Series Premiere: Human Target – “Pilot”


January 14th, 2010

Airing two nights before its American premiere (Sunday at 8pm ET) may seem like a big deal for Canadian viewers of FOX’s new series Human Target, but it’s not as if the show’s pilot has been an unknown quantity. The pilot was basically presented in a condensed form as the show’s trailer back when it debuted at last Spring’s upfronts, and since the show was held for midseason it’s been “out there” for long enough that every beat of the show’s first episode was predictable.

Of course, part of the show’s charm is that every part of it is predictable: even if you had never seen or heard of the show before, chances are you knew that the inaugural voyage of a futuristic bullet train was not going to go smoothly. It is a show that has no intention of being surprising, nor upending expectations based on its genre: this is a lightweight action thriller of a television show that creates weight through intense action sequences and strong production values as opposed to subtle character development. By building that show around three very likeable and talented actors, and by crafting a relationship between them that has just the right balance of mistrust and respect, the show creates the kind of “setup” that promises to be exactly what you expect it to be.

There’s something comforting about that, something that has proved to be an admirable quality with other series that I’ve grown to be quite a fan of – I’m hopeful the same happens here.

The opening segment of Human Target gives you a very clear sense of what we have here. Mark Moses (who will now forever be Duck Phillips to me) is threatening to blow up his former place of employment, and Christopher Chance was brought in days ahead of time to help contain the threat. And contain it he did: at some point, which we never see, he switched places with the head of the company, popping out from under the hood once the other hostages are free. And then he casually confronts the man on being more discrete next time he plans to pull such a stunt, despite the gun pointed at his chest. By the time he eventually shoots the guy with his own gun, setting off the explosive device, we’re left wondering who this guy is, and whether or not he has some kind of death wish.

And ladies and gentlemen, that’s your show: there is nothing deeper than the inherent question of where or not Christopher Chance is sane and whether or not he values his own life. Yes, there are other character dynamics, but they are either built to be resolved in a single episode (as in Mark’s protection of Tricia Helfer’s Stephanie Dobbs) or built as back story more than constant conflict (Guerrero’s tenuous relationship with the law, and his potentially darker past). For the most part, the show is about a one-man security team with a reckless streak who is supported by his conscience-providing partner Winston (Chi McBride, who seems to organize his bookings) and the aforementioned Guerrero (Jackie Earle Haley). And the characters have fun dynamics, like Winston refusing to trust Guerrero and Chance tending to ignore Winston’s advice in favour of his own course. There’s a show to be had with these three characters interacting, and the dynamic is enough to sustain the show moving forward so long as the individual stories it tells are compelling.

For the show’s pilot, this isn’t a problem. Yes, staging a murder on a train is nothing new, nor is said train becoming of the runaway variety, but it’s a good way to introduce the combination of Jason Bourne and the Doctor that the show seems to be going for here. From the first category you have the badass physicality and the lack of concern for his own safety: Chance is a man who means business, and the fight sequences (especially the one on the train) sell this point extremely well. He’s also a chameleon, capable of sliding effortlessly into any role (here, the Japanese translator sequence got this point across). From the second category, meanwhile, you have someone who comes in to solve a problem in unique ways, and who usually ends up teamed up with someone different in each episode (here with Tricia Helfer, and in the episode’s ending with Danny Glover). The show is far less thoughtful than Doctor Who at its most philosophical, but there was a definite sense of Stephanie as Chance’s companion here that reminded me of the recent series of Who movies that ended David Tennant’s run.

A lot of the show hinges on Mark Valley, and after having to portray a dead guy on Fringe for half a season I’m really glad to see him back among the living doing some really fun action hero stuff. He’s charismatic, but in a way that makes the cheesy lines land with just enough sense of danger and levity to keep from feeling like he and his gang are operating on a different show than the super-serious corporate sabotage and murder-for-hire story ongoing (which is pretty much the worst thing that could happen with the show). Valley is a very physical presence, but his banter with Winston has a nice air to it, and seeing him toy with his either his employers or with Winston and Guerrero shows a lighter tough that is necessary to keep the character from seeming too robotic. While the entire show reminds me of a more large-scale Burn Notice, Valley’s performance is the most reminiscent of the USA series, as he gives Chance the same sense of being controlling without being arrogant that makes Jeffrey Donovan’s Michael Westen so compelling.

