Tower Prep "previewed" Saturday night on Cartoon Network, but it will re-air its pilot in its regular time slot this Tuesday at 8 p.m. Eastern, if this sounds at all interesting.
In the late '80s and early '90s, channels like the Disney Channel and PBS, hurting for programming but barely having two nickels to rub together, would import series from the United Kingdom and Canada, series that were ostensibly aimed at children but often had bizarre premises and pseudo-sci-fi concepts. One of the better examples of this phenomenon was The Odyssey, a Canadian series that bounced around PBS stations for a while before Sci-Fi picked it up and scheduled it. Though made for kids, The Odyssey gained a hefty adult cult audience in the States, thanks to its odd premise - boy falls from a tree fort and into a coma where he enters a world where no one lives past the age of 16 - and its complicated-for-the-time mythology. The Odyssey would probably pale in comparison to TV sci-fi of the moment, but in the early '90s, when TV sci-fi was surprisingly sparse, it seemed like a weird gift from the programming gods.
Tower Prep has a lot in common with series like The Odyssey. It's an American-Canadian co-production, but it has a weird Canadian-ness it just can't shake. It's been tossed on a network - Cartoon Network - that doesn't seem entirely right for it (particularly since the network's recent forays into live-action programming can't help but feel wrong on some fundamental level). And the premise is a bit of surprisingly sophisticated genre claptrap for the kiddies to swallow. The difference between now and then, of course, is that genre entertainments have taken over the world, and there are numerous things to compare Tower Prep to. It's a little bit Harry Potter. It's quite a bit X-Men. There's a hint of Lost and Twin Peaks in there. It's tempting to write the show off early on, when the main character shows off how much he's a "bad boy" to a generic power punk track, then gets into a weird fight with a bunch of other dudes that looks like the cover to a shitty YA novel about extreme athletes from 1993.
But Tower Prep is worth sticking with, and it seems incredibly likely that it will grow into something compelling and well worth watching (and, indeed, it's shaking off its rusty bits by the end of the pilot). The main reason to stick with it, it would seem, comes from three of the names involved in the show on the production end. Taken one by one, they seem like an odd trio of collaborators, and, honestly, having their names attached to the show may unnecessarily raise expectations. At the same time, the three of them are all so good that the show would be a cut above most kids TV if they were merely putting out some of their most subpar work (as the pilot is at times). Let's take those names one at a time.
Paul Dini: Dini's the show's creator, and it's easy to see where this show intersects with his pet interests. Briefly, Dini has been a writer on some of the best animated shows of the last 20 years, including Warner Brothers' zany, comedic shows like Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs. His greatest triumphs have come via shows inspired by characters from DC Comics, including Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, and Justice League Unlimited. (He also briefly worked on Lost.) In the show's DNA are elements of nearly every show Dini has worked on, but especially the superhero stuff and Lost. The center of the show is Ian, a kid who's suspended from his school and suddenly wakes up one day in a mysterious school that seems to be in no discernible country or area on planet Earth. It's surrounded by a giant wall and policed by strange figures in dark suits, wearing lighted goggles. Ian soon realizes that everyone in the school - including him - possesses a strange power, but there's no real reason they've all been brought together. It's a great premise for a children's sci-fi show, and though it takes a while to get going, Dini really brings his strengths to the forte when his kids start using their powers together, in a team.
Glen Morgan: Morgan worked on The X-Files at its inception, before leaving that show with writing partner James Wong to co-create Space: Above and Beyond. From there, he returned to The X-Files, ran the most interesting season of Millennium, then bounced around between a bunch of interesting pilots that didn't get picked up and series that were ultimately disappointing. (And the less said of his film work, the better.) Morgan and Wong recently went their separate ways, but Morgan probably got the better end of the deal, landing on this show, while Wong went to The Event. Both this and The Event have a subtle sense of foreboding mystery, but Tower Prep, after a discombobulating opening act, settles in nicely, turning each of its acts into a mini-story that adds up to a larger story. Each act has its own action beats and its own mysteries, and it's not hard to sense Morgan's fingers in this sense of making the mysterious mundane, rather than the other way around. (Though the pilot was scripted by Dini, Morgan is the co-executive producer and showrunner, so his creative influence would be felt.)
Darin Morgan: Honestly, this Morgan probably had nothing to do with the pilot of Tower Prep, but the fact that he's involved in the series at all should be a matter of rejoicing for TV fans. Morgan is responsible for exactly six produced teleplays - four from The X-Files and two from Millennium - but every one is terrific, including two or three that would be on most TV fans' "best episodes of all time" lists. Morgan recently worked on the Kolchak remake (where he wrote a script that was never produced, as the show was canceled) and Fringe, but he hasn't had an episode of TV produced since 1998. If he writes but a single episode of Tower Prep - a show where his sly sense of humor and ability to puncture pompous genre stereotypes with a few well-placed lines of dialogue - it will make that episode an instant must-watch.
Tower Prep should not be entered into with a sense that it's instantly terrific television. It's very obviously aimed at kids, and the production values leave much to be desired. Virtually every action sequence takes place in the dark, punctuated only by sporadic lighting, and the show often just looks cheap around the edges. There are kinks and quirks in Dini's premise, and, yeah, a lot of it feels fairly familiar when compared to other shows and properties that have done similar things. Similarly, the adult cast just isn't up to snuff at projecting the kind of menace and mystery that Dini wants them to. (Someone like Patrick Fabian would have been perfect for the sinisterly friendly headmaster, but the show seems to have found his non-union Canadian equivalent.) On the other hand, the kids are well-cast, Dini deploys the superpowers well, and there are moments in the pilot that have that quick sense of something very cool about to happen. Tower Prep may not be as instantly amazing as TV fans would like, given the names involved, but that doesn't mean there's not a lot of fun to be had here.