Two days, 12 episodes — Entering Warehouse 13’s first season

Syfy’s biggest hit since changing its name — still can’t get over that — is Warehouse 13. The second season of the series begins Tuesday, July 6 and all the promos the various NBCU networks and channels have been running reminded me that I never watched the series last summer — even though I wanted to. So in pieces of two days this week, I splurged on the entire first season of the fluffy summer product and the following are my thoughts on the first 12 episodes (13 hours including the two-hour pilot).

I have to be honest: I was more impressed and invested in the characters quicker than I thought I would be. I’d heard all the rhetoric about the series being an amalgamate of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Bones, The X-Files, Moonlighting and a number of other, thought-of-as-better entertainment efforts. For the most part, all those comparisons are totally valid. But what makes Warehouse 13 so fun is that it knows those comparisons, accepts those comparisons and revels in those types of stories. Most importantly, the series never, ever takes itself serious or attempts anything too difficult storytelling-wise.

I’ll get back to those comparisons a little later, but let’s continue to discuss the best parts of Warehouse 13. Although the feature-length pilot has the normal issues with tone and pacing, I was caught off guard by how well the two leads, Eddie McClintock and Joanne Kelly, play off one another. Yes, the straight-laced, by-the-book woman and free-wheeling, by-the-gut male pair has been done time and time again and sometimes feels tired here. But from just a few minutes into the pilot episode, I was willing to watch these two dance around one another with all sorts of ridiculously contrived unresolved sexual tension (Although, I give the series credit for just barely hinting at any of that nonsense throughout S1).

Of course characters both have a past — McClintock’s Pete and his goofy ass “vibe” stuff was particularly cringe-inducing early on before the series figured out how to be more subtle with its inclusion in the plot — and again, while not overly original, Kelly and McClintock work out Myka and Pete’s issues in a competent way. Thankfully, the series’ desire to stay away from anything too hefty keeps their hang-ups from being too overbearing anyway.

Noel Kirkpatrick and I were discussing this as I watched, but he’s totally on-point about the effectiveness of the Pete/Myka dynamic once Joanne Kelly grows into the role. The best parts of the early episodes that don’t involve Saul Rubinek’s Artie all come from Pete, as it seems Kelly was too tied down by the stereotype of the tough, tightly-wound female agent to really fit into the goofy charm of the Warehouse and its surrounding universe. It’s really not until the season’s eighth episode (ninth hour), “Duped,” that Kelly catches up with Rubinek and McClintock. That episode sees the actress play two different characters and the “evil” version (that’s actually the psychotic Alice the Wonderland tales are based on) of Myka she portrays is a freeing, fun place to go. From there on, it seems like Kelly took some of the more rambunctious and loose traits of Alice-Mykaand puts them into Myka-proper. From then on, the series really jumps into another gear.

Obviously, Rubinek’s performance as Artie makes even the more boring early episodes more buoyant, but unlike the two leads, the character’s backstory leads the plot into some intriguing territory and Artie actually serves as the anchor for all of the ongoing “mythology” of the series. That approach is at first odd, but ultimately satisfying, because I was expecting both Pete and Myka being picked for the Warehouse based on a specific, much larger purpose. Instead, they’re just our eyes as we jump into Artie’s world. I actually think Rubinek gets better throughout the season as well, mostly because the introduction of Allison Scagliotti’s Claudia always keeps Artie on his toes. Just like the other three leads, Claudia’s teenage punk that provides running commentary isn’t something new. However, Scagliotti’s is infinitely charming instead of grating. Together, the Artie and Claudia round out a nice core four of characters that are worth caring about.

