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Monthly Archives: April 2010

“I don’t have a choice.  I’m a puppet.  The universe sticks its hand up my butt, and if I don’t dance people get hurt.”
–Jaye (Caroline Dhavernas)

Fate and destiny–concepts that have fascinated mankind for years.  They’re also the basis for quite possibly the most underrated, most unseen, and best “quirky” show of all time, Wonderfalls.  So of course its fate was sealed.

Caroline Dhavernas on Wonderfalls

Airing in the spring of 2004, Wonderfalls was created by Todd Holland and Bryan Fuller, and delivered one of the oddest premises ever (and remember, Fuller went on to create Pushing Daisies, so we’re in a definite “quirky” zone here already).  The show centered around Jaye (played by Canadian actress Caroline Dhavernas), a 20-something with an apparently useless college degree in Philosophy and a dead-end job at the Wonderfalls gift shop next to Niagara Falls–not your typical TV heroine or setting, especially for an hour-long comedy-drama.

But then Jaye starts hearing the voices….

And the voices are apparently coming from the inanimate animal objects around her, like a partially deformed Wax Lion, or a mounted fish on the wall, or pink yard flamingos.  And they all speak to her in riddles, telling the acerbic Jaye things like “Get her words out” or “Give her life back”, with Jaye not knowing who or what the creatures might be referring to.  And so the episodes detail her rather reluctant (and often misdirected) efforts to accomplish the wishes of these “muses”, and the effects of her actions on her family and friends.  And her family and friends are very caring, but completely dysfunctional.

Sharon, Karen, Darrin, Aaron... and Jaye

Parents Karen and Darrin (Diana Scarwid and William Sadler) are successful, loving, and only have Jaye’s best interests at heart… but now take all three of those things and multiply by a factor of four, and you see how pleasantly overbearing they can be.  While their love is always there for Jaye, it manifests itself in too much concern for her welfare, as they feel that they haven’t quite succeeded in raising her properly, so they still try to do so, with sometimes hilarious and embarrassing results.  Sister Sharon (Katie Finneran) is an immigration lawyer, trying to be the best, most successful daughter she can be, at least on the outside… and being the most lost, confused, and uncertain soul on the inside.  Older brother Aaron (Lee Pace) is still living at home, working on a master’s degree in theology and not believing in anything, at least initially, but is also the only one who really starts to accept that the “voices” Jaye is hearing might actually be real.  (By the way, notice the character names of the family members.  Jaye really is the “odd one out”, even here….)

future (?) boyfriend Eric

Jaye does have a couple of friends she can count on.  Her best friend since her youth, Mahandra (Tracie Thoms), is a waitress at the local watering hole, The Barrel (in Niagara Falls, get it?).  Usually also her partner in crime, so to speak, she’s the one who’s not afraid to tell Jaye when she’s wrong… and help her with her plans anyway.  The bartender at The Barrel is Eric (Tyron Leitso), cute, funny, and potentially the right one for Jaye, if only she wasn’t apparently certifiable, and he wasn’t married/separated/still having a LOT of baggage with his ex (who shows up halfway through the series, for more complications).

If this was your life, maybe the voices would be the sane part of your existence, too….

The Barrel Bear, the Wax Lion, and a postcard from Wonderfalls

And with the cars in place, we begin the roller coaster ride.  Jaye’s reluctant journey through helping the causes of muses, fate, and destiny take us through the ups and downs.  She can’t just ignore the voices.  They won’t shut up, even when she’s trying to sleep.  Since she’s the only one who hears them, even with others around, she’s caught up arguing with them, and then having to explain her apparently irrational conversations to her family and friends (or to the psychiatrist they send her to when they think she’s starting to really lose it).  Jaye is never sure exactly what the animal muses are trying to convey to her, either, since their comments are rather open to interpretation.  Her initial attempts usually turn out to be rather misguided, but strangely, things usually turn out right in the end, even if “right” is nothing like Jaye (or whoever she helps) were expecting.  The muses cause her to accidentally run over her own father with a car, only to find out later that a potentially fatal blood clot was found that actually saved his life.  She helps a down-on-her-luck girl find an identity, until it backfires when she steals Jaye’s, so now Jaye has to establish a different identity for her to steal.  This is not your typical cop/medical drama or situation comedy, thankfully.

Which, as I said, means that all good things come to a (premature) end.  Wonderfalls was originally scheduled for the Fall of 2003, by FOX, on Fridays at 9.  But this was the year after Buffy:  The Vampire Slayer ended, and many networks were looking for the next “strong female fantasy show”.  This meant that, on the other networks that fall season, there were the premieres of Tru Calling and Joan of ArcadiaJoan was especially a problem, because it was a highly promoted show about a girl who heard “voices” from God.  Confusion from the press started immediately, so FOX made the correct decision to save Wonderfalls until midseason, in the hope that Joan of Arcadia might fail early and leave the field open for them.  Joan, however, went for a full season, and Wonderfalls, despite critical acclaim and tentative plans for rolling out the show using American Idol as a launching pad, was running into problems of its own:

“We were the golden boys and everything was fantastic and we were in episode 7, and a rough cut of episode 5 (which had a very significant lesbian B-story) was sent to a higher-ups office, and he said ‘no fucking way’.  And the next day no one was talking to us and there was a time when we weren’t even going to air.  We really knew when we went into the marketing meeting and first they were telling us how they were going to market it, and then they were telling us how they were not.

That’s when we decided that we needed to make it a miniseries because we wouldn’t have more than 13 episodes and we made those 13 episodes sing.  We had a beginning, middle, and end.”
–creator Bryan Fuller

Jaye and "friend"

So, destiny and fate.  We now had a miniseries designed with a specific endpoint (which, if it had somehow been successful, could still have gone on to further seasons) and all that could be done was to put it out there and see the reaction.  The first episode aired on a Friday night in March, 2004, and was repeated the next week on a Thursday night… and got better ratings for the Thursday airing.  Immediately, FOX changed the airtime for the show to Thursdays, but didn’t really let anyone know about the change, meaning no one followed the show, and the ratings tanked.  It also didn’t help that the first Thursday repeat was against a previously broadcast CSI, and the following episodes were against new episodes during a Sweeps Month, which is when networks usually run all their “special” programming and competition is the strongest.  Oh, and CSI was the #1 show on television at the time.  You had a better chance going over Niagara Falls in a barrel yourself than Wonderfalls had of surviving.

