On Sanctuary

Posted: December 7, 2009 in Braak, reviews
Tags: , ,

Because Jeanine and I don’t have cable, we end up watching television on the internet–via the Netflix, or the Hulu, or what have you.  This process has no discernible disadvantage.  I have never been less tempted to purchase cable in my life.  Absolutely nothing I want to watch is unavailable–except for the occasional gap between air dates and DVD dates, but that gap is getting smaller as we speak–and it’s all got fewer commercials.  Plus, I don’t have to care what time it is (my battle with the awareness of time and date is a long-undocumented war of attrition which I will eventually describe; for now, let me just say:  I don’t much care for having to have to know what day it is).

One of the things about this process, though, is that when I sit down to watch a television series, I basically watch the entire television series at once, over the course of a few days, which is what happened with Canadian SF/F show Sanctuary, which stars Amanda Tapping.

This is a pretty okay show, actually.  It’s about Amanda Tapping as a 157 year old Victorian scientist who has a multibillion dollar operation collecting monsters and mutants.  She hires a psychiatrist to help her (Holland’s audience surrogate), because monsters need therapy, too, and she has a staff consisting of:  kung fu Barbie, a werewolf who is also their IT guy, and a giant ape-man [EDIT–the internet has advised me that this is actually Sasquatch].  Also, she used to date Jack the Ripper!

As you can imagine, the premise here is something that I find interesting, and this is where Sanctuary excels.  The structure of the writing, and the introduction of weird, eerie, dangerous monsters is, on the whole, pretty good.  The dialogue is consistently crappy, but that happens–there are very few SF television shows with good dialogue that aren’t written by someone named “Whedon”.

The show also computer-generates ALL of its backgrounds, from the hideous crypts in Scotland to the living room with the fireplace in it.  You’d think this would make the whole thing look stupid and cheesy (and, admittedly, there are one or two false notes, especially in the first season), but no.  Suspension of disbelief will carry you far enough, and they do a pretty good job with the background rendering.  What this means is that the action of the show, unlike similarly-themed shows, can take place all around the world–on top of high-rise buildings, in abandoned cities in India, &c.  This represents a marked and welcome change from tradition–the periodic will to ignore some cheesy special effect more than makes up for 1) every monster encounter happening in the graveyard, sewers, or town’s nightclub (Buffy) or 2) every alien planet looking suspiciously like Vancouver (Stargate).

The first season was substantially stronger than the second–the writing almost completely loses focus after the Big Badguys from season one are thwarted.  And, frankly, these are the sort of badguys (a gigantic, super-secret organization of abnormal-controlling human scientists) that should have only been hinted at at first, and then revealed in season two or three.  Now, we’ve got nothing–superheroes, someone is trying to redeem lizardmen.  In a way, it seems like the whole show is written by someone new.  Or, rather, that no one who speaks is speaking from a particular worldview, but is writing specifically what needs to be said by the other person in the argument.

For example.  The main character, Dr. Helen Magnus, spends the whole first season trying to explain how the abnormals are “just like us.”  That is why she hires a human psychiatrist in order to help her.  The lesson of the first episode is:  see past the monster, we’re all human, bleh bleh bleh.  In “Fragments”, an episode from Season 2, she has multiple speeches in which she explains why even if you taught an “abnormal” (in particular, this lizard man thing) English, you still wouldn’t be able to understand him.

Now, this whole premise is ridiculous–she shouldn’t have been able to say either of these things, because we, the audience, when we watch the show can SEE that “abnormal” is just a broad category that describes all kinds of things–vampire races and monster furbys, yes, but also just weird kids who’ve been mutated by Chernobyl–so plainly both arguments are wrong.  But reversing the basic premise of the first season (whose finale revolved around the badguys inventing a bioweapon that would drive the otherwise peaceful abnormals made with human-murdering paranoia) just smacks of “yeah, I know, but we needed emotional conflict for this scene.”

The same kind of thing happens in the first season, don’t get me wrong–maybe the driving threat of the secret evil badguys made it easy to overlook, or just the newness of Evil Vampire Nikola Tesla blinded me to the ridiculous bits.  For instance:  if you are an attractive woman (Sophie the Empath, whatever that chick’s name who was the daughter of the invisible man) and you have a power that doesn’t affect your attractiveness, you are not a freak.  We live in a superficial society, kids; as long as you’re still hot, special powers just make you AWESOME, and it strains the disbelief a little to hear characters like this talking about how they think they should be in a sideshow.