The other characters I can take or leave. I get the purpose of CCH Pounder’s Mrs. Fredrick and for the most part she’s fine, I just hope the series is willing to dive into her back story a little more in season two. She’s very much like Broyles from Fringe in the sense that she shows up with directives or stoic orders, delivers her exposition-heavy dialogue and gets out. The other two characters were obvious miss-fires. The Secret Service boss character is so drab and worthless that I don’t even remember his name after 13 hours. Leena was vague and mysterious in the stupidest of ways early on and its obvious that no one on the writing staff had any good idea for the character, so they wrote her into the trader role. If that leads to some meatier material in season two, fine. If not, I’m also fine with that. The series boarders on cheese overload on its own without Leena coming in and jabbering about auras.

Speaking of cheese, the cases. Oh my. I’m all for a nice sci-fi — the genre, not the channel — procedural and again, appreciate how light-weight the series drives to be. But for the most part, the things Pete and Myka are out finding and collecting are ridiculously ridiculous. Each artifact that’s obtain is typically more interesting when explained or the person it is associated with is mentioned (I found myself Googling people during many episodes), but when the effects are shown, yikes. I know it’s Syfy, but Battlestar Galactica still looked good. Oddly, the most fun artifacts are the ones already in the Warehouse, like the mirror, the dodgeballs, the Studio 54 ball, etc. The Farnsworth and Tesla gun are also boss. The record and music from the second episode are probably the most intriguing + well-executed combination of artifacts thus far.

As move into the discussion about the plot, the comparisons come alive. While I think all the above-mentioned comparisons are apt, I found myself thinking about Warehouse 13 through Fringe-colored glasses. Though it could be just because I’m a huge fan of the FOX sci-fi series, there are many basic-level comparisons to make. Both series feature a team of government agents, led by a kooky patriarchal figure with a possibly shady past. Though Fringe‘s Peter Bishop isn’t as free-wheeling as Warehouse‘s Pete Lattimer — look, their names are similar, too! — he certainly plays off the attacking Olivia in ways that Pete does with Myka. I already mentioned The Fredrick/Broyles comparison, and heck, we could call Claudia this series’ Astrid — albeit with more of a fully-formed character — and Leena is Charlie — supporting character the series’ writers can’t find a damn thing to do with — which only leaves the Secret Service Suit and Nina. I guess I could stretch the character thread by saying S.S.S. is often called by the female lead and provides little to the case at hand…much like Nina! Hey-o!

Moreover, the structure of both series’ first seasons ring similar bells. Both Fringe and Warehouse were fairly set on telling more standalone, procedural-like episodes in the only going with only a few hints about an ongoing mythology and bigger picture that could seep into the lives of the team. Unfortunately, Fringe‘s longer first season meant more frustrating episodes with underground snake monsters — I can’t even remember if this was a real Fringe case or a combination of a few of them; Good news is it doesn’t matter — but I think you catch my drift. And of course, both series ramped up respective mythology stories in the latter half of season one, although while Warehouse crafted better opening standalone efforts (despite some issues) Fringe was certainly more successful in making that leap in mytharcs.

Where the comparison diverges, however, is right now. The Fringe season two premiere was an enthralling hour of television that saw the writers fully accept the possible scope of the story and say, “S*** just got real.” I’m not totally convinced Warehouse 13 can do that, or even wants to. Like Fringe, Warehouse has a built-in premise that is ripe for expanding in scope. There are a number of different angles to pursue with secret government bases full of insane artifacts from history’s most infamous. But instead of jumping into a large-form conspiracy at the end of its first season, the Syfy series was fine with keeping the story much smaller in scale, with MacPherson’s antagonistic role towards Artie and the Warehouse. On one hand, an intensely personal story for Artie made the smaller scale more acceptable, but on the other, the leap from standalone to more mythology wasn’t as far/tall for Warehouse.

