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Warren Ellis Reviews the WB's FEARLESS!!

I am – Hercules!!

Warren Ellis, supercool literary hero to legions (Herc picked up his very own shiny new copies of “Global Frequency” and “Red” scant hours ago!), is nice enough to let Ain’t It Cool post the brainy and frequently hilarious TV reviews he e-mails to his many “Bad Signal” subscribers.

The news he brings today? Not good for our pals at the WB.


The following was just sent out on Bad Signal. If you want it, use it with my welcome permission and thanks, copyright it to me, and please include Bad Signal subscription information:

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-- Warren



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The high concept is laid out in the first couple of minutes. Rachael Leigh Cook's character was born without the gene for fear. Instead of getting adrenalised and all fright-or-flight in serious situations, she is perfectly calm and experiences heightened senses and reaction times (she tells us in a flat little monologue). Therefore, she has become an FBI agent who is not afraid of shooting kidnappers clean off the little girls they're holding as human shields, because she's, say it with me, FEARLESS, a Jerry Bruckheimer Production.

Wouldn't it be nice if that bit was read out loud, like on the old STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO credits sequence: "A Quinn Martin Production." No? Shut up.

FEARLESS, A Jerry Bruckheimer Production, is a new US TV show, the pilot of which ended up in my hands last week. Bruckheimer and late partner Don Simpson were, of course, the home of the "high concept" -- the idea you could "hold in your hand," as Steven Spielberg had it. And, naturally enough, FEARLESS is presented as a high concept show, like CSI ("forensics teams solve insoluble crimes with high-tech"). In FEARLESS's case, though, it's a blind. Unusually for his studio, the actual engine of the show is kind of clunky and kludged together. The actual narrative engine is "FBI Mod Squad" -- young pretty FBI agents go undercover to solve crimes involving young people. Rachael Leigh Cook joins a pair of inhumanly pretty young FBI peers as a group tasked to catch those sneaky young folks of today, with their short skirts and their repetitive beat music and their moody haircuts.

Meet Rachael Leigh Cook, the fearless nark.

Y'know, MOD SQUAD might've played in 1970, but so did fucking IRONSIDE, wearing love beads and snapping his fingers at coffee bars. And I shouldn't have to remind you of the toilet that 2000 version of MOD SQUAD with Claire Danes and Omar Epps was thrown into. For it was The Devil's Toilet, and no good can come of its awful flush, you mark my fucking words, son.

The show is based on a series of twenty-odd Young Adult books by Francine Pascal, whom I believe gave the world Sweet Valley High. These things must be huge. I haven't read them, but I can't help but wonder if if doesn't explain some of the stuff in this pilot episode.

Not the action. The action sequences, I have to say, are pleasantly sparky, real and nasty. You half expect Cook's weird, flat little voice coming over the top: "I have the gene for kicking the shit out of people." The final element of the climactic action setpiece, with Cook flinging herself down a twelve-storey stairwell using a fire-hose as last-second bunji-cord replacement, made me laugh out loud, which all good over-the-top action elements should. The direction is as slick as you'd expect from a Bruckheimer show -- though, like the other new Bruckheimer show COLD CASE, it hasn't established a visual identity of its own yet.

(COLD CASE might -- it has a nice gimmick where it transposes the image of protagonists at the age when the long-unsolved crime was committed with the image of them in the present, creating a somber, ghostly effect. FEARLESS isn't even close to a visual identity.)

Not the action. The other stuff. The fact that Cook is set up as The New Girl In School Who Is Misunderstood. And that awful badge of American TV -- banging on about families. Ooh, Gaia (Cook's character) has a surrogate family. Ooh, the other agents don't like her because she has a Hidden Past and she's not being straight with them like a Team Mate should be, so they can be a special FBI Nark Family. Ooh, the prettyboy maybe-badguy fraudster has family issues. Ooh, he's looking after his crap mother. Ooh, he hates his Evil Villain dad. Ooh, his dad slaps him around. Well, fuck him. He's whiny and he's a soap dodger. But no. They talk about his issues. Because family is the key to the crime and the key to the bit at the end of the show where they all smile at each other and everything's all right, because they're a family now. Luckily, she blurted out in public and in front of several suspects that she's a mutant who does not experience or really comprehend fear. Because it wasn't set up as one of the FBI's highest-rated secrets or anything. Oh, wait.

This isn't the diamond-hard focus of CSI, believe me. This is a cloying mess that barely clings together through the momentum of the show.

It's all over the place. Cook gets tortured by bad guys a couple of times, which is a fairly pointless narrative exercise. What, she's going to freak out and tell him she's FBI? No, of course she isn't, because she's Fearless. And we were told that in the first two minutes of the show. So why the fuck are you wasting my time? You think I want to see Rachael Leigh Cook bleed? What was that thing where they half-drown her in milk? She's not afraid of drowning. You just got a bunch of white stuff on Rachael Leigh Cook's face, boys. What's next, threatening her with crucifixion plus nipple clamps?

Rachael Leigh Cook rolls through the show amiably enough, doing a "Quirky Sandra Bullock" complete with flat brown haircut, flat brown eyes and flat brown voice. I'm assuming she's deliberately taking it low-key to indicate the missing element in her emotional make-up. The two actors playing her teammates seem to be working through awful cases of stage fright, eyes glittering with something like fear as they work through their lines and hit their marks and, particularly in the female teammate's case, try to project something more than one dimension out of themselves. Cook can be a genuinely charming actor, but she's not allowing herself the presence to hold this together, and no-one else on the show is up to the job.

I want to get a new TV pilot that I like. I really really do. And I want to see something and say, yeah, these people have got a good few years in them. With Sorkin and Schlamme gone from WEST WING after a clearly troubled fourth season, and SPOOKS choking badly in its second season, and a lot of other shows reaching that middle-age point where they start turning inwards... I just want something good to watch, damnit.

FEARLESS isn't going to be it. This is just my take, but I think it's too unfocussed to make consistently engaging television, and I think it's the wrong composition of concepts to hook the young audience I assume they're playing for.

Or possibly I'm underestimating the attraction of Rachael Leigh Cook covered in milk.

-- Warren Ellis

© Warren Ellis

For the record, others seem to share at least some of Mr. Ellis’ concerns. A couple of Fridays ago the WB yanked "Fearless" from its fall schedule, replacing it with a teen angst-a-thon titled “One Tree Hill.” Word is a good portion (if not all) of the “Fearless” writing staff (to say nothing of cast member Bianca “Kendra” Lawson) were unceremoniously sacked that same Friday. The netlet now plans to launch a revamped "Fearless" for midseason.

I am – Hercules!!

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