And yet….

This is a show about fate.  Destiny.  About things that were meant to be.  So, even though its life on network television was short-lived, the show did eventually find an audience.  There was, of course, a fan campaign to save the show, consisting of “Greetings from Wonderfalls” postcards (like you might find in, perhaps, a certain cheesy souvenir shop somewhere near Niagara Falls).  Noting the critical acclaim the show had received (the San Francisco Chronicle called it “unquestionably the best new drama series of the 2003-2004 season”), the Museum of Television and Radio held a two-day screening of the entire 13 episodes the next January.  And although the show finally was aired in its entirety later that summer on the little-seen cable network Logo, the biggest hope for the majority of fans at that time was a DVD release.  Fortunately, FOX figured they could make some money on a show they’d already paid to produce, so a DVD set was released in early 2005.  It’s worth owning.  I mean it.  Apparently 25,000 other people thought so, because it’s sold at least that many.

Of course, if you can’t (or won’t) spend your money on worthwhile DVDs with extras, you can likely find the episodes on YouTube, but don’t expect me to link to them here, even though they’re worth watching… but I will link to the alternate version of the pilot there, since it’s not available on the DVD, with different actors playing the parts of Mahandra and Aaron (they were unable to continue when the show went to series).

The cast of Wonderfalls

CAROLINE DHAVERNAS (Jaye) has had a two-pronged career, primarily in Canada, where her fluency in both French and English has made her able to perform in films of both languages, and also dub her own voice for translations of various projects.  While much of her work has been in Canadian films, she has recently been seen in HBO’s The Pacific, and has been cast as the lead in ABC’s upcoming series Off the Map.

DIANA SCARWID (Karen) has been nominated for both an Oscar and an Emmy (for Inside Moves and Truman, respectively), and is also known for her role in the notorious film version of Mommie Dearest, playing the abused daughter of screen legend Joan Crawford.  She was also seen as a guest star in 4 episodes of Pushing Daisies and a pivotal role in Heroes (thank you, Bryan Fuller).

WILLIAM SADLER (Darrin) has had many and varied roles, including everything from the Grim Reaper in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey to appearing in the drama The Shawshank Redemption.  Genre fans know him as the sinister Luther Sloan, head of the mysterious Section 31 on Star Trek:  Deep Space Nine and as the Sheriff on Roswell.  He continues to appear in many guest roles in TV and film.

KATIE FINNERAN (Sharon) believed in Wonderfalls so much that she left all of her belongings in boxes in Toronto, sure that she’d be coming back to film season 2.  Alas, it was not to be.  Fortunately, she was an accomplished stage actress, having won a Tony award for the comedy Noises Off, and was most recently featured in the revival of Promises, Promises on Broadway.

LEE PACE (Aaron) is best known for his role as the piemaker Ned in Bryan Fuller’s slightly more successful show Pushing Daisies, where he has the ability to bring people back from the dead.  Unfortunately, that ability doesn’t work on television shows themselves, as neither Pushing Daisies nor Wonderfalls survived.

TRACIE THOMS (Mahandra) has been a regular on the CBS series Cold Case, and also was featured in the film version of the musical RENT.  As a result of the film, she reprised her role in the final cast performances of RENT on Broadway.  She was also seen as one of the wild women in the cult favorite Death Proof, which was released as part of the movie Grindhouse.

Canadian actor TYRON LEITSO (Eric) has appeared in a number of Vancouver based productions, including The X-Files and Millennium.  He is currently on the Canadian series Being Erica, playing, of course, the boyfriend of the lead.

Co-Creator TODD HOLLAND has won numerous Emmy awards for his directing work, on such shows as The Larry Sanders Show and Malcolm in the Middle, as well as 30 Rock.  He also directed 5 of the 13 episodes of Wonderfalls, including the pilot episode.

Co-Creator BRYAN FULLER is one of this blog’s heroes (pun intended), having created and worked on some of the best “quirky” shows ever, including writing over 20 episodes on the various Star Trek franchises, and creating/producing Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, and Pushing Daisies.  He also was a consulting producer for a time on Heroes (explaining the pun).

Did you hear something?

Our parting shot comes from Tim Minear, an executive producer/writer on the series, who has also worked on a number of Joss Whedon shows like Firefly and Angel.  He had this to say to the fans about why the show, and the entire 13 episode “miniseries”, is worthwhile:

“…it adds up to something.  Look, I’ve seen them all.  The story arc of it really starts heating up around episode 6.  So do stick with us for the first 13 episodes.  If for no other reason, when you see the twenty miracles that Caroline Dhavernas’ face performs in the last shot of episode 13, you’ll be glad you stayed.

And don’t fret about network plug-pulling.  I have trod this road before and I’ve cleared the way of minefields for you.  I can promise that if we only ever get to 13, it’ll be worth it and you won’t feel cheated.

–Tim Minear

Sorry, Mr. Minear.  I do feel cheated, but not just because FOX pulled the show even before episode 6.  I just wish there was more Wonderfalls.

The muses still speak, you just have to listen….

Vital Stats

4 aired episodes — 9 unaired episodes (available on DVD)
FOX network
First aired episode:  March 12, 2004
Last aired episode:  April 1, 2004  (How appropriate….)
Actually aired at Friday, 8/7 Central?:  no, but the first episode was close, at 9/8.

Odd trivia:  A guest character from the unaired episode “Muffin Buffalo” actually appeared in an episode of Pushing Daisies in the second season, so the two shows apparently share a universe together.  The world is a strange place, especially on television.  Also, minor recurring characters are played by genre favorites Neil Grayston (now on Eureka), Jewel Staite (from Firefly and Stargate:  Atlantis), and Kari Matchett (Invasion and Leverage).

