Now Playing: THRESHOLD
So far, the new fall television season has been surprisingly good. I've sampled three new series so far, and I enjoyed all three. I've already written about PRISON BREAK in this previous post, which continues to slowly piece together its intricate puzzle of a plot. Unlike LOST, which has garnered inexplicable acclaim, PRISON BREAK's story is actually going someplace, as each episode finds its hero making progress towards his goal of rescuing his brother from death row and escaping from the penitentiary.
THRESHOLD premiered tonight with a two-hour pilot on CBS. Its expensive production values and name cast made it look almost like a feature film; in fact, its action scenes and visual effects put it on about the same level as a decently produced direct-to-video thriller, although its script was tighter than exploitation movies tend to have.
The networks are covered in genre shows this fall, jumping on the supernatural bandwagon started by LOST's success. For some reason, DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES hasn't spawned a gaggle of shows about bitchy middle-aged women, but every network has at least a couple of shows about spooks, monsters, space aliens or paranormal phenomena. THRESHOLD may well turn out to be the best of them.
Carla Gugino, the sexy actress who sparkled as the lead in ABC's late, lamented KAREN SISCO and brought an adult sensuality to the juvenile comic-book fantasy SIN CITY, stars in THRESHOLD as Molly Caffrey, a government contingency expert who concocts emergency plans for nearly any catastrophic event, from the melting of the polar ice caps to an alien invasion. Turns out that last one may have actually happened when a Navy ship is bombarded with unusual sounds and lights from a four-dimensional spacecraft that turns its crew first mad and then dead. Only the first mate (William Mapother, last seen as a psychopath on LOST) survives, and he's not exactly himself, shrugging off several bullets and a fall into the drink 80 miles from shore.
Deputy National Security Advisor Baylock (Charles S. Dutton) rounds up Molly and her crew, which includes Cavanaugh (Brian Van Holt), a soldier; forensic scientist and '60s radical Fenway (Brent Spiner from STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION); lingustics expert Ramsey (Peter Dinklage), a dwarf; and nerdy physicist Pegg (Rob Benedict). The supporting cast is what makes THRESHOLD really stand out so far. Instead of filling the screen with young hotties, CBS has assembled a cast of actors who not only look unlike almost every other show that makes its police squadrooms look like a GQ shoot, but who also actually look as though they can do their characters' jobs. No one believed Rachel Nichols as an FBI agent and serial killer chaser in Fox's ridiculous THE INSIDE or Evangeline Lilly as LOST's improbably able bank robber and fugitive, but there's no question that Brent Spiner, for one, inhabits his fussy doctor entirely. For that matter, Gugino, beautiful though she is, proved in KAREN SISCO that she can project vulnerability, intelligence and strength, as well as sex appeal, and is entirely convincing commanding her band of government-sponsored alien hunters.
The premiere contained plenty of shocks, special effects, chases and gun battles to complement its intriguing story, which opens the door to future THRESHOLD adventures. One interesting twist is that Caffrey's bunch are essentially prisoners of the U.S. government, or at the very least material witnesses. In order to keep a lid on the possible extraterrestrial sightings, Baylock orders that the Threshold group be under surveillance at all times, to the point of having their phones bugged, and prevents them from rejoining the outside world as much as possible. This leads to understandable fear and frustration, particularly from Fenway, whose presumed experience with civil unrest during the late 1960's makes him not particularly trustful of Baylock.
I also appreciated that THRESHOLD put the title of the episode, "Trees Made of Glass" on-screen at the beginning of the show, a practice that used to be ubiquitous, but is now rarely done.
The other series that premiered this week that I really thought was fun is SUPERNATURAL, which represents the first WB series I've ever seen in that network's history. It's basically THE X-FILES Meets ROUTE 66, as two brothers cruise around the country in a classic sports car pursuing monsters and ghosts.
The opener, directed by David Nutter, the networks' go-to guy when making pilots (MILLENNIUM, TARZAN, JACK & BOBBY, WITHOUT A TRACE and many more), casts Jared Padalecki (GILMORE GIRLS) as Sam Winchester, a bright young Stanford student with an improbably hot girlfriend and a free ride to law school. That is, until his older brother Dean (Jensen Ackles from DAWSON'S CREEK and SMALLVILLE) breaks into his house one night with the news that their father is missing. This doesn't surprise or worry Sam very much at first, considering the Winchesters' interesting backstory.
When they were very young, their father heard their mother screaming, dashed up to baby Sam's room, and found her contorted body attached to the ceiling, where she burst into spontaneous combustion, burning the house to the ground. Suspecting some sort of evil supernatural force, the Winchester men went on the run, becoming experts in tracking, weaponry and monster-fighting. In an attempt to discover what happened to their mother, Sam and Dean spent their childhood following their father all over the country, investigating mysterious deaths and paranormal sightings. The interesting conceit is that Sam and Dean know ghosts and monsters are for real, and even though Sam has left the fold to tackle a normal life, concern for his father's safety, as well as an ingrained sense of adventure, lure him to a small California town, where the Winchester patriarch disappeared while apparently investigating the murders of several men by a sexy apparition in a white wedding dress.
The pilot ended on a note as downbeat as it was suspenseful, providing Sam with a believable incentive to chuck law school and accompany Dean to Colorado, their father's destination. Presumably, the brothers won't find Pop for awhile, as they drive around helping strangers FUGITIVE-style and singeing a few creatures in the process.
The dialogue occasionally stooped to tiring, ironic BUFFY-style cracks, and the two leads are too distractingly cute (par for the WB's course), but Ackles and Padalecki are certainly convincing as brothers, and Nutter packed enough style and shocks into the opener to lure me back for the next episode.
INVASION, SURFACE, THE NIGHT STALKER and GHOST WHISPERER are other new fall series with a basis in science fiction and horror, but they'll have to be pretty darn good to stack up next to SUPERNATURAL and THRESHOLD.