Speaking of Burn Notice, the shows really do have a lot in common, but one has to question whether the same potential for growth that Burn Notice took advantage of in its second season is also present here. The tiny cast makes the show a bit one-dimensional, and what potential avenues exist don’t seem to really expand the show much further (Guerrero’s seedy past is perhaps the most obvious example). While Burn Notice had Michael’s family life, his relationship with Fi and the central conflict of getting burned to build on, Human Target has a very vague central character whose mystery is his only defining character feature. This makes for some fun action thrill rides, but I would question whether the show could keep going with such a small cast and not begin to feel stale after a certain number of episodes. This isn’t to say that the show couldn’t at some point add some new elements to its formula, whether introducing a more stable female member of the team (there’s a problematic representation of gender if the women are the episodic equivalent of Bond girls) or creating a more complicated struggle for Chance to deal with, but right now it’s content with being lighter than air without seeming without consequence.

With high production values and a fantastic score from your friend and mine Bear McCreary (best known for his work on Battlestar Galactica), the show is aimed at the demographic of people who like their television to offer action and some unsurprising but effective suspense. On that front, the show is built solidly, and is executed extremely well. The question becomes where it goes from here, and I’m willing to let them have some fun before tackling some of my broader concerns with the show’s formula.

Cultural Observations

  • Great to see Donnelly Rhodes pop up as Guerrero’s contact in the world of contract killing – I miss Galactica, so having both Helfer and Doc Cottle himself on my television screen was a nice bit of nostalgia (yes, for a program that’s only been gone 10 months).
  • I might miss Galactica, but I probably miss Pushing Daisies a bit more (we had less time together). McBride is playing a character very similar to Emerson Cod here, and I am not complaining one bit.
  • “I’m your vest” was the moment the show sold me on not being too cheesy: that I believed that line meant I could believe everything else Chance was doing or saying.
  • The Danny Glover cameo came out of nowhere, but I’ll never complain about Danny Glover cameos.
  • Although I had been told that Bear McCreary doing the score, towards the end of the episode my notes about the music basically became “Man, this is REALLY Bear McCrearian.” Which was funny, since before that point I had barely even noticed the music (which is something McCreary does well in action sequences).
  • The show’s title sequence? Pretty badass. I’d heard people talking about it, and it in fact inspired me to finally write my piece about Credits (particularly Nurse Jackie’s) a few weeks ago, but it lived up to the hype: stylish, snappy, fits the show well.


Filed under Human Target

5 responses to “Series Premiere: Human Target – “Pilot”

  1. Eric Duckman

    I was underwhelmed by the show, it seemed like a light action show from the 80’s w/ a larger budget. Haven’t seen “Burn Notice” yet so I can’t compare but I’ll be hard-pressed to add “Human Target” to the DVR list.

    The title sequence is nice, but the first thing I thought of was Fisherman’s Friend just w/ much better ‘Bear McCrearian’ music.

  2. thought it was good

    pretty unique for a tv show to be made in the action genre. also unique for a show to be this broad. i didn’t really care about the plot because of the tension between the crisp dramatic beats.
    also best fight scene on tv? i think so, though that’s not really saying much.
    kind of reminded me of VIP, starring Pamela Anderson. VIP was pretty much the greatest show.
    i do think the show will have severe diminishing returns. what we are going to get now is a lot of self-contained plots with some backstory mixed in. but action is such a shallow genre. it seems like it’s going to be the same show each week.

  3. I ended up seeing episode 2 before the pilot, and it was a lot more compelling.

    I’m hopeful and will probably keep watching the show for awhile, but I won’t be waiting for it on baited breath each week. Your points are really spot on–I couldn’t help but bring up Burn Notice pretty much every time I’ve discussed Human Target with others. The small cast is pretty worrisome in terms of growth and potential payoff, particularly since Winston and Guerrero don’t seem overly interesting yet.

    It’s almost gimmicky, but the flow of great guest stars and cameos might be almost a reason to watch if it continues. I was pretty psyched to see David Nykl and Alessandro Juliani pop up in episode 2, not to mention Tricia Helfer, Danny Glover, and Mark Moses in the pilot. Courtney Ford (Christine Hill/Dexter season 4) also had a major guest role in the second ep.

  4. jim

    Good information here. I enjoyed reading this and can’t wait for more. Keep up the good work.

  5. Pingback: Four More Years: Another Cultural Anniversary | Cultural Learnings

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