As always, comments are appreciated.

–Tim R.

P.S.  I’m thinking of starting to put up some “preview” posts on Monday nights, just to hint a bit at what’s going to be covered that Friday.  Think of them as “network promos”, and see if you can guess what show I’m going to do without me giving it away completely.  Enjoy!

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“We’ve got a responsibility at 7 and that’s the bottom line.  We’re in a very special hour of television and we feel it strongly.  That affects everything we do.  If the public wanted to watch good TV, there’d be good TV on.  If they’d rather watch ‘Dukes of Hazzard,’ then that’s what the network has to give them.”
–James Parriott, creator

Phineas Bogg and Jeffrey Jones: Voyagers!

Educational television is almost an oxymoron.  And yet, in the fall of 1982, the television networks were mandated by the Federal Communications Commission that on Sunday nights at 7/6 central, programming had to be either educational or public affairs presentations.  The #1 show on television at the time was CBS’ 60 Minutes, airing in that slot.  And so, not only did any prospective “sacrificial lamb” entertainment show have to go up against that ratings juggernaut, it also had to conform to the “educational” constraint.  NBC’s answer:  Voyagers!

Phineas Bogg (Jon-Erik Hexum) is a Voyager.  Lifted from his own era, he (and others like him) journey through time and space, correcting the events of history where necessary.  They travel  using a device called an “Omni”, which has a date, location, and red and green lights (if red, something has gone wrong; if green, time has been fixed correctly).  Ordinarily, Voyagers also all have Guidebooks, a sort of manual telling them the way time is “supposed” to turn out.  Bogg, unfortunately, lost his Guidebook, in the process of saving a young boy from the year 1982, Jeffrey Jones (Meeno Peluce).

Jeffrey, however, turns out to be better than any printed Guidebook.  He has become a walking history textbook, having essentially memorized his recently deceased father’s work (his father was a history professor).  So now, Bogg and Jeffrey travel through time, fixing the timeline, occasionally messing it up (but not so badly that it can’t be fixed by the end of the episode), and meeting up with the greatest figures of history.

Cleopatra and Bogg, in New York City!

“I got to write for Cleopatra!  In one script, I wrote for Cleopatra, Babe Ruth, and Lucky Luciano!  In another , I wrote for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt!  How many people get to say that?  I learned a lot because we based it on fact.  Research is my favorite part and allowed me to ‘do well’ by the characters.”
–writer/producer Jill Sherman-Donner

Other episodes featured such notables as the Wright Brothers, Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, Marco Polo, Douglas MacArthur, and Thomas Edison, to name but a few.  Events throughout history were portrayed, including the almost obligatory “time-travel” trip to the Titanic, in which Bogg and Jeffrey meet another Voyager, and find that the ship may go down with the Mona Lisa on board!  All this was in keeping with the mission of making the show educational as well as entertaining, with varying degrees of success.

Obviously, this show was intended for younger viewers, at least initially.  Jeffrey was the audience’s surrogate, being an interesting, smart kid; just the type that the show was designed to create and appeal to.  His knowledge of history was extremely good, which occasionally got on Bogg’s nerves.  Bogg was known to repeat, under his breath, that “…smart kids give me a pain.” The episode end-credits even had a voice-over from Meeno Peluce reminding everyone that, if they were interested in finding out more information about the eras and people shown in the episodes, they should “…take a voyage down to your public library.  It’s all in books!”  (Maybe Bogg should have told him about this internet thing they’d have in the future….)

The show also needed to attract adult viewers as well.  Jon-Erik Hexum had matinee-idol looks, and Bogg had a distinct tendency to fall into a romance with most every good-looking female in any particular episode.  The show was also full of action sequences, from an aerial battle with the Red Baron to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.  It was difficult, if not impossible, to recreate ancient Rome one week and 1920’s New York the next, especially on a modest TV budget.  Extensive use was made, therefore, of both the Universal film library and of the Universal Studio back-lot.

Universal, at one time, had an incredibly extensive film library.  They had done tons of pictures of all kinds, and if you needed a scene of the Pearl Harbor attack, they had footage of Japanese Zeros dogfighting.  If you needed pirate ships, an attack on the Alamo, or old film from an Errol Flynn Robin Hood epic, they had those too.  And Voyagers! was tailor-made for such a wide variety of stock footage, from Cleopatra to the beginnings of the US/USSR Space Race.  It saved all kinds of money as well… which is also why the back-lot got so much use.

In 1982, the Universal back-lot wasn’t really a tourist attraction.  That’s being kind.  It was almost a forgotten place as far as the public was concerned, even though the studio tour buses were still going through on a regular basis.  It wasn’t the type of “theme-park” experience that it is today.  It was still very much a working studio area, even though it wasn’t being used nearly as much as it had been in its heyday.  And yet, it was a perfect place for Voyagers!

“Back then, the back-lot was in pretty bad shape.  They had the tour going through it, but it wasn’t really dolled up.  It was in a dilapidated state, and they didn’t charge television companies to use it.  Now they do.  But in those days, they said, ‘You can use whatever is back there.’  So we would just wander around and go, ‘Oh, wow, we can use that.  We can do a steamboat gambling show and involve Mark Twain.'”
–James Parriott, creator

Of course, nowadays, watching the episodes back-to-back, you start to notice things… like, for example, the Roman arena that was used for gladiator fights was used weeks later as the setting for a Wild West show with Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley.  Or that the same courtyard doubles for fights in a number of different wars in different episodes (and once in the SAME episode), from pirates raising their cutlasses to WWI street battles with resistance fighters.  You save money everywhere you can, especially when you’re making a variety of period pieces with no standing sets,  featuring battle scenes, stunts, and everything else that costs money in Hollywood.  (This is why one episode even takes place on “a Hollywood sound stage”!  We can do that, easy!)

