Saturday, July 21, 2012

Warehouse 13: Season 1 Review

The concept of Warehouse 13, is, incredibly, an original one – yes something original! Myka and Pete, as Secret Service Agents, have been recruited by Warehouse 13, run by the formidable Mrs. Frederic, to work alongside Artie, the current Warehouse manager and their supervisor. They have the job to hunt down Artefacts and bring them to the Warehouse where they can be kept safe. These Artefacts are have special qualities, usually because they have absorbed some of the incredible natures of notable people through history – so Tesla’s labcoat, Lucretia Borgia’s comb, Lewis Carol’s mirror – all of them have unusual properties that need to be investigated, neutralised and returned to the Warehouse where they can be guarded and kept safe.

It has an almost X-files feel, without the dark, horror, grimness that so often accompanied it. Travelling to find the unknown, the weird and the unexplained, neutralise it and control it, while keeping things light and pretty fun. It is interesting and they have gone to some effort to actually provide some background and reason behind the various objects beyond simple “magic rock” (we do get the odd magic rock or substance, but they’re far more likely to draw in an actual historical figure) that continually makes the series interesting.

Towards the middle of the season it does start to become a little shaky. Like many speculative fiction shows – be they horror, sci-fi, fantasy or urban fantasy (and yes, Grimm, I’m looking at you), it does devolve a little into “adventure of the week.” We get a series of episodes where we follow the same pattern – New Thing arrives! Agent deals with New Thing! New Thing is vanquished! Excellent – everyone rejoice and next week we’ll have another New Thing. On Charmed, Dark Angel (season 2) and Buffy it was a new monster, on Mutant X it was a new super power – and on Warehouse 13 it was a new artefact.

And these episodes aren’t necessarily bad things, certainly at the beginning of season 1. They’re an excellent way to introduce the daily life of the agents (eventually it becomes a given that this is what they do every day and we don’t need to see it) as well as give us chance to develop all the characters and their roles.  By not having a complicated over-arching meta-plot to focus on, we can see more of the characters and the world setting all of which deserve the attention.

But it does go on a little too long and is picked up nicely first with the introduction of Claudia and later by the shadow of Macpherson. Even better, Macpherson as a big-bad is excellent. There was a lot of foreshadowing, a lot of groundwork giving us the full idea of just what he’s capable of with the artefacts at his command. And by the end he is confirmed of one of my favourite villains, this is what so many villains try to be – a Moriaty figure who thinks being 4 moves ahead of your opponent is just lazy. He’s the kind of villain where you end up thinking that the good guys should just leave him alone because whatever you’re planning he has already anticipated it, planned for it and countered it – and is now not only ahead of you in the game, but has finished that game and is now playing an entirely new one. He’s a genuinely brilliant villain and I look forward to seeing him in the second season – but I also worry. They’ve set him up as a magnificent, manipulative genius – and that’s hard to maintain

We do have what I hope is an upcoming conflict – the useage of the Artefacts. After all, many of these artefacts can do incredible things and it seems a shame not to use them. At the same time, most of them are dangerous or have severe side effects attached – it’s rare to find an Artefact that doesn’t have some kind of catch attached. But it does give Macpherson a motive beyond “I’m so evil” and adds a level of question and depth to it.

Which I think is also added by the regents of the Warehouse being ordinary people – not statesmen or military or politicians – just common people with common sense and common concerns. It made some wonderful comments about class and how education and intelligence are not synonymous – and really, would you want governments to be the ones in charge of these artefacts, including their side effects?

Pete, sadly, annoys me. He’s a clown and while I’m not adverse to some comic relief, he often takes it too far and to ridiculous levels (this may be because I’m not entirely sold on his acting). He becomes a parody and I cannot imagine him working as a Secret Service Agent, let alone one of the agents in the Warehouse. His playing with the artefacts has caused disasters – but even when it doesn’t, he’s still reckless without purpose – he plays with the artefacts for fun. Contrast that with Claudia’s disasters, reckless yes, but always with a practical purpose or from genuine accident – she doesn’t play table-tennis with Lewis Carol’s mirror, she tries to change a light bulb with Nikolai Tesla’s lab-coat. Ok, have him light hearted and with a strong sense of fun to bounce off Myka’s excessive seriousness – but the extreme level they’ve taken it to doesn’t work, isn’t realistic and leaves me thinking he shouldn’t be allowed to supervise a corner shop, let alone the Warehouse.

And it also adds some unfortunate implications (and gendered implications) on the role of him and Myka. How many television programmes do we see now where we have the adult man-child and the oh-so-serious woman forced almost into a parental role? It’s tiresome and it’s done – she has to be the consummate professional while he coasts along being the goofball.

Which is even more galling when we consider that they’re equal – not just in rank but also equally capable, because they both bring unique things to the team. She brings her planning skills, her dedication, her willingness to read the manual, her research, her observation skills and her meticulous attention to detail. He brings… vague hunches. Instinct. At some point I’m going to need them to officially confirm him as a psychic at least to justify this.  It also has the added bonus of saying they’re both equally capable, but Myka works really hard at it – and Pete’s just effortlessly good.

Inclusion-wise, it’s a bit fraught. Among the recurring characters we have 2: Mrs. Frederick who is promoted to obscurity – you see her maybe 2 out of every 3 episodes and then briefly. And Leena who runs the guest house/rooms of the agents and helps them out. She seems to be able to read auras or have some mystical ability – I see “seems” because, despite being there from episode one, there is zero attempt to develop her. This bothers me more because, half way through the season, we’re joined by Claudia, beginning as a semi-antagonist before joining the team. Now, I don’t mind Claudia – I like her a lot, in fact (despite my dislike of having such a young character be such a complete expert) as a character and I think she and Artie bounce off each other really well. But I dislike that she became a more integral part of the group within 2 episodes of her first appearance than Leena manages in an entire season – the fact that I’m still putting a big question mark over her possibly magical abilities after a full seasons says as much. And I won’t spoil the ending but I will give it a side-eye.

Beyond the main characters, we have several artefacts with origins in non-white cultures: Native American, Turkish, Japanese and in all cases we have minimal – if that – involvement from the cultures in question. There’s generally a scarcity of POC backing characters. There is also not a single GBLT character in the entire first season.

There’s also some annoying “America world police” going on. This artefacts come from all periods of human history and from all over the world – including nations that have existed centuries before the US. It’s bewildering that France would need covert American agents to rob their museums for artefacts rather than France or Japan or Italy having their own Warehouses.

What I do love about this show, and I think really makes it above and beyond the original elements of the story is the character interactions. With the exception of Pete falling off the rails, these characters really do bounce off each other well. Pete and Myka can be fun (when Pete isn’t a nuisance), Artie and Claudia are truly excellent together. Mrs. Frederick just controls and steals every scene she is in. Artie, Myka and Pete bounce off each other so very excellently. They feel like real people, with real emotions and real growth through the series (though I do rather think Artie had his intelligence and modern technology capability downgraded so they could fit Claudia into the team). For me it carried the show – it was extremely well acted (barring the obvious) and they felt like a real team with real chemistry.

All in all, it’s an excellent series and it really surprised me – I didn’t expect something this good, interesting or relatively imaginative. That being said, it fails badly at any attempt at inclusion and that’s pretty pathetic for a series developed in 2010