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Warehouse 13: "Pilot"

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As someone who is sort of in geek culture but not really of geek culture, I've always been interested in how to make shows with what seem to be a pretty limited appeal work for a mass audience.  Of course, my predictions are always terrible, because I always forget how many geeks there are in America, and I also overestimate how many of my flavor of nerd there are.  If I had been in charge, for example, Star Wars would never have gotten a green light, but Kings would have gotten a five-season deal right off the bat.

When I heard about Warehouse 13, I was, being the dolt that I am, mildly intrigued but baffled:  the idea of a huge government warehouse where arcane artifacts, alien technologies, and bizarre supernatural objects are stashed away where they won't cause any trouble is a neat one, but would people actually watch a show about it?  It's an idea whose origins began with conspiracy nuts and eventually found its way into the fringes of sci-fi, but aside from street crazies and people who played a lot of "Illuminati:  New World Order", who was the target audience?  I asked that very question to some friends, who all more or less answered the same way:  anyone who liked Raiders of the Lost Ark or The X-Files.  Oh yeah, I said, suddenly remembering why I am not a television executive.

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Tonight was the pilot of Warehouse 13, on "SyFy", which has to be the most annoying way yet divised of abbreviating "science fiction".  The show was created by Brent Mote and David Simkins, but what will draw some viewers in is the presence of producer/co-writer Jane Espenson, a superstar/punching bag from cult fave Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Simkins and Jack Kenny are slated to be the first season's show runners, but Espenson has signed on to write a few episodes, and her presence is clearly felt in the pilot, especially with some of the more clever bits of dialogue.

The premise of the show is pretty simple:  Secret Service agents Peter Lattimer (Eddie McClintock) and Myka Bering (Joanne Kelly), after saving the life of the President from a monster-of-the-week type, are assigned to duty at Warehouse 13, a huge facility in the middle of Nowhere, South Dakota.  The warehouse ("L39-ZZZ on the North American grid", or "America's Attic") was built in the late 19th century to house unexplainable objects and keep them from causing havoc until they could be figured out.   It's staffed by Artie Nielsen (Saul Rubinek), who knows the ins and outs of the operation and is in cahoots with mysterious big-shot Mrs. Frederic (CCH Pounder).  Their job as the series progresses will, on the surface, be to hunt down and identify various gewgaws and seal them up in the warehouse; but they'll also be trying to figure out why they've drawn this assignment, who wants them there, and what, exactly, it's all about.

Whether or not viewers will stick around to find out is the biggest mystery, but Warehouse 13 gets off to a decent, if decidedly mixed, start.  The producers are clearly selling the sexual tension between McClintock and Kelly way too soon, and McClintock is going to be problematic right away:  he's supposed to be breezy and unconventional, but he comes across as alternately smug and incoherent.  Kelly is a bit more likable — her peevishly strait-laced character at least suggests dimensions other than those on the surface — but they need time to develop.  They're shoving the David-and-Maddie/Scully-and-Mulder vibe down our throats without even buying us a drink first; there's even awkward dialogue ("She's meticulous!  He's scattershot!") tossed in just in case we forget what predictable dichotomy we're looking at.

Rubinek, on the other hand, carries the show.  His impatient, distracted performance is delightful; he looks like he's having a hell of a time, and his ability to sell the goofy pseudo-science with his line readings lets viewers sit back and enjoy all the fun steampunk set design.  The usually reliable CCH Pounder is a bit too CCH Pounderish, but the rest of the supporting cast is quite able.  It's also a pretty fun show to look at so far, with Warehouse 13, like the TARDIS, being bigger on the inside than on the outside and crammed with odd objects like a human-powered vehicle designed by Thomas Edison to compete with the Model T and a "wishing teapot" which, in one of the funnier moments in the pilot, is revealed to produce a living ferret whenever someone wishes for something impossible.  The interactions between the leads and Rubinek, and between everyone and the Warehouse, which hopefully will develop into a character of its own, are the most enjoyable parts of the show.

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Unfortunately, the whole thing deteriorates in the second hour of the pilot, with the scenes away from the Warehouse, as McClintock and Kelly chase down a college student turned inexplicably violent by the Doohickey of the Week, dragging like mad.  This will hopefully be alleviated by future episodes, which won't have to bear two hours of predictable plots, and there's enough here to keep viewers tuning in to see where things are going.  But Warehouse 13 will have to go light on the episodic monster-of-the-week stuff and focus on the crazy elements — the very stuff that would have made me peg it as a non-starter — if it's going to succeed.

Grade:  B

Stray Observations:

- Watching Saul Rubinek in an ill-fitting helmet ziplining through the Warehouse was both ridiculous and hilarious.

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- I'm not sure how intentional any of it was, and I may have even misinterpreted a few things (I'll have to re-watch the screener with a finger on the pause button), but it looked like there were a lot of semi-famous artifacts (semi-famous in the geek/conspiracy theorist sense) in the Warehouse.  That's in addition to the stuff they specifically called out, like "Houdini's wallet".

- "Seriously?  There has been a serious screw-up.  I'm serious."

- "Is this a town?  What is this?  What's the name for it?"

- Anyone else watch this?  What did you think?  Will you be watching again?

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