Worse yet, the structure of most episodes required not one, but two different time periods.  For example, Cleopatra ends up being accidentally transported with Bogg to 1920’s New York, which means in this one story we have ancient Egypt and period NYC, which probably can’t double for each other!  How many sets can you reuse in an episode featuring both Albert Einstein and Marco Polo?  You get the idea.  It was an ambitious series, but one that had to pay for that ambition somewhere.

NBC had to cancel the show.  It ranked 82nd out of 84 shows that year.  And they weren’t actually trying to win the time slot (not against 60 Minutes, anyway).  Second would have been good enough.  As Jon-Erik Hexum rather candidly stated:

“Considering the time period, I don’t think we’ve done that badly.  I would say we’ve done marginally poorly.  Really!  You take any show NBC has got–even Hill Street Blues–and put it in that time slot; I guarantee you it will end up in the toilet.”

And that was even with Hexum’s extraordinary efforts, personally, to get it renewed.  NBC was ready to pull the plug after 13 episodes, but needed a replacement that fit the “educational” constraint.  Their planned show from their news division, Monitor, wasn’t quite ready.  Thanks to the combination of a fan letter-writing campaign and Hexum himself spending $5,000 of his own money to print and send out posters to schools advertising the series, the network ordered an additional 7 episodes of Voyagers!

Up against Drake, the villainous Voyager

These 7 episodes (along with the final episode of the original 13) showed a slightly different take on the show, developing a mythology of sorts and showing other Voyagers, including a continuing nemesis for our heroes.  The time-travel stories also tended to have at least one more modern element each episode (something the adults watching were more likely to relate to as a memory rather than just an event plucked out of a history book).  It was also revealed that Jeffery’s presence wasn’t quite as accidental as originally portrayed, and that he was always destined to become a Voyager.

Finally, however, time ran out, and the show was cancelled in the spring of 1983.  If only there was some way to go back in time and fix that obvious mistake in the timeline.

JON-ERIK HEXUM’s first real Hollywood job was being cast as Bogg in Voyagers!, although he had turned down roles in The Dukes of Hazzard and CHiPs.  He followed with a high-profile role in the TV-movie Making of a Male Model, and in the fall of 1984 was the male lead in a new series called Cover-Up.  During the filming of that series, he accidentally was killed due to injuries received from a prop gun which he was holding.  Many believe that he was destined to be a huge star, had his life and career not been cut short at the age of 26.

MEENO PELUCE had been a frequent guest star in many series as a youngster, prior to Voyagers! He had also been a regular in the TV series version of The Bad News Bears, and the comedy series Best of the West.  After his role as Jeffrey, he performed in more guest roles, including appearing with his real-life half-sister Soleil Moon-Frye on Punky Brewster.  As an adult, he not only was a history teacher (ironic, isn’t it?), but has established himself as a professional photographer, with portraits of many stars and musicians.

Series creator JAMES PARRIOTT has been involved with many genre series, coming to Voyagers! after having produced The Incredible Hulk and The Bionic Woman.  Thereafter, he produced, among others, Misfits of Science, Forever Knight, Dark Skies, Threat Matrix, Grey’s Anatomy, Sons of Anarchy, and most recently, Defying Gravity.  With that list, his name will show up again in this blog, I’m certain.

JILL SHERMAN (now Jill Sherman-Donner) also worked on The Incredible Hulk, and was a producer/writer for Magnum P.I., Freddy’s Nightmares, and (though she is loath to admit it) Baywatch.

Where to next, kid?

If you want to learn more about Phineas Bogg, Jeffrey Jones, or the Voyagers! series, then take a voyage down to your public library…. wait.  Instead, you can check out The Voyagers! Guidebook, with a timeless(!) array of information and great pictures from the series, as well as information on three scripts that were never used in the show.  Our modern version of time travel, the DVD set, is available as well.  Although sadly lacking in extras, it is still amazing that a show that did as poorly in the ratings as Voyagers! got a DVD release.

Maybe our memories are the best time travel of all.  That’s why this blog exists, you know….

Vital Stats:

20 aired episodes — no unaired episodes exist.
NBC network
First airdate:  October 3, 1982
Last airdate:  July 10, 1983
Actually aired at Friday, 8/7 Central:  Yes.  Once, actually.  On Dec 3, 1982, NBC aired an episode as an experiment on a Friday night.  Networks can’t resist.

As always, comments are welcome.

–Tim R.

“Clearly, when it first happened, I thought to myself, ‘They’ve lost confidence in us.  Is the perception going to be that there’s something wrong with the show?'”
–executive producer David Manson

Between November 2007 and February 2008, the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) went on strike.  For our purposes, the reason, or even the eventual resolution of the strike, is irrelevant.  The effect it had on TV production, however, was significant.

Bad shows, well, they would have died anyway.  Good shows, interrupted in their production, lost momentum and many never recovered (Pushing Daisies being the best example, in my opinion).  But some shows, unfortunately, were just plain killed before they even started.  This was the case with New Amsterdam.

Originally gaining a 13 episode order from FOX, and slated for the fall of 2007, this series halted production after only 8 episodes, before any of them had even aired.  Not officially canceled at the time, the show’s fate was very simple.  Unless it performed miraculously (when it finally did air), it would die… which was incredibly ironic, given the premise of the show.

John Amsterdam

John Amsterdam (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is a New York City police detective, tracking down murderers, like so many TV cops before him.  The difference here, is that “Amsterdam” is just the latest in a long line of aliases for the man originally born Johann van der Zee on June 1, 1607, in Amsterdam, Holland.  In 1642, at the age of 35, he was a Dutch soldier in the colony of New Amsterdam (the original name of New York City).  After saving the life of a Native American girl, and being fatally wounded in the process, those natives blessed him (and ultimately, it seemed, cursed him) with the gift of immortality.  He would continue, never aging, until he found his one true love, which would then render him once again mortal.