I mean, come on.  That’s an insult to the good people who can only make their living in a sideshow.  You think you’ve got problems?  Try telling it to Jojo the Dog-Faced Boy.  Oh, did he bite your hot face off?  Well, there you go.

Santcuary isn’t served by close inspection, really.  If you look hard, you start asking all kinds of questions.  Like, how does the worm-faced guy know about the evil Cabal, which has been collecting abnormals for centuries and is huge and has billions of dollars, but Helen Magnus (Amanda Tapping), whose organization is also huge and has billions of dollars and has also been collecting abnormals for at least a hundred years, has never heard of them?  Or, while we’re at it, why did we make up a character like Helen Magnus for our Victorian-Era super-genius heroine, instead of picking one of the Edinburgh Seven, who at least had much less generic sounding names?  Obviously the Invisible Woman has to take off all of her clothes to turn invisible, but why do her huge swaths of purple eyeshadow disappear?  (Alternately:  why didn’t we think of a better character for her, other than “hot chick who has an excuse to get naked a lot”?)

These things would suggest that Sanctuary is kind of a dumb show, and I suppose if you look closely, you’d be forgiven for thinking that.  But it is a show that pleasantly rewards only gentle scrutiny–as long as you don’t look too closely, you’ll never notice the rough edges, and you can have a rollicking good time.

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Comments
  1. K. Liebert says:

    I can’t stand (or sit) to watch a TV show in my computer screen. It’s just not comfortable, maybe if I had a better chair it would be tolerable. (Besides, explosions/Invisible Woman scenes are more enjoyable on a 46″ TV vs a 21″ computer screen.) I imagine it makes the backgrounds seem less hysterical to watch them on a computer.

    The only way I was able to get through Lost’s middling seasons, was to watch them via Netflix (on DVD.) Even now, I am tempted to skip the final season, & simply watch it when it’s released to Netflix.

    Also, three of the Edinburgh Seven have much more generic sounding names.

  2. braak says:

    Yes, but the other four do not. Plus, they are called “The Edinburgh Seven” which makes them sound like those 19th century terrorist suffragists.

    And I agree about watching TV on a computer screen, which is why I think the HDMI cord is the most awesome thing ever devised by man. With it, I can plug the laptop into the big flatscreen TV. It’s just like watching regular television, only better in practically every conceivable way.

  3. Jeff Holland says:

    Two things put me off of “Sanctuary,” when I tried to sit through the pilot last year: 1) the relative crappiness of SciFi/SyFy productions, both in dimly-lit look and iffy performances, 2) the vague, gnawing Canadian-ness of it, and 3) the very real feeling that SciFi/SyFy had lost the bidding war to air “Torchwood” to BBC America, and so hastily threw together a non-union Mexican equivalent (so to speak).

    Which is not to say that I liked “Torchwood” much more (this was before the amazing “Children of Men” miniseries), but, y’know. It hit the “century-old creature-gathering/investigating institute headed by an immortal” well first.

    (This may be the short-sighted logic that had several “Farscape” fans freaking out when “Firefly”‘s premise was announced, but still.)

  4. Jeff Holland says:

    Err. Three things.

  5. braak says:

    Well, I think the 2nd thing is the only real thing, because it was actually a webseries first, and then it’s made by the Canadians in general and just leased to Scifi, I think.

    But, also, well–you have to evaluate these things on a sliding scale. Like I said, it’s a good show from a relative distance.

  6. Tad says:

    @Holland – What’s the Canadian equivalent for Senor Spielbergo? And I’m with you on the SciFi quality issue, that was a major stumbling block to my enjoyment of the Children of Dune miniseries. I think that’s why I’m pleasantly surprised that I’m enjoying the new Stargate series so much.

  7. braak says:

    Okay, here’s what would have made the invisible girl awesome: if she were always invisible, and whenever you saw her, she was wrapped up in bandages like the guy in The Invisible Man. You could hire someone who had experience in full-mask work, to capture the depth of expression (this person would be cheap to hire, and you’d have to worry less about whether or not they were traditionally attractive). It would make her monologues about feeling like a freak meaningful, because she wouldn’t have an actual power, per se, and it would just make a really neat visual addition to the cast.

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