I’d love for season two of Warehouse 13 to start off with a moment as good as Olivia’s re-entry to the “real” world in the Fringe S2 opener, but there are too many factors pushing up against those expectations. For one, the aforementioned smaller leap to mythology. Secondly, the inherent goofiness and playfulness of the series doesn’t quite lend itself to lots of scope expansion and sweeping dramatic beats. Even the biggest moments in the finale “MacPherson” were more sly than thrilling. Finally, this is a summer series on Syfy, a network that’s in the midst of a (admittedly successful) re-branding that involves moving from “hard” science fiction to material that appeals to the Sci-Fi channel’s former Kryptonite, women (gasp!). The NBCU/Syfy brass know that the series was popular last season because of McClintock and Kelly. They also know that fairly generic series like Castle and Bones are surprisingly popular for the same reasons. Thus, Warehouse 13 is going to continue to be cute, fun and light. I can’t imagine that it wants to — or even has the writing fire-power — to take the same kinds of chances and leaps that Fringe did at the end of its first season and into its second. Is that really a bad thing? Probably not.

Additionally, the smaller jumps into mythology here also create comparisons to the CW’s Supernatural. That series was very self-contained in its first season — I always tell friends when they finally listen to me and start watching that there are probably only five “must-see” episodes in S1 — and really didn’t take its biggest narrative leap until season four. Now, the two seasons with the larger scope are the most critically acclaimed and helped Supernatural gain a (slightly) wider audience, but that doesn’t mean that S1-S3 weren’t solid, if not oftentimes great.

In that sense, I could definitely see Warehouse slowly building to more personal stories that tie into the mythology in the next season or two — think Sam’s death and the results of Dean’s deal in the Supernatural S2 and S3 finales — before blowing the door wide open on a wider picture that those past, more personal stories actually help tell. Heck, both series featured season one finales that put major characters in situations that clearly looked like death — what series doesn’t, though? — so we’re already on our way! Again, this all might be wishful thinking, but it’s something to look for nuggets of during season two.

Watching this series and comparing it to those other two just reminds me of how popular a certain narrative structure has become. I’ve discussed previously how Fringe and peers like Supernatural seem to be the model for serialization on broadcast television in the sense that one season litters in clusters of mythology episodes around more standalones. This isn’t a new approach, and I think most people would credit The X-Files for crafting the original form. However, the difference with current series like Fringe, Supernatural and now Warehouse 13 is that there are more mythos-heavy episodes. It feels like a reaction to the reaction of the failures of the numerous post-Lost series. Put simpler: Once networks couldn’t replicate the success of Lost with totally serialized programming (reaction 1), they’ve decided to create series that promise larger pay-offs in more scheduled release pattern, but dress it all up in more procedural skin that appeals to Joe TV Watcher who is still upset Law & Order was canceled (reaction 2).

So whereas The X-Files was willing to produce 20 percent of a season’s episodes that were absolutely crucial to the mythology as to not off-put ’90s TV viewers who hadn’t seen anything like Lost, these new series are serving both masters by producing 30-40 percent of a season’s episodes with some sort of mythological connection. Series like Fringe and Supernatural have also been recently successful in framing standalone episodes in such a way that mythology can seep in without being too confusing for the uninitiated. More people want mythology and serialization today so The X-Files approach isn’t enough, but there aren’t so many people who want it that replicating the Lost model is sensible.

ANYWAY, I’m happy that Warehouse 13 is following this model, both because I think it will work well for the series and because I want to see how it works with a smaller episode order. All of the series that I can think of that use the Fringe approach have larger episode orders that allow for more of a more recognizable balance. With only 13 episodes, it’s easier to separate the standalone from the mythology, and that’s basically what Warehouse did in S1. However, the series could reach another level of quality if it wanted to combine the two like the aforementioned series have, but again, I’m not sure if the desire is there.

In any event, this approach for a 13-episode season is something of an experiment to watch, because many cable series with shorter orders follow a different pattern that while integrating mythology into standalone episodes, separates said mythology from the actual episode’s plot and instead places it at the beginning or end of an episode or season. This, of course, is known as the USA approach. It’s certainly working for them, but I prefer the track that Fringe is on and the track that I think/hope Warehouse 13 could/should take in its second and subsequent seasons.

That’s the primary thing I’ll be watching for when I do recaps this summer, but if all this discussion is for not, at least Warehouse 13 will still have its four charming and well put-together leads, right?

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