Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Camera Obscura
    by John Joseph Adams
January 2007

The Dresden Files
SCI FI Channel
Directors: Michael Robison, Jim Contner
Writers: Peter Egan, George Mastras
Cast: Paul Blackthorne, Valerie Cruz, Terrence Mann, Conrad Coates, Raoul Bhaneja
Air Date: Series premiere January 21 at 9:00 PM on SCI FI Channel
Rated TV14-L-V / 60 minutes / 2007
(out of four)

"Birds of a Feather"
Director: Michael Robison
Writer: Peter Egan
Guest Starring: Dylan Everett, Deborah Odell
Airdate: January 21 at 9:00 PM on SCI FI Channel

The Dresden Files, based on the bestselling novels by Jim Butcher, seemed like a good property to adapt to television. It's contemporary urban fantasy, with a noir edge, and its setup leaves it open to multi-episode arcs or monster-of-the-week romps. But The Dresden Files doesn't quite capture the spirit of what makes Jim Butcher's novels so fun, and it doesn't hold a candle to the television series that everyone will most likely compare it to: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Things immediately get off to a bad start in the opening moments of the pilot, "Birds of a Feather." It begins with some awkward back-story, showing how Harry Dresden (Blackthorne), as a youth, scared of the monsters in his closet, is given a "shield bracelet" that belonged to Harry's mother, who was mysteriously killed. And young Harry, who was so frightened of the dark just moments earlier, tells his father, he's going to find whatever it is that killed his mother and "rip it's heart out." Oh, and it's a dream! A flashback dream, before we even get to meet the character. The dream turns out to be a minor plot point, but still, it's an off-putting way to get the show rolling.

Once Harry wakes up, he learn that he's a private eye who specializes in cases that deal with the paranormal. Or, more to the point, he's a wizard; it even says so in his ad in the Yellow Pages.

Harry's (unwilling) partner in his supernatural investigations is a ghost named Bob (Mann), the former servant of Harry's uncle, Justin Morningway, who was "self-defensed to death" by Harry. Bob, once a wizard of some renown, now seems to be bound to serve Harry in some capacity. He doesn't seem to like it, but is amiable enough in his servitude.

The plot gets going when Harry runs outside to move his car to avoid a parking ticket (which he does not), when a young boy, Scott Sharp (Everett), approaches Harry, phonebook ad in hand, asking him if he's Harry Dresden, the wizard. "I've got monsters," he says.

Harry's skeptical, but the kid offers him $5000 to take the case, and he's got the cash in hand to prove he's serious. Harry hears the kid out, but dismisses Scott as an "imaginative kid," and refuses to take the case and his money, which turns out to be his college savings. But Bob later convinces Harry to take Scott's concerns seriously, but to do so free of charge, to assuage any guilt Harry has about taking a poor kid's money for what is probably nothing more than an overactive imagination. So Harry decides to take the case and starts by going to talk to Scott's mother.

Cut to Lt. Murphy (Cruz), who is investigating a murder scene, where the victim appears to have been skinned alive; where, when, or how is a total mystery-there's no blood, no sign of forced entry. Murphy later turns to Harry for his expertise in the paranormal, and brings him on board the case. Which leads Harry to discover that he saw the flayed victim—alive—as he was leaving Scott's house: It's Whitney Timmons (Odell), Scott's teacher.

After realizing this, Harry knows exactly what's going on: A monster that kills and then walks around in the victim's skin can only be one thing-a skinwalker.

Being a supernatural investigator, you'd think that Harry would have taken Scott more seriously, especially considering the recurrent dreams he's been having about his own childhood, which have been visiting Harry so frequently lately that Bob insists they are not ordinary dreams, but portents.

There are other problems with the plot, especially the way the primary conflict is resolved, but there's little reason to belabor the point; this is very much what you might expect of an original creation of Hollywood, not something based on a well-developed, entertaining series of books—making it serve as yet another example of how film and television adaptations of books can go terribly, terribly wrong.

I could go on, but before I go into detail about the series' overall shortcomings, let's take a look at the second episode.

"The Boone Identity"
Director: Jim Contner
Writer: George Mastras
Guest Starring: C. David Johnson, Kaleigh Nevin, Tom Barnett, Kevin Rushton
Airdate: January 28 at 9:00 PM on SCI FI Channel

In this episode, Harry is hired by Charles Harding (Johnson), an antiques dealer, to help him deal with the loss of his daughter, Lisa (Nevin), who had been murdered during a robbery and now seems to be haunting her father's shop. After a conversation with Harding (and a brief visitation by Lisa), Harry learns that the thief managed to get away with only one thing: an Egyptian artifact known as the lock of Anubis. But the burglar didn't really get away with anything; he not only dropped the stone tablet (shattering it), but he also managed to get himself killed during an attempted carjacking...or so the police report says.

The police had closed the case, but Harry digs a little deeper. After getting access to the file from Murphy, Harry decides to ask the intended victim of the carjacking some questions. Turns out that this is Edward Miller (Barnett), a Chicago billionaire...who just happens to have an intense interest in Egyptian artifacts. So Harry persuades Miller to answer some questions, in order to help Harding get some closure. But then he aggressively questions Miller, and persuades him to show him how he managed to get the shotgun away from the thief—who we learn is a man named Boone (Rushton)—and kill him with his own weapon. Miller's explanation is not convincing, and Harry soon wears out his welcome. Miller informs Harry of an appointment he has, then leaves Harry to find his own way out of the house (and thus free to wander around, snooping). Before leaving, Harry finds a masseuse preparing Miller for a massage, which allows Harry to see the Egyptian tattoo on the back of Miller's neck.

This episode has a lot of problems, but let's address a few of these that have come up so far. Okay, first of all, you don't have to be a wizard to see that the Miller-Boone encounter doesn't seem like a coincidence, though apparently in the world of The Dresden Files, you do need to be a wizard, since the police didn't seem to think that lead was worth investigating. And secondly, what billionaire—especially one that has something to hide—would invite some shabby-looking private investigator into his home, allow him to question him as if he were a suspect, and then leave him to find his own way out of the house?

There's more to the mystery behind the burglary, some of which is actually kind of cool, but the inept plotting continues to ruin everything. I mean, a crucial plot point hinges on the fact that Murphy cuts her finger on Harry's doorknob as she's walking out of his office. A doorknob? Who cuts themselves on a doorknob?

It's probably evident by now that one of the primary weaknesses of this show is its writing. I'd say the acting is equally bad, but considering the dialogue the actors had to work with, they did what they could; sadly, what they did was not nearly enough. Blackthorne is not up to the task of carrying this series, and an adept portrayal of Harry Dresden is really essential for the series; this is not an ensemble drama—it's the Harry Dresden show, and with a weak Harry Dresden, the overall result is weak. And the supporting cast doesn't help at all; if Blackthorne is bad, the rest of them are execrable. The banteriffic relationship Dresden and Murphy are supposed to have doesn't work at all, mainly because Blackthorne and Cruz have no chemistry. It's odd to see a series in which the minor league guest stars display better acting than the series regulars.

Just about the only thing this show has going for it is that it's got a cool premise. It's possible that they'll be able to turn this thing into something watchable, but unless they overhaul the writing staff and get some directors who can make those actors act, there'll be no saving this sinking ship.

In one of the episodes, a voice-over from Blackthorne informs us: "Wizard...it comes from the root word 'viz' — to see." Well, I'm no wizard, but I can see The Dresden Files' future, and what I see is...cancellation.

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