“Time Will Tell”
July 6th, 2010
Warehouse 13 ended its first season on one of those cliffhangers that I generally despise – like White Collar’s mid-season finale late last year (where it seemed like Peter was the series’ big bad), the show ended on a note which implied a huge change in direction (in this case that Artie had been killed in the explosion at the Warehouse’s entrance, and that Leena was in league with MacPherson) but which in reality was entirely inconsequential. Any uncertainty you have about Artie being legitimately dead is ended within a few minutes, and any concerns about Leena are erased when she continues to appear in the main credits.
I’m fine with the fact that a sci-fi procedural isn’t going to make these sorts of huge changes, but my response to the second season was very much dependent on how they used the uncertainty surrounding the finale to its advantage. While it may be cheap storytelling in a lot of ways, Warehouse 13 has the unique ability to explain away sudden twists under the guise of expanding its catalogue of artifacts with inexplicable powers – while I thought White Collar took a few episodes to recover from the bait and switch, Warehouse 13 uses its pre-existing rules in order to leap frog over the initial uncertainty to confidently map out the season to come. “Time Will Tell” is a strong premiere, although in a different way than I had expected, giving viewers one last glimpse at the first season’s highly personal conflict between Artie and MacPherson before replacing it with a more generic, but also more inventive, narrative.
It’s a decision I think works in the show’s favour, going against the common logic of these types of procedurals by through simplification rather than complication while continuing to embrace the quirky, charming potential within the series’ premise.
For the most part, the recent collection of basic cable procedurals don’t tend to abandon the central conflict within the limited serialization present in the series (and most often established through the pilot). Michael Westen is still searching for who burned him, Adrian Monk spent seven seasons searching for his wife’s killer while battling OCD, and Neal Caffrey is going to keep searching for Kate for at least a few more seasons. And when the shows do evolve, it’s largely in the same mode: when White Collar is done with Kate, it’s serialized element is likely to be another ghost from Caffrey’s past as opposed to a random white collar criminal, and Michael Westen won’t discover who burned him until the series comes to a close (even if the show has found numerous ways to manifest that desire for knowledge in the show’s storylines). While it’s clear that the basic structure of these procedurals remains the same each week, what sometimes wears me down (as it did with Monk, for example) is how each season is effectively the same, and how even the part of the series which is supposed to avoid stasis, the serialized element, can become stale.
And so I was quite pleased to see that H.G. Wells’ emergence as the season’s villain comes entirely from the basic premise of the series (a Warehouse filled with historical and dangerous items) as opposed to from Artie’s past, or the Warehouse’s past, or the past of any one of the show’s characters. It’s logical, when you think about it: the series is built on a foundation of absolutely uncertainty, where anything is possible and where the writers have more or less no limits on their imaginations. And so while other shows are limited by the worlds they created, and as a result often turn to personal connections to spice up what might otherwise be generic serialized takes on crime, or espionage, or obsessive compulsive detectives, Warehouse 13 really has no need to go in that direction. It was important in the first season to give us a sense of the Warehouse’s history and Artie’s character as it relates to that history, so MacPherson was a good way to establish where the character comes from and what kind of world we’re stepping into. Now, however, we know that Artie’s past is not an uncomplicated one, and that the Warehouse is capable of breeding corrupt villains as much as it’s capable of creating staunch defenders of a less volatile reality, and so the show can embrace the potential within the Warehouse in a manner which relies less on those personal character connections.
It’s also a vote of confidence in the existing cast and their dynamic, which I think is well-placed: Pete and Myka are gelling well as a team with some solid work from Eddie McClintock and Joanne Kelly, Allison Scagliotti has become an integral part of the cast both in terms of Claudia’s general charm and her relationship with Artie, and CCH Pounder continues to show more enjoyable shades to Mrs. Frederick with each appearance. I desire to watch a show where these characters confront the convergence of history and science fiction, and an overarching mystery of what a female H.G. Wells intend to do with some old personal effects locked in the vault-equivalent of Escher’s Relativity in a world where her technological dreams can become reality seems like a great start. It’s a sign, for me at least, that they understood that what made the first season so strong wasn’t any one individual thing they accomplished, but rather that the compounding character development allowed them the ability to expand their world beyond MacPherson while maintaining the audience’s interest. It doesn’t feel like the show’s stuck in a particular mode, but rather that they know the strengths of their premise and are crafting a season which takes advantage of that while maintaining the procedural structure that basic cable is so fond of.
I do have some reservations, including the relevance of Leena to the ongoing storyline (I would have rather seen her end up being actually evil, to be honest) as well as whether I can get over my hatred of Jaime Murray for ruining the second season of Dexter and fully embrace her as H.G. Wells, but for the most part they signal more missed opportunities than missteps. The series remained fun in the midst of tragedy, didn’t feel stretched too thinly when they traveled to two separate international locations, and managed to deal with a lot of exposition surrounding Wells as a character in a way which kept things interesting (putting your protagonists on the ceiling tends to be quite effective in that regard). I think that the series has had stronger individual episodes which either dialed into character a bit more successfully or which fully gave themselves over to an artifact of the week, but for a premiere that had to juggle a large number of things and deal with a purposefully misleading cliffhanger, I’d say that “Time Will Tell” was decidedly well told, and bodes well for the series going forward.
- It had been a while since I’d really even thought about the first season, but Cory Barker’s great piece reflecting on watching it as a marathon reminded me of some of its subtle qualities, and put me in a nice head space for the show’s return, so I’d check it out.
- Definite case of “Casting Spoils Plot” with Murray – as soon as she popped up in the credits, it was a giant red flag, and while I didn’t predict the “H.G. Wells was a woman” twist I did immediately presume she was evil considering her role on Dexter and my inability to see her as anything more than the personification of all that is terrible in this world.
- The series is effectively one big exercise in historical (science) fiction, but I do think that “H.G. Wells is a woman” is the furthest the show has gone in rewriting history. I’m fine with it personally, in that they also built into Wells’ books an element of science (in that H.G. was the mind behind the technology, and that her brother became the writer and the face of the texts in question) which very clearly defines this as the Warehouse 13ing of his person (and thus places it within the spirit of the show).
- The Chyrons are new this year, with the whooshing and the like – I can’t say I’m a huge fan (I find them devoid of any wit or humour, and generally speaking I need my chyrons to bring the funny if they’re going for novelty), but I might grow to like them a bit more with time.