Warehouse 13 is a victim of its premise, despite the fact that its premise is pretty darn good.
The show’s writers have at their disposal all of human history, and any alternate human history they deem necessary, to be transformed into artifacts with supernatural powers — as Mrs. Frederick puts it when she explains the Warehouse to new agents, the show is “an invitation to endless wonder.” This is the kind of creative license that most procedurals would kill for, and one that Warehouse 13 sort of takes for granted.
I’ve always wanted the show to fully commit to its premise, giving into its genre and playing with the rules of science fiction in whatever way they can. When I was catching up with the end of the show’s second season a few weeks ago, I came across “Where and When,” an episode in which Pete and Myka travel to the 1960s in order to identify an artifact that might still be active. Something about the episode felt like an homage (if not an outright ripoff) of Doctor Who’s trademark timey-wimeyness (along with the obvious homage to Mad Men), and it made me realize that I would love it if Warehouse 13 were more like Doctor Who. Given the diversity of artifacts at their disposal, limited only by their imaginations, Warehouse 13 could be an entirely different show every week and really push the boundaries of the genre procedural.
Of course, they are not just limited by their imaginations. They are also limited by budget, and by the new “Genre-Lite” motto by which SyFy hopes to make their name. Warehouse 13 was the network’s first big hit following the oft-derided name change, and now Haven (which returns for a second season on Friday) and Alphas (which Todd reviewed earlier today) are following in the same path. The shows operate within fantastical worlds but are not inherently fantastical in their storytelling: There are still murderers, there is still evidence, and there are still clear patterns that just about every episode will follow. Unfortunately, when Warehouse 13 does step beyond its procedural structure to engage in broader serial storytelling, its reliance on cheap green screen work makes journeys into ancient Egyptian warehouses somewhat less than believable. In other words, Warehouse 13 has a premise that will never exhaust itself but which also contains promising genre elements that it will never be able to freely explore.
However, to the show’s credit, I don’t think this sense of confinement has necessarily been evident within the show itself through its first two seasons. While I do often find myself feeling that forces outside of its control are unfairly limiting the show, the cast has strong chemistry that can sell just about anything that is thrown at them. When “The New Guy” eventually ends with everyone in the Warehouse reacting to Myka’s inevitable return, each reunion holds a sense of meaning that has emerged gradually through the show’s run. While we can technically see the archetypal relationship patterns the show relies on, whether it’s the unresolved sexual tension between Pete and Myka or the surrogate father figure narrative between Artie and Claudia, the fact remains that Warehouse 13 has developed into a compelling little show about characters we care about who solve cases that would maybe be a bit more complex in a perfect world.
The problem with “The New Guy” is that it’s more interested in solving the show’s narrative than any case involving an artifact, overburdened to a fault with material that doesn't play to the show's strengths. Whereas the show’s finest episodes embrace the imagination of the show’s premise and develop the world around an artifact in some detail (and usually with a sense of whimsy), the central case in “The New Guy” is a thinly veiled excuse to bring Myka back into the fold and to introduce a new antagonistic force within the show’s universe. This is actually the second time the show has head-faked at the end of a season regarding the uncertain future of one of the agents, and I don't find it particularly effective: Sure, Myka resigned instead of being exploded like Artie, but there’s still the false pretense of cutting a cast member who is clearly not going anywhere. Along similar lines, this season's premiere pivots from one antagonist to another much as last year's did. Just as the show made the shift from McPherson to H.G. Wells at the start of last season, here they make the shift from H.G. Wells to the shadowy figure being assisted by Ashley Williams’ FBI impersonator.
I would question, though, whether the show really needs any of this. I actually thought the H.G. Wells arc was quite well done, a good use of Jaime Murray’s talents and a fun take on the show’s supernatural rehistoricization (rewriting Wells as female and using a science fiction author to allow for new sets of artifacts), but the antagonist here is literally a shadowy figure with no sense of motivation. It doesn’t feel clever so much as it feels perfunctory, and the sheer lack of the supernatural or science fictional feels like a bit of a waste. I’m aware that can change with time, but the mystery lacks any substance beyond “Who do we think it is,” which gives me nothing to latch onto.