With a new police partner, Eva Marquez (Zuleikha Robinson), they solve cases, many times using the unique insight brought by John’s knowledge (and experience) of the history of New York, and of the many other lives he’s led along the way.  These “lives” include everything from having served in the Armed Forces multiple times (in different branches under different names), to being a doctor during the American Civil War, a lawyer prior to WWII, and a furniture maker at the turn of the century.  John has married many times, outlived his own children, and by now can’t even be bothered to name his pet dog anymore (actually, he just numbers them–currently on #36).

John’s secret is kept by Omar (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a bartender/owner of a small jazz club.  The club is also the access to John’s hidden loft, in which he lives and keeps what few possessions he has from his past lives.  The reason Omar is John’s confidante is revealed in the second episode of the series, “Golden Boy” (which I won’t spoil here).  Suffice to say that this bond is tested, and ultimately strengthened, and is shown throughout the series to be an interesting juxtaposition of what John has gone through, and what he might soon discover.

John and Sara: Destiny? or maybe Death?

During the pilot episode, John, to his surprise, suffers a heart attack, and dies… and promptly revives in the morgue.  This is a revelation to him, as it seems he may have actually met the woman who is to be “the one”, but at that point, has no idea who it could be.  Later in the series, it is revealed to be Dr. Sara Dillane (Alexie Gilmore), a cardiac doctor who attempted to treat him (not knowing she may have actually been the trigger).  The irony of the character is that, although she saves lives daily, she may ultimately be destined to bring John’s life to an end.

Friends and Partners

Prior to this, John has wanted to die.  Eva’s description of John from his previous partners refers to his “death wish”, as he will take (normally) unnecessary chances in the line of duty.  Now, however, we have a man who has to face his own mortality for the first time.  And with it, the possibility of one, true, final love.  As John says to Omar in the pilot, “Time will have value.”

Other shows have dealt with the idea of immortality before (Forever Knight, and, most especially, Highlander).  But the idea of New Amsterdam isn’t just the life and knowledge gained through this immortality, but an examination of what happens when that idea of immortality is no longer true.  For many, many years, John was an alcoholic.  It was the only way (at the time) he knew of dealing with the continual loss and pain of outliving those he loved.  Now sober, he still deals with that constant knowledge of existing forever, until the possibility of it ending presents itself.  And so, the real question of this show is, does a life truly have meaning only when it might end?

The ultimate irony, of course, is that a show about the ending of immortality was never allowed to live.

Heading into the fall season of 2007, FOX was aware that the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) was likely to go out on strike.  The previous contract with the union was ending, and FOX and other studios were in large conflict with the demands of the union concerning compensation for, among other things, DVD’s, internet broadcasts, and other alternative media that had emerged over the last several years.  Knowing that the strike could end up impacting TV schedules for a long-term (perhaps indefinitely), FOX adjusted their fall schedule significantly, moving or delaying several shows, including New Amsterdam.

Originally scheduled to air in the fall on Tuesday nights, it was now delayed until mid-season, to air in February on–guess when?–Friday nights.  Previews began to air in January, but with only a “Coming Soon” label on them.  Therefore, there was no surprise when the show was delayed yet again, and finally aired first on Tuesday March 4, then Thursday March 6, before finally settling into its regular time slot on Mondays for the following six weeks.  The Monday slot was brutal, up against three shows rated in the top thirty:  Dancing with the Stars, Deal or No Deal, and Two and a Half Men. No one was left to watch New Amsterdam.

FOX had really decided that New Amsterdam was going to die anyway, they just didn’t tell anyone publicly.  Originally given a 13-episode order, that order was shortened to 8, and production was halted on the show back in October, well before any episodes had aired.  If the show had achieved blockbuster ratings, it could have been brought back into production after the strike, but that simply wasn’t going to happen in that Monday time slot.  FOX knew they essentially had to kill time until after the strike and its aftermath, and new shows could get into production.   New Amsterdam was used for that purpose.  A complete waste of a potentially good show.  In this case, time didn’t have value.

Watching over his city

Although the show was really given no chance to succeed, that didn’t stop the creative personnel from trying to make the best show possible.  Again, from David Manson, executive producer:

“…we’re approaching this as realistically as we can.  Obviously, we’re talking about a world that’s imaginative, because this man is immortal, but we’re trying to explore what it would really feel like to be 400 years old, and to carry the burden and the pleasures of knowing that you’re immortal.  So we’re investigating that with as much depth as we can muster.”

NIKOLAJ COSTER-WALDAU (John Amsterdam) is a native of Denmark, and had a significant movie career there.  English-speaking movie roles included Black Hawk Down, Wimbledon, and Kingdom of Heaven.  After New Amsterdam, he appeared in the FOX sci-fi pilot Virtuality, and will star in HBO’s coming show based on the George R.R. Martin book series A Game of Thrones.

ZULEIKHA ROBINSON (Det. Eva Marquez) first appeared to genre audiences as a regular in the X-Files spin-off The Lone Gunmen, and had a supporting role in Rome.  She most recently was a regular on Lost, playing Ilana.

STEPHEN McKINLEY HENDERSON (Omar) is primarily known for his stage work, having appeared on Broadway in a number of productions, including as Van Helsing in Dracula, the Musical.  He is currently teaching in the Drama department at the University of Buffalo.

ALEXIE GILMORE (Dr. Sara Dillane) has been seen in many TV guest roles, including episodes of Rescue Me, Hope & Faith, Private Practice, and Grey’s Anatomy.  Most recently, she has appeared in episodes of Ghost Whisperer and Medium.

Executive producer and show-runner DAVID MANSON has been involved in a number of series, most of them eligible for inclusion in this blog (fortunately for this blog, unfortunately for him).  These include producer credits on  John Doe, Big Love, Thief, Saved, and Life.

Show co-creator CHRISTIAN TAYLOR has also been involved as a producer on such shows as Six Feet Under, Miracles, and Lost, showing that death is a consistent theme in his television work.

New Amsterdam never received a DVD release, but is available in streamed form online at hulu.com.  Hopefully some writers will gain some measure of income from this, as spoils from their strike.  More information, from a fan point of view, along with a description of the unfortunately failed attempt to revive the show, can be found on the New Amsterdam Forever website.

