‘Warehouse 13’ debuts on Sci Fi, er, SyFy tonight

SyFy is kicking off its on-air rebranding with the debut of a series that, clearly, it has high hopes for as some sort of anchor for the network’s “new” image.

Alas that Warehouse 13 — premering with a two-hour pilot tonight at 9pm Eastern — feels like more of the same-old not-too-daring Sci Fi Channel stuff, at least based on the pilot, which I had the chance to preview in a rough cut (that is, with some temporary FX and music, but with all the story in place). Like Sanctuary, which Sci Fi was so proud to be heralding last fall as some sort of giant leap forward in televised fantasy adventure, W13 could have felt fresh a decade ago, even if its premise might have seemed old even then: Take that last shot from Raiders of the Lost Ark — of the giant government storage facility filled with, presumably, all sorts of artifacts as cool as the Ark of the Covenant (and, we know now, wreckage from the Roswell spacecraft) — and stir in The X-Files… and you have a show that feels as up to date as 1995, and certainly no more modern than those Librarian movies with Noah Wyle: neither retro nor novel and unsure of what other options it might have.

Still, it’s the characters who make or break an episodic narrative, so W13 might have been saved by the fictional people navigating this familiar universe. And so it’s too bad that Mulder (Secret Service agent Pete Lattimer, played by Eddie McClintock) and Scully (Secret Service agent Myka Bering, played by Joanne Kelly) are about as charming as the destined-to-be-together opposites of a tediously conventional romantic comedy. She’s all procedure, a stickler for rules. He’s a playboy with an intuitive radar for danger that regularly gets him in trouble… particularly with Bering. She doesn’t eat sugar. He’s a recovering alcoholic. Can I predict now a “wacky” scene involving sweet umbrella drinks by, oh, episode 5?

The two get seconded from Presidential guard duty to the Badlands of South Dakota — where Warehouse 13, aka “America’s attic,” is hidden — after a mishap at a DC museum gala in which a weird old mask thing wreaks some supernatural havoc. It’s not terribly interesting, as a sequence, and involves some poor schmoe getting possessed by the ancient doodad and trying to kill the Prez. The mysterious Mrs. Frederic (CCH Pounder, continuing the long TV tradition of casting a black woman in a position of power and then almost immediately removing her from the narrative) recruits the agents and sends them to hang out with the Warehouse’s guardian, Artie Nielsen (the always appealing Saul Rubinek — maybe the show should have been all about him), and all the cool shit stored there, like stuff Harry Houdini left lying around and a thing that will give you a ferret, or something. (Seriously.)

There’s a hint of the steampunk to the Warehouse:

which is kinda neat, and kinda appropriate — the Warehouse was founded in 1898 — but even that gets taken a tad too far, and becomes a tad too self-conscious. Why don’t the agents and Artie just use cell phones instead of this thing:

Yes, it’s neat-o, but it doesn’t seem to make a whole lotta sense. But it looks cool, and that seems to be the overriding directive here: if it looks cool, it’s in.

Still, there’s a hint of promise here. I’ll probably keep tuning in to see if Warehouse 13 can get any darker, or any lighter. Either direction would be an improvement. But the “invitation to endless wonder” that Mrs. Frederic promises Lattimer he’ll find at his new job? I’m not seeing it.

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