The same goes for the newly introduced agent, Aaron Ashmore’s Steve Jinks, who left me wondering why the show felt the need to introduce a new character. While the short term awkwardness between Pete and Steve serves to signify the impact of Myka’s departure, we’ve been given no reason to care about Steve beyond his awkwardly-introduced and never explained ability to tell when people are lying. The episode’s opening has some fun elements, and I always love when the show lets us join an artifact recovery in medias res and just plays around with the premise, but Steve’s Cal Lightman-esque abilities feel like a giant gimmick that the show has already exhausted in a single episode: He accepts a ridiculous-sounding but true statement as true, he reads through false enthusiasm to create an awkward moment, and he reads through false emotions to provide a poignant glimpse into someone's true feelings (in this case Pete's thoughts about Myka’s departure). I honestly don’t see much more value for this ability, and given that it’s the only thing currently defining the character I don’t see much value in him either.
Of course, I’ve read interviews with Ashmore that suggest there is more to the character than meets the eye, and I’m curious to see how some of those character elements are worked into the group dynamic (even if he remains billed as a guest star). However, their absence in this episode called attention to the fact that the show doesn’t really need a new character: Claudia has developed into a strong character, Artie remains a viable mentor-figure, and Leena remains extremely underdeveloped even with the existing character load. If you’re introducing a new character or a new antagonist in a procedural like this one, it can’t feel like you’re just throwing something new into the mix for the hell of it (especially when you have license to throw some very imaginative things into the mix for better reasons). There needs to be a sense of purpose and momentum, something the show had last season but seems to be lacking this time around.
In fact, “The New Guy” doesn’t get to do many parts of the show justice. Shakespeare’s Cursed Lost Folio is fine, but it’s hard to be too concerned about it killing a group of mysterious and voiceless bankers, which makes its function as a cheap justification to bring Myka into the fold all that much more apparent. The show was clearly trying to tap into the fun of the Warehouse early on, using Steve’s arrival as an excuse to play with Warehouse lightning and the various Warehouse-related oddities, but it almost seemed like it was trying too hard. The episode kept tripping over itself, going through the motions but not seeming to have any fun in the process.
Now, I know I have a reputation for overthinking these things, but I want to clarify that my desire is for Warehouse 13 to think less. It is at its best when it isn’t beholden to character introductions, and when it doesn’t feel like it’s straining itself to introduce a new villain. “The New Guy” had plenty of moments that highlighted the charming show that Warehouse 13 has become, but it never came together as a satisfying example of the solid genre-lite procedural that Warehouse 13 can be when it just lets go and explores (albeit within its limitations) a world of endless wonder.
A world of endless exposition just isn’t as effective.
- Note to shows with cliffhangers that suggest a character might leave the show: Don't show them in the credits. I know it's a legal thing, and that we all knew Kelly was coming back anyways, but at least pretend.
- I just tweeted about Ashley Williams over the weekend, as I came across one of her episodes of How I Met Your Mother in syndication while I was coincidentally eating a cupcake, so her appearance here was a pleasant surprise. Glad that she’s here for more than a ridiculous southern FBI agent, although I’ll need to know more before saying that her presence can create excitement when the shadowy nature of it all just seems so empty.
- I guess it could be going somewhere, but did anyone else find the B-Story with Claudia and Artie dealing with the dueling Zeus and Hera statues to be a bit strange? I don’t know what they were going for: I thought it was a metaphor at first, but the resolution lacked any sense of drama, so it ended up feeling like that annoying kind of foreshadowing that has no value except in hindsight.
- I continue to enjoy that CCH Pounder remains on this show — I thought for sure they were going to kill her off at the end of last season, but I guess once she heard David Strathairn was coming to SyFy she didn’t want him to be lonely in the “Can’t Believe They’re On SyFy” club.
- I forgot to mention that Steve is a Buddhist, a character detail that is actually revealed to us by Pete, and just used to make Pete look stupid for not understanding the tenets of Buddhism.
- Liked seeing the return of H.G. Wells in holograph form here: Her arc was really well-handled by the show, and I think Jaime Murray has successfully convinced me that the absolute collapse of Dexter season two was not at all her fault.
- Long shot, but was anyone watching for the first time tonight? The episode seemed pretty clearly designed to bring in new viewers, so I'm curious how successful it might have been.