The cast of New Amsterdam

David Munson’s ultimate description of the show is very straight-forward:

“I would say that New Amsterdam is a romantic procedural.  It’s about a New York City homicide cop who is, in fact, immortal, and he’ll stay immortal until he finds the one woman he is meant to be with.  John Amsterdam is a man for whom the past is very present.”

Let us hope that, somewhere, John Amsterdam is living, in love, to a ripe old age.

Vital stats:

8 aired episodes – no unaired episodes exist
FOX network
First airdate:  March 4, 2008
Last airdate: April 14, 2009
Actually aired at Friday, 8/7 Central?:  no, but its actual timeslot was worse, if that’s possible….

As always, comments are welcome.

–Tim R.

“…it really isn’t just a Western.  It’s science fiction, fantasy, action-adventure, romance—everything.”
–Christian Clemenson (Socrates Poole)

Socrates Poole and Brisco County, Jr.

Oh, yeah.  All that and more, if that’s possible.  Welcome to The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. It starred genre favorite Bruce Campbell as the Harvard-educated bounty hunter and forward-thinking western hero.  The storyline detailed Brisco’s attempts at finding justice for the murder of his father (chronicled in the pilot).  On retainer for a group of wealthy businessmen, he also would take on various missions, provided by his not-quite heroic contact Socrates Poole (Christian Clemenson) and  joined on various travels by Lord Bowler (Julius Carry), the self-proclaimed “best bounty hunter ever”.  The stories were traditional western fare, but with a thick veneer of comedic timing, sly modern-day references, and clever and fun characterizations.

Brisco often talked of “…the coming thing”, usually referring to some type of invention or idea that was brand new in the 1890’s West, but was really a reference to something in our current society.  Everything from an “innerspace suit” (an underwater diving suit that looked a lot like something an astronaut would wear) to “cowpies” (ground up meat formed into a pie shaped patty and put between to pieces of bread, the introduction of the hamburger).  Many of these “futuristic” inventions were created by Professor Wickwire, played with delightful lunacy by Addams Family actor, John Astin.  Of course, usually these inventions weren’t quite perfect, which explains why they didn’t immediately catch on in the 1890’s….

Who could resist Dixie Cousins?

The “romance” part of the equation was provided by singer and entertainer Dixie Cousins (Kelly Rutherford), although both Brisco and Dixie were far too busy with their careers to really consummate the relationship.  In a humorous running gag, every time they did kiss, it was like they were each other’s Kryptonite… they both came out of the kiss more than a little dazed and woozy!  (Bruce Campbell once described the acting style on the show as “…just under over-the-top.”)

And as for the actual sci-fi, the continuing mythology over the course of the season involved the finding of “The Orb”, a mysterious item that bestowed amazing powers upon it’s owner… and (spoiler alert) ultimately involved resurrection, time travel, and a naked woman from the future.  Yeah, it’s a typical western, all right….

Although filled with lots of odd, fanciful, and humorous touches, there was still attention paid to “real” historical reflections in the show.  Actor Julius Carry, an African-American, drew significantly upon this history to inform his character:

Lord Bowler: History Lesson

“When I was in college, I did my graduate project on the black cowboy movie star Deadwood Dick.  In the process of doing that, I also researched the real black West, in particular Bass Reeves, a deputy for the famous frontier judge Judge Parker.  Reeves always got his man and would often pull off incredible tricks to bring people in.  He once brought in his own son, who had killed his wife.  When I saw how the character was written in the show, I realized there was a lot of Bass Reeves in Lord Bowler.”

There was also a nice nod to the movie serial origins of the “sci-fi western”, in which each half of the episode opened with an on-screen graphic dividing the show into “acts”. This was likely done in the hope that the show would ultimately be syndicated in reruns as a half-hour show, with cliffhanger endings (appropriate for a movie-serial type show).  The show did make it into repeats, airing for two years on Saturday mornings , but in the original hour form on cable station TNT.

During its original FOX run, this odd, quirky, western-comedy-fantasy was paired on Friday nights with the debut season of The X-Files, which, although both might be somewhat sci-fi in flavor, are thousands of miles apart thematically.  X-Files ultimately got moved off of Friday nights, onto Sundays, and became a nine-season success with two theatrical movies, while Brisco only got 27 episodes… and lots of memories.  Although Brisco was thought to be a hopeful renewal for the next season, the series caught a lot of heat from an unexpected source:  The NCTV (National Coalition on Television Violence).

The NCTV was a supposedly watchdog type organization, dedicated to “family values” and “cleaning up” television.  According to the NCTV, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. was the single most violent television series on the air that season.  I will go into more detail of the methods and attitudes of this organization (and others like them) in another post, but the practical upshot of this publicity was that FOX really was being publicly pressured to remove the show from their schedule. Pressure was also brought to bear politically, with headline seeking congressmen (led by Paul Simon of Illinois)  advocating the elimination of television violence, especially in the 8/7 hour.

Just waiting for it to blow

Now for the revelation:  The NCTV counted up violent acts on every network show on TV for a whole ONE WEEK!  So any particular show’s rating was based on a single episode!  That week’s episode, titled Riverboat, involved a con game that had Lord Bowler participating in, not one, but TWO boxing matches (one of them rigged!), and then counted EVERY SINGLE PUNCH as a violent act.  Grand total, as reported in the media (WITHOUT the context of the boxing match included, by the way)–A whopping 117 “violent” acts per hour–on average, better than one every thirty seconds!!  Take out the boxing matches, and you probably eliminate 75% or more of the “rating”.  So, it wasn’t even the typical western-style gunfights or deaths that got them the “violent” rating.  It was some boxing matches, one of them a rigged dive that lasted only one punch!

The pilot episode also came in for much scrutiny, with six deaths in the two-hour episode (one of them being the killing of Brisco’s father, the catalyst for the events of much of the series).  The creators of the show responded to this uproar in this way:

“I think we’re very conscious of violence and I think we’ve made an effort to avoid violence in the pilot and in the future episodes.  The show is an action show as opposed to a violent show.  Violence to us denotes pain and suffering and a kind of graphic depiction with blood and squibs and things like that.  We don’t do any of that.”

