and McBride, he's got a lot of heavy lifting to do to keep up.


- Since I've only seen this and the second episode, I'm not sure how long the format will hold, but it really is something how much Human Target resembles scads of mystery and action shows of the 1970s and early 1980s, from the teaser set pieces to the by-the-numbers suspects to the "guest-starring _________ from the hit series _________!" approach.  I'm not quite suggesting this is a bad thing, either; it's not exactly to my taste, but there's something to be said for competent revivalism.

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