Did I mention that Brisco almost NEVER uses his gun?  Actively avoids it whenever possible?  And this fact is a plot point?  Brisco only actually kills ONE villain in the series himself, and then only in the circumstance  when it’s completely in self-defense, and that’s in the second episode filmed and deliberately never repeated.

Villain, Orb, and cancelation

Brisco County was one of the best rated shows ever to die after a season.  A show that cost as much to film as Brisco did (with location shooting, period costumes, sci-fi special effects, etc.), and only pulling moderate ratings, was a borderline renewal anyway.  The negative publicity (and theoretical positive publicity if it was gone, showing what a “responsible” programmer FOX was), ultimately led to the cancellation of the show.

BRUCE CAMPBELL (Brisco County, Jr.) was well known to genre audiences as the hero of the Evil Dead and Army of Darkness series of movies.  After Brisco, he returned in 20 episodes of Hercules and Xena as the rogue “Autolycus”, then starred for one season in the half-hour action-comedy Jack of All Trades.  Many guest spots followed through the 2000’s, including cameos in the three Spider-Man movies.  Most recently, he’s been a supporting regular in the USA network series Burn Notice.

CHRISTIAN CLEMENSON (Socrates Poole) has had a hugely successful career, with three Emmy nominations for his role as Jerry Espenson on Boston Legal, and winning in 2006.  In addition to many TV guest spots, he now appears on CSI: Miami.

JULIUS CARRY (Lord Bowler) got to get at least a small measure of irony while playing the recurring part of a network honcho on Murphy Brown for 4 years.  Julius passed away after a battle with pancreatic cancer in 2008.

JOHN AUSTIN (Professor Wickwire) has had an extensive television career, known for playing odd and eccentric characters.  Best known for his starring turn as Gomez in The Addams Family, he also starred in the cult comedy I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, and the TV version of Operation: Petticoat.  Significant TV guest work includes parts in The Twilight Zone, Batman, and Eerie, Indiana, and a recurring part as Buddy in Night Court.  Astin toured the country in a one-man stage production of Edgar Allan Poe:  Once Upon a Midnight, and currently is a teaching professor of drama at Johns Hopkins University.

KELLY RUTHERFORD (Dixie Cousins) could well be the signature icon for actresses with the best parts in short-lived series.  Before Brisco, she appeared in the show Homefront (lasted 20 eps).  After Brisco, she had regular or recurring parts in the series The Great Defender (8 eps), Courthouse (4 eps), Kindred:  The Embraced (7 eps), an atypical stint in Melrose Place (90 eps, believe it or not!), then Get Real (4 eps), The Fugutive (3 eps), The District (3 eps), Threat Matrix (16 eps), and E-Ring (20 eps).  Finally, she caught another extended run, appearing on Gossip Girl (60 eps and counting).

The show was created by Jeffrey Boam and Carlton Cuse.  Boam came originally from movies, having written some of the Lethal Weapon series, as well as The Lost Boys and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  He died in 2000 from heart failure after contracting a rare lung disorder.  Cuse has been a successful TV producer, creating and producing the series Martial Law, Nash Bridges, and the hugely successful (and just as quirky and time-travel filled) Lost.

Oh, and we can’t forget the final member of the team.  Brisco’s horse, C OMET, was actually listed as an actor in the opening credits (and therefore gets a listing on IMDB), and appeared in 11 episodes.  Comet actually was a character in the show, as the horse could supposedly understand whatever Brisco would say to him.  Comet also actually thinks of himself as a person, and NOT a horse….

Looking for "the next big thing"

Further resources for the avid Brisco County fan are available at The Ultimate Brisco County Jr. Guidebook, and Warner Bros. Home Video has an excellent site for the DVD.  Episodes are also available for online streaming at The WBtv website.

To sum up, we leave with a quote about the show from Brisco himself, Bruce Campbell:

“There’s the mystery of The Orb, which definitely comes from a fantasy place.  But basically this show is about the turn of the century, when the Old West met the Industrial Era.  Cowboys still chew tobacco and ride the range and states are still territories but, over the horizon, is the onset of electricity, the first autos and telephones.  Brisco is in the middle of a transition from the past to the future.”

Vital stats:

27 aired episodes — no unaired episodes exist
FOX network
First airdate:  August 27, 1993
Last airdate:  May 20, 1994
Actually aired at Friday, 8/7 Central?:  yes

Odd trivia:  The theme for Brisco County Jr. ended up being used for many years as the bumper music in and out of commercials for NBC’s Olympic coverage.  Brisco was certainly Gold Medal worthy!

As always, comments are welcome.
–Tim R.

Fifteen years ago, conscientious New York cop Ezekiel Stone (Peter Horton) avenged the rape of his wife by killing her attacker in cold blood.  After his own death in the line of duty, Stone went to Hell for his transgression-until a mass jailbreak unleashed 113 of the most vile creatures ever to walk the planet, all possessing newfound supernatural powers.  Now, the Devil promises the good-hearted Stone heavenly redemption in exchange for his bounty-hunting skills.  And Stone sets out to fulfill his diabolical mission.

Though the Devil can’t be beat, even he answers to a higher power.  If Stone fails to round up the errant minions, there’s Hell to pay in the underworld, and the price is eternal fire and BRIMSTONE.

–Press Kit for BRIMSTONE, 1998

The Devil and the Dead

BRIMSTONE is a perfect case study in how networks kill a show.  When FOX announced their upcoming schedule for the Fall of 1998, Brimstone was given a plum spot on Tuesdays at 9/8 central.  This showed at least a degree of confidence in the show, and a willingness to not bury something “different” in the “death slot”.

That didn’t last long.  Neither did the show.

Before it even aired an episode, FOX decided that the show would be a “better fit” on Friday nights.  So a show about escapees from Hell got dragged back to the Hell that is the “death slot”.  How…. appropriate.

Cops and detectives have been on TV as long as the medium has existed, it seems.  But none of them ever had the Devil for a boss.  Peter Horton plays the poor damned soul Ezekiel Stone, returned to earth to chase down Hell’s fugitives.  His body is covered with numerous odd tattoos, which each represent the name of an escapee (in the language of Hades, of course).  Each episode, the Devil himself (played with delicious mischief by John Glover) would show up unannounced to give Stone a cryptic clue to his next assignment.  These assignments included finding everyone from the guy who had originally raped his wife, to an ancient soul trying to overthrow the eternal arrangement between Heaven and Hell, between God and Lucifer.

The longer a soul had existed in Hell, the stronger it was in “our” world.  Stone himself was slightly augmented by this as well, as he couldn’t die by mortal means.  So, jumping off buildings (of ANY height) was no problem… the broken legs would heal quickly, but that would still stop a chase cold until the healing occurred.  Confrontations with the other damned souls, however, could still cause damage and pain, even more so (essentially “fighting fire with fire”).

Once found, Stone would attempt to dispatch each escaped soul by destroying their eyes (the explanation being that “the eyes are the windows to the soul”).  The essence of their eternal souls would be dragged back down to hell, and the body would simply disappear into the ether, leaving no trace or evidence… and the tattoo would disappear as well (again, causing Stone significant pain.  That ole Devil…). Another escapee captured–if Stone returns all 113 back to Hell, the Devil has promised to give him a second chance on Earth… and maybe the chance to reconnect with his wife, who was still living, 15 years after Stone’s “death”, and unaware that he had “returned”.

Lest all this sound too depressing, the show actually had some moments of levity.  Realize that this was actually the LIGHTER of the two shows that FOX was airing on Friday nights at the time!  The other show was Millennium, from X-Files creator Chris Carter, which was trying to be darker than X-Files was….

Since the Devil doesn’t pay very well (and it’s kind of hard to get work when you’re legally dead!), Stone was close to broke most of the time… his “income” was the amount of money he had on his person on the day he “died”.. just $36.27 a day.  The Devil actually provided him with a car at one point… and he would have been better off with a vehicle from the Stephen King novels (Stone actually nicknames the car “Christine” at one point).  There was also a recurring character named Maxine (played by Lori Petty) who was the desk clerk at the fleabag hotel where Stone lived… which led to exchanges like this:  Desk Clerk: “Your room’s upstairs. The elevator’s broken, you’ll have to walk, but it’s only three floors.”  Ezekiel: “As long as I’m going up…”

Stone had “died” in 1983, and the show took place 15 years later, so there was also the opportunity for many “fish out of water” jokes. Stone sees the Cardinals and the Yankees playing baseball on TV, and comments that it must be the World Series. After being informed that it’s “interleague play” (which didn’t exist in ’83), someone asks him why he’s never heard of it. “I’ve been out of the country.” he replies. “Oh, where?” “Down under…”

My body contains their names

There was an extended mythology (besides the 113 escapees) on the show as well.  A recurring “villain” was introduced (yes, there’s another actual villain, even though Lucifer himself is a regular!) Who could be worse?  The soul who actually masterminded the breakout.  Also, there were (obviously) some interesting moral questions addressed concerning good vs. evil, intent vs. action, and the whole Judeo-Christian idea of Heaven/Hell vs. other possible interpretations of the afterlife.

No wonder FOX executives really didn’t “get it”.

Those executives couldn’t figure out what they wanted to do with this show.  Really, they couldn’t.  Originally scheduled for Tuesdays, the premiere was delayed (due to the World Series, ironically) and then finally scheduled to air in the Friday 8/7 slot, debuting fully a month after almost every other new and returning show (and being lost in the shuffle by then).  The original order was for 13 episodes, but FOX apparently thought enough of the show at one point that they ordered six more… and then literally shut down production 3 hours after shooting had begun on the 14th episode.

The aired order of the episodes is NOT the producers’ preferred viewing order, either, which is another strike against FOX’s treatment of the series.  The SyFy and Chiller cable channels have occasionally aired this show as part of their weekday block marathons, but there are no consistent airings at present.  Nor is it yet available on DVD, although numerous bootleg copies are available (thankfully).

Fans willing to continue the story of Stone, Lucifer, and the 113 escapees are recommended to visit The Brimstone Virtual Seasons–fan written stories that continue the mythos of the series… including, if you read to the end, what actually happens between the Devil and Stone when the final soul is recovered.  Also, if you want to know what the creators of the show had planned for those other six episodes that never got filmed, creator Cyrus Voris actually posted synopses of those scripted episodes online as well.

PETER HORTON (Ezekiel Stone) had originally gained fame from the ABC series Thirty-Something, and was truly looking for something “as diametrically opposed to that role, to redefine himself as an actor” when he took the role of Ezekiel Stone.

JOHN GLOVER (The Devil) is best known to genre fans these days as having played daddy villain Lionel Luthor in the CW series Smallville.

Creator/producers Cyrus Voris and Ethan Reiff were most recently in charge of the 2009 CBS series The Eleventh Hour.  Probably the most successful (or at least prolific) person to come out of the show’s staff was executive story editor Scott Williams, who went on to produce shows such as Third Watch, Crossing Jordan, Without a Trace, and most recently, Bones.

We leave with a quote from creators Voris and Reiff:

Off to save souls

“Our show says that the universe works.  If a guy commits a murder, even if you think he gets off–he will be punished.  There is justice in the universe.  If you live a good life, you go to Heaven.  If you’re a scumbag, no matter what happens to you on Earth, you go to Hell.  What this show is about is the one anomaly, this breakout, and it has to be fixed.  BRIMSTONE proposes a very hopeful message:  The universe works.”

Vital stats:

13 aired episodes – no unaired episodes exist
FOX network
First airdate:  October 23, 1998
Last airdate: February 12, 1999
Actually aired at Friday, 8/7 Central?:  yes

As usual, comments welcome